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The National Museum: Tragedy and humiliation

SANDY GRANT
Botswana National Museum PIC: MORERI SEJAKGOMO
The National Museum, originally known as the National Museum and Art Gallery, is currently celebrating its 50th anniversary even though neither it nor anybody else has reason to celebrate.

For at least four years, perhaps for longer, the Museum has been effectively closed. The effect has long been evident but few appear to have noticed and certainly few have cared.

Comments on the internet have been damagingly clear. In late 2016 the Lonely Planet commented that ‘it seems as if no importance is given to this museum. If you are short of time, you can avoid this place.’ There have been individual comments of the same unflattering kind. ‘A gentleman pointed out a sign that the building had closed in April for renovations. Since it was September, I was confused.

The Museum may or may not open at some point in the future but don’t get your heart set on a visit.’ Another remarked that ‘It needs a serious makeover; a museum houses the country’s national heritage. Our museum looks old, dead and unwanted.’ Or ‘the person at the information booth was uninformed and rude. She could not be bothered answering questions about whether the art gallery was open. A rubbish experience. Stay away’ Or again, ‘I was disappointed to see that none of the displays have been updated since my previous visit many years ago. Exhibits still broken, not very interesting.’ How has this been possible?

How could this country or indeed any other country have allowed its flag ship National Museum to become so embarrassingly dysfunctional? Yet its achievements in the past have been considerable. Alec Campbell, the Museum’s founder, noted, with good reason, that it was Gaborone’s cultural and artistic hub. No longer.

What happened? What went wrong? There are obvious clues. For most of its 50 years it has had no Board. Yet the brief 1967 Act states that the Board (not the Director) shall advise the Minister and the Minister shall advise the Board! Nowhere does it spell out the Museum’s objectives. The problems were therefore, inbuilt from the start and when the decision makers, the Minister, the Permanent Secretary and Director have all been disinterested, the Museum could only slide downward.

The consultant, Munjeri noted that the combination of museum and art gallery in Southern Africa is most unusual. It will probably never be known why the government would have wanted an art gallery when it was unlikely that any Minister had ever been to one or when the country had not a single identifiable artist.

Ten years ago, however, the government did respond to Munjeri’s concern by hiving off the Art Gallery and Octagon, the Art collection and the Art staff to the Ministry of Youth and Culture whilst the Museum continued to be under the Ministry of the Environment and Tourism.

This astonishing decision left it unclear as to which Ministry was responsible for the insurance of the art collection, and for security measures in respect of fire and theft. But ten years ago, when Museum organised exhibitions ended, it coincidentally started to give Thapong Visual Arts Centre an annual grant even though it had never claimed to be a museum. By doing so, one Ministry, in effect, was subsidising another! Logically, it (the Ministry of Youth and Culture) should either give Thapong its Museum housed Art collection, or sell it. And return the Museum’s Gallery and Octagon to the Museum. Or perhaps, the Museum should move to Thapong and Thapong to the Museum. 

The Museum’s chosen theme, at its inception, was Man and the Environment. That theme is still repeated in the museum’s updated Vision although its current responsibilities, ethnology, monuments and education have no obvious relationship with it and its educational role must now be around zero. Over the years, the Museum has pulled and been pulled in all directions. Initially a mini-zoo, its

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beautiful wildlife dioramas denied it flexibility and locked it into a display formula which was impossible to change. With the opening of the Gaborone Game Reserve and Mokolodi its stuffed animals became irrelevant and something of a joke.

And then came archaeology with the museum’s achievements up and down the country; and afterwards the Herbarium where parking for visiting wedding groups is fortunately generous. Monuments which was previously understood to be only archaeological, was broadened to embrace a widened concept which is not reflected in the Monuments Act of 2001.

The Museum was ill prepared for this major change. Despite its P25 million recurrent budget this year, the Museum is without an historian or specialists. It does, however, provide a helpful jumping off ground for those seeking to achieve doctorates.

In Gaborone, it is responsible for three Monuments, none being archaeological and its displayed notices are embarrassingly incorrect or inadequate. At the Molepolole kgotla, a Museum notice relates to a solitary tree, a national monument, and threatens dire consequences for anyone who alters, destroys or damages it, removes or exports it!

The Museum’s regular change of name demonstrates that neither it nor the government has the any idea what it should be doing or how it should be staffed? Because the Museum is unable to know from day to day what its priority responsibilities might be, it cannot know what kinds of staff it will need to meet them. One day it was required to create the three Dikgosi monument, bury El Negro and then apply for the Okavango to be accepted as a World Heritage site.

One day, it ejected the Botswana Society from its premises, the next it welcomed it back. Now it has to keep an eye on its site museum at Tsodilo and young guides at a hundred different monuments. It once had a shop and a mobile museum. It once published researched information booklets and a monthly magazine. It once had a weekly radio programme.  Its invaluable photographic archive is like a bank security deposit - not accessible to the public - whilst the cataloguing system of its excellent library has disintegrated. It has minuscule parking for the general public (none for school buses) but generously provides parking for its staff. It has no website or any interest in either local or national history. And the National Policy on Museum Development which was approved by the National Assembly in 2004 is still not implemented; the reason being that it is unimplementable.

But what about the immediate future? A recent report (Weekend Post 8.9.18) suggests that with a P230 million budget the Museum plans to open second museums in Gaborone, Francistown and Molepolole. The Museum’s staff complement, despite its retraction, has remained constant at around 150 for many years. These new plans will mean a dramatic increase in that number. Concurrently it plans to re-open its new permanent displays and upgrade the NGO museums with which it has always had a disastrous relationship. It plans to clean up the mess at Capricorn and create at the Herbarium a totally new Ivory Museum, devoted to the African elephant, which takes the Museum full circle back to its 1970s-wildlife priority. The Museum will also fully develop 20 Heritage Sites. What makes it able to tackle so many daunting new responsibilities today when it was not able to do so yesterday? Totem Media which did such an excellent job with the Mphebatho Museum in Moruleng could be of great help with new displays if it knew what the public, the country, the government wanted to be displayed but could not provide remedies for all the other problems. Poor Alec Campbell!



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