Perversely perhaps I was drawn back last week to a memory of nearly fifty years ago when we had a visit in Mochudi from the Executive Director of Church World Service, New York.
When discussing what needed to be done to get Mochudi’s development moving, he wondered if it might be worth erecting a pole with a light in some otherwise empty space and turning it on each night.
Would students start using it to do their homework; people start small repair businesses, and small-scale entrepreneurs start to sell their wares? Last week I kept returning to his whimsical memory but turned it around to wonder what changes he could have considered likely today by turning off the light to which we have become so thoroughly accustomed?
That particularly persistent thought was prompted by three successive evenings without power, a pattern that seems likely to continue for the foreseeable future. One change that can be safely anticipated is that there will be a surge of interest in solar lighting. Otherwise, as our American visitor, suggested it may be a matter of waiting to see how everyone adjusts to a completely new and unexpected situation.
As luck would have it, I was able last week to renew memory contact with an old friend deriving from around that same time. My ’friend’ was an old blacksmith’s bellows that I had then donated to the National Museum. It is prominently featured in its current Arts and Craft exhibition.
I assumed that this particular bellows was likely to be ‘mine’ if only because there was never any great awareness of the need to save these items and to give them a permanent home.
It has always surprised me, though, that the Museum has never asked me what I knew about the bellows.
But then it has never asked me what I know about two other extremely important items which it has in its collection, one of the two Kgatla bojale drums which I helped to ‘find’ in 1971 and the rain pot that had belonged to Kgosi Lentswe I which was returned to this country from Cape Town at the request of the Phuthadikobo Museum. Doubtless the Museum will have taken careful note of Dr Setlhabi’s strictures about such information gaps having studied her conclusions in her article, Bojale Drum: Material Culture in Living Contexts, which was published last year. Probably the Museum has information gaps all over the place which it seeks to close so it will forgive me if I mention just two which bothered me about its current exhibition. With regard to woodwork, the Museum suggests that craftsmen in Tonota/Shashe are still producing their distinctive wares but fails to exhibit any of them.
Are they still producing or were they knocked out by the termination of the passenger train service? My second question relates to beadwork about which I had been monumentally ignorant and largely, I confess, disinterested until I happened to meet a beadwork ‘nut’ in the States.
She rushed me through the fascinating history of beadwork and then questioned me closely about the kinds of beads that archaeologists must have found here, happily expecting that I could bring her up to date.
Alas, I knew nothing then and am not a great deal wiser now given the Museum’s failure even to mention, albeit briefly, that such beads have indeed been found, their dating and from where they are believed to have originated.
Otherwise, the exhibition was interesting, well enough presented and reasonably informative. But then, I thought that I might as well cast an eye over the permanent exhibition just in case something had changed. And what a contrast I found!
It is possible that some of the Museum’s many departments are vibrant and creative and others less so. We cannot know because the National Museum is a project that no one appears to own and in which very few people have a particular interest.
It has never had a Board since it was taken over by the government in 1976 and only two people, since that date, have ever taken the key decisions relating to it – the Director and the Permanent Secretary.
It is, in its own way, a sort of secret society which supposedly exists for the general public but from which the public is, in so many ways, almost wholly excluded. It is a project which falls under the Ministry of Environment, Wildlife and Tourism although it seems, as with all the small NGO museums, to be nowhere positioned in the Tourism industry.
This is especially odd because the Museum’s chosen theme is Man and His (The) Environment. But wander through the permanent collection and it must become quickly apparent, if the lighting permits, that many or most of the displays and their explanatory texts together with those wonderful dioramas of years past, have long ago passed their sell-by date.
In all probability they will all still be there in another forty years time because no one is ever likely to get angry about them and, quite simply, because no one cares. Sad isn’t it!