Last Friday, while the Botswana National Museum was celebrating 50 years of existence, the Mmegi newspaper published a party spoiler in Sandy Grant’s depressing view of museums development in Botswana.
The previous day I was serving as a respondent alongside historian, Jeff Ramsay, during the Botswana Museum Jubilee panel discussion. The seminar was attended by local and international academics amongst them renowned South African heritage scholar and activist, Ciraj Rasool, from the University of the Western Cape. In this rejoinder, I imagine that we are still at the panel discussion, however, here as then, my opinions and expressions do not represent those of my employer despite the 18 years of service to the Museum Institution.
Mr. Grant was invited to the panel discussion but had sent an apology. While his absence denied his thoughts the critical evaluation and context afforded by the panel discussion he must be applauded for managing to contribute from his sick bed. For his review, Firstly all the negative public feedback quoted by Mr. Grant must be taken seriously by the institution’s principals and concrete steps taken expeditiously to redress those concerns in the short and long terms. Secondly, a public update is needed for the prolonged closure of the Museum permanent galleries.
Why the soft gloves for Sandy?
Incidentally, during the panel discussion I stated that heritage professionals have often asked why the National Museum or myself, in particular, have never proposed responses to Sandy Grant’s often disparaging views about Botswana monuments and museums matters. The key reason is that Sandy Grant has been consistent in placing Botswana’s heritage on the limelight despite his controversial manners of presenting the same. In the best of considerations he has been the conscience of the museum and heritage field. This is because what we as employees talk about intensely in boardrooms and economic planning proposals he expresses in public uncensored. Therefore, as professionals in the field we get embarrassed but conflicted because Mr. Grant is a skilled craftsman in advocacy - intertwining truth and rubble rousing to get his point across. In the Archaeology and Monuments division we often engage what he writes but regularly conclude that if we respond in reproachful rebuttals we could spoil the essential nuggets and advocacy that periodically drip from his contributions. Of course, noticing the free range that he has been afforded, both by professionals and by a governance system that is often slow to respond, Mr. Grant has taken advantage, sometimes becoming an authority in areas where he lacks data.
Who is Sandy Grant?
I don’t know if this loyal son in law of the Bakgatla consumes the heritage herb recently legalised in Azania. However, what I respect is that Mr. Grant is no small man in the heritage field. He is co-founder, with Kgosi Lenchwe II, of the Phuthadikobo Museum in Mochudi. This is one of the seven regional Museums that receive subventions from government to reflect local and regional heritage.
Besides his regular heritage column in The Monitor, he is an invaluable resource person on Botswana’s photographic data of varied subjects from the 60s. Perhaps the click of his camera was fuelled by his interest in history and culture as much as the enigma and curiosity of arrival in a foreign land that later became his. Mr. Grant is also an author of a few books including one that avidly celebrates Botswana’s traditional architecture, especially the decorative motifs.
What’s going on now with the Museum?
Mr. Grant paints a much grimmer picture than the real situation, writing as if the Museum galleries closure for renovation is closure of the Museum mandate.
Contrary to that perception, the Octagon and Main Galleries have consistently shown temporary exhibitions ranging from varied art exhibitions, BDP 50th exhibition, heritage books and photographic launches as well as the current crafts exhibition.
Besides those, the story of the Presidential Daimler Benzes is on permanent display and has been a favourite of both the young and the old.
The museum grounds with the traditionally decorated mud huts, the historical transportation exhibitions as well as the Hiroshima stone caps are also on offer. All these still represent the conventional two-hour tour on the museum premises.
The just opened 50th anniversary exhibition will enliven the experience together with the crafts exhibition that has been on for months now. School groups continue to visit the museum and, on prior planning, our archaeology and ethnology laboratories with thousands of artefacts are available to upper school group visits and the Universities.
A Schizophrenic Museum Mandate?
Still, there were other Sandy Grant porcupine points that need further engagement. I concede that the museum mandate is diverse, yet where there has been some shedding, such as the transfer of the art section from Museum to the Arts and Culture Department, or where there
Further, Mr. Grant challenges the placing of Museums and Monuments divisions together, a factor that is not unique to Botswana and was instead affirmed by the very Munjeri consultancy report he quotes. In fact, some professionals in other countries, such as Namibia - where the museums and heritage sites are divorced complain about the lack of this synergy and natural grouping.
I agree with him that the department is under-staffed but what happened to the parlance ‘do more with less’; I know a paleolithic cave site in the South of France that receives the same 15,000 visitors per year like we have at our Tsodilo World Heritage Site; However, this site has only three permanent members of staff while at Tsodilo we have 12, or a total of 35, if you include community guides.
The difference is as simple as three words, prior booking culture. I also agree with Grant that the department has migrated across three different ministries in the past 15 years but that is no excuse for his perceived poor performance especially if the migrations were meant to allow the department to sit where it best suits.
Commitment to Employment Creation
Mr. Grant says that the department is doing other things that are outside of the purvey of the Monuments and Relics Act 2001. Quite frankly that line of thinking suggests we should not think outside the box. Our pain, hope and drive are that government and appropriate entities should utilise heritage resources to recruit the hundreds of archaeology, tourism and accounting graduates currently roaming the streets. To this end, and as buttressed by the Acting President during his Museums 50th Anniversary address, the government has committed to invest in the development of 20 heritage sites across the country.
A cumulative staff complement at 20 developed heritage sites should employ in excess of 200 new curatorial and ancillary staff. The very construction, storyline development, collections acquisition and installations should further stir a section of the economy. Therefore, Mr. Grant should appreciate that while criticism is welcome, it does not have to be erratic and manically pessimistic, especially coming from a fellow professional. Unemployment is real and Batswana are looking at our sincerity and creativity in job creation.
We have opened about 100 of the 2,500 heritage sites to the public in the past 10 years. We are employing at least 70 full time contract Field Assistants, and engage about 700 others per year at these sites in casual labour and community custodian jobs.
Community entities have exploited some of these sites with campsites, crafts centres and strategic fundraising activities such as the Domboshaba and Dithubaruba cultural festivals.
This has obviously opened more ripple effect beneficiation for those communities as visitors buy crafts, stay in a local lodges in more day and as school groups get to learn more of their country through cultural heritage sites. While we count the development of heritage as some success, our introspection reveals that we have opened some of these sites without prior sufficient research. As much as we are balancing this against our other national priorities such as employment creation, the integrity of the information provided is key.
For that we need the support and advocacy of persons like Sandy to help justify to our principals and politicians that funding for research and publications are key. However, in absolute shock, Mr. Grant knowingly denies that there are any qualified historians in the Museums department when we have more than 10 graduates of history, anthropology and archaeology.
I am at a loss as to why Mr. Grant has problems with the proposed Ivory Museum during National Development Plan XI (NDP), a local biodiversity education and tourism initiative.
For an African nation that is probably the best in African wildlife conservation practice to independently bring forth this idea without initial Western sponsorship deserves only commendation.
Perhaps the only criticism should be on its late arrival. Especially in this area, we should boldly seek to determine the narrative beyond the careerist interests of bo majapolaelo and attention seekers who goose chase without sincere commitment to the destiny of Botswana.
The assignment of Museums in hosting this Ivory and bio-diversity institution is an acknowledgement of the educational and touristic component of the intended development. At 50, our fight to have Museums on the front stage have borne fruit and clearly, Mr. Grant think otherwise - indeed one man’s bread is another’s poison.
*Philip Segadika is Archaeologist & Heritage Manager at Botswana National Museum and Monuments. He writes in his personal capacity