International Museums Day: Let’s Embrace and Invest in our Heritage
Every 18th May is celebrated globally as the International Museums Day (IMD), a day to reflect on and celebrate the role of museums in serving society as educational and remembrance platforms for matters of direct concern to society. IMD 2019 was held under the global theme: “Museums as Cultural Hubs: The future of tradition”.
According to the Statutes of the International Council of Museums (ICOM), adopted by the 22nd General Assembly in Vienna, Austria, on 24th August 2007, “a Museum is a ‘Non-Profit, Permanent Institution in the service of society and its development, open to the public, which acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits the tangible and intangible heritage of humanity and its environment for the purpose of education, study and enjoyment.”
Uganda as a country has close to twenty-five (25) private community museums spread across the country. These provide spaces for people to interact, network and learn from the curated objects/materials. Their foci vary and include themes such as war and peace, culture, and religion, among many others. Some of these museums include: The National Memory and Peace Documenter Center in Kitgum, Ker Kwaro Acoli Museum at the Royal Palace in Gulu, Igongo Cultural Center in Mbarara, Museum of the Missing Persons in Pader, Uganda Martyrs University Museum located near the equator, Koogere Community Museum in Fort Portal, Kiwa Heritage in Kasese, Karamoja Women’s Cultural Group in Moroto, Batwa Cultural Experience, Mt Elgon Museum of History and Culture in Mbale, and a number of others across the country that should be invested in and supported.
Museums in Uganda should play a big role in addressing socio-political and conflict-related issues in most conflict-affected communities, as their facilities offer platforms for communities to dialogue on matters of contention through documentation and research.
Museums in Uganda also benefit posterity by providing educational spaces that also promote remembrance of past events to ensure that they are not forgotten. Most museums in Uganda are working with schools to promote children’s interaction with Museums. Cultural museums, for example, are contributing to helping many young children have a better understanding of their culture and its diversity, thus helping them appreciate the role of culture in a dynamic world.
Caption:School children and members of the public view NMPDCs traveling exhibition at the Uganda Museum during the IMD 2019.
For the victims and survivors of war, museums and memorials play great roles in facilitating their healing process after conflict by offering platforms for sharing their stories as a step towards healing and reconciliation. Some victims are willing to share their stories through objects such as bomb remnants, artefacts, among others.
Much as museums are known for their primary role of collection/acquisition, preservation/conservation, documentation and communication through objects, how this is done is constantly evolving as museums pursue the best strategies to ensure that their visitors are able to interact with the collections.
Back in 2014, as a member of the Refugee Law Project team, I was involved in piloting a mobile 'Traveling Testimonies' exhibition in the districts of Arua, Luwero and Kasese. A Travelling Testimony is one way in which museums have continued to re-invent and use different approaches in their interactions with communities across the country. In this case it involves a mobile exhibition of the multiple ways in which Ugandans have experienced conflict. These exhibits, when taken to parts of the country that have been affected by various conflicts, frequently lead to collection of further objects such as artefacts, framed pictures, written testimonies, archives and audiovisual materials.
To facilitate this, documentation stations are set up to record testimonies, children corners focusing on their perspective are also established, counselling and local artists work together to transform public spaces into events for collective memory and documentation.
Through these engagements, communities get to interact with these objects and materials, and this has enhanced the much-needed reconciliation dynamics, especially among conflict-affected communities in Uganda. Strengthening community connection and participation also strengthens understanding of the importance of museums and heritage.
A case in point are some of the remnant bomb shells used in conflicts. Survivors of war in Kasese are able to connect with their counterparts in northern Uganda as victims and survivors of war through viewing these objects and reading stories attached to them.
Travelling Testimony exhibitions are viewed as a very strong advocacy tool through which the voices of victims and survivors of conflicts across Uganda can be heard. They have already influenced key discussions on Transitional Justice discourse. In Uganda, for example, there is a strong call from some political, cultural and religious leaders for the country to adopt a Transitional Justice policy for victims and survivors of war.
Does investing in our heritage make good economics?
Recently, I visited Tuol Sleng Museum in Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia. On inquiring how many people visit the museum, I was told up to 700 people, mainly tourists, visit daily, with each paying 5 USD.
I believe the same can be done in Uganda. Tourism is a leading foreign exchange earner according to various statistics, with the country earning USD 1.4 billion from tourism in 2017. Over the last two years, the country has registered a major increase in the numbers of tourists. According to Uganda Bureau of Statistics (UBOS) numbers rose from 1.4 million in 2017 to 1.8 million in 2018.
I strongly believe that as a country, we should be investing more in our heritage to attract more tourists into the country. Embracing and supporting the development of museums to share the diverse cultures and complex histories of our country is an important step in that direction; with this, as a country we could perhaps achieve the aim of attracting over three million tourists by the end of 2019 /2020!
I thus call upon the Government to support museums and memorialization initiatives as a vital step in the right direction for Uganda – I hope many of us joined the commemoration of the International Museum Day at the Uganda Museum! Interestingly, this commemoration also featured the “Unseen archive” of Field Marshal Idi Amin Dada - former Ugandan President, and also a powerful new exhibition by the National Memory and Peace Documentation Centre looking at four major areas, namely; The Past, The Harms of War, Transitional Justice Engagements, and Emerging Issues in Uganda. This latter exhibition will shortly be launched at the National Memory & Peace Documentation Centre in Kitgum town; I look forward to welcoming you there.
Conflict, Transitional Justice & Governance Practitioner - Refugee Law Project/National Memory and Peace Documentation Center