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Opinions of Monday, 8 January 2007

Columnist: Owusu-Ansah, David

Celebrating The 50th And Planning For The Next

Thoughts About Our National Museums.

The summer program that I conduct for American university students in Ghana enters its eleventh year. Part of our program activities includes select lecture presentations by University of Ghana faculty members. As part of our learning experiences in Ghana, we also spend a considerable amount of time visiting museums in the country and it is this latter part of activities that I find relevant to this opinion essay. In fact, my own views of museums as institutions of historic and cultural representation are shaped through contacts with art historians, archeologists, and lately with public historians whose professional training in the field of museum studies have prepared them better to elucidate the role of these hidden beautiful gems in plain view but hardly noticed.

I was educated at the University of Cape Coast in the 1970s and I did my National Service in that historic city but never visited the Castles. Prior to coming to Cape Coast, I spent four years as a student at Aduman Teacher Training College just outside Kumase. Even though I also spent many vacations in the Asante capital, I never went to the Military Museum (The Fort) because I never knew what was inside that building. In fact, during the era of military coups the tank stationed outside the building sent a clear signal to me and the non-soldierly type to stay away. It was not until ten years ago when I started conducting summer abroad programs for my students that I came to appreciate the richness and value of the museums. It is also very easy to observe some of their problems from afar.

Even though the history of the Fort in Kumase is linked to Asante resistance to what they considered as British encroachment, and therefore the story of Yaa Asantewaa is included in the narrative, I have come to the conclusion after many visits that the Military Museum in Kumase is very civilian. Yes, for about two-thirds of the time spent at the exhibition, one is introduced to guns, flags, and the story of soldiers in uniforms, but the history of World War I and most of the story about World War II in the colony is a civilian one. I see it as a story of my father’s generation when ordinary men as civilians were recruited into the colonial army to fight in German Togoland, East Africa and Asia. In the case of my father, he served in Ismailia (Egypt) and Tel Aviv in British Palestine. As this generation of civilian-soldiers dies off, it is important that their story is preserved. The flags are very old and are coming apart, the drums need to be resurfaced, and many of the pictures on exhibition must be protected from becoming discolored. It is also interesting to note that the pictures of the military coup leaders hitherto on exhibition were not on display during my June 2006 visit. I learned that the museum was trying to create separate exhibitions for the various sectors of the military and thus when done, some of the pictures will be returned to the stands. My view here is that it is very important that these coup leaders are shown, their recorded justifications for seizing political power must be aired, and their ability, or lack of, to achieve their goals be discussed as part of the exhibition. This can be compared with the excellent mission stories of peace keeping in which the armed forces have been involved for decades in such places as the Congo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Rwanda, or the former Yugoslavia to ensure an end to anarchy and human brutality.

Back at home, an important source of our own crisis is the story of political independence. It is true that the original actors have passed on and many of the younger people who were of political action age are now in their eighties. The younger generation, now in their sixties and seventies, has usurped the debate in the context of politics of the Fourth Republic–a context that has been compressed into events of the 1980s. The several “legacy” or “tradition” essays that have appeared in print notwithstanding, there has never been any serious discussion of the ideological divide that separated Nkrumah from Danquah and therefore the more pertinent questions have not been addressed in a non-partisan way. Was it only a debate about “democracy” and “socialism”? How did Danquah conceive the nation’s future–its people, issue of education, role of traditional chiefs and other institutions--compared to Nkrumah? To what extent could the goals they set for their respective political parties tenable in the Cold War era? Furthermore, it should be remembered that Europeans views and therefore the nature of relations sought with the former colonies did not change as a result of our independence. In other words, was Nkrumah or Danquah more caring of the nation than others or was it just different visions for the same country they loved? Unfortunately, the Nkrumah Mausoleum exhibition does not speak to domestic political discourse. The monument park outside the museum of the Mausoleum is a wonderful tribute to the former president but the photo exhibition is exclusively foreign policy and the narrative is almost a “photo album viewing” presentation. I am aware that these structures are under the administration of the Museum and Monuments Board, and furthermore that the museum is intended to honor the former president and not to take him down. However, I do not see anything bad coming from private visitation of government officials (those for and against Nkrumah’s politics) to this only political museum in the country and thereby being inspired with ideas, not necessarily in favor of Nkrumah but about how best the museum can serve multi-political purpose. For the many school children who visit the museum as part of field trips, added discussions on developmental issues of the period and other domestic polices will only broaden the nature of information presented and probably soften the current political divide.

But talking about learning a thing or two, did you know that the new building for the National Museum in Accra officially opened to the public on 5th March 1957? Also, my paternal uncle Mr. J. O. T. Ansah and Philip Gheho were charged by the government of the day to organize the Ghana Art Council. But most importantly, the dedication of the new National Museum building only a day before the 6th March 1957 independence celebration was a good indication that the preservation of national culture was viewed as an important expression of a self-knowing society. Thus, similar to the Archeology Museum at the University of Ghana, the National Museum holds collections of beads, information about the making and uses of gold weights, and iron technology. I must say that the Legon Collections are better exhibited and better labeled to afford self-tours. Items on display at the Legon site represent the academic research past of the university since the establishment of the Institute of African Studies. The exhibition on weaving and the nature of traditional family/political structure as demonstrated through stories about linguist staffs are best represented at the National Museum. If I am not mistaken (and even though the gold weights were not on display when I visited last summer), I will say that these items described immediately above constitute the permanent exhibition at the National Museum. It is also wonderful to see them expand the collections to include modern art works, material on slavery, and other thematic foci to draw local school children to the site.

The Castles at Cape Coast and Elmina as UNESCO Heritage Trusts receive better funding for preservation/renovations. These are only two of the over forty European establishments on the Gold Coast during the era of the Atlantic slave trade. Many are in ruin, some are prisons, and others have become offices for local and national authorities. The Cape Coast and Elmina Castles are the most public Castle Museums. I need not comment on them any further than to point out that a visit to the private-owned Java Museum just outside Elmina has been appreciated by my African-American students after experiencing the highly emotional walk through the slave castles. The Java Museum is the story of former slaves who served as soldiers in Dutch Indonesia, procreated new generation of Africans, became free and some returned home to settle at Elmina. Of course, as a private collection and poorly advertised, the Java Museum does not attract as many visitors as it deserves to.

As I mentioned very early in this essay, most of us are aware that the majority of people visiting these museums are foreign tourists and Ghanaian school children who come here on organized school trips. Most Ghanaian parents, even the well-educated ones, do not spend weekends visiting museums.

If these are the realities, then why spend the time and money on museums? Furthermore, can we make the argument that these “building” can serve any purpose of informing or reconstructing our national identity? The point of this essay is that if we have not seen the museums as relevant to the structure of our national consciousness during the past 50 years, then it is important that we think and plan differently for the next decades. The dances and pageantry of the nation’s 50th Independence Anniversary will come and will be over soon but the museums will continue to be around to provide useful reflective information. It is my view that the museums can provide a more neutral forum where the discourse of our national past, both cultural and political, can be carried out in a fair and objective mode. It is for this reason that our museums must be equipped properly to tell the national story and show appreciation for the component cultures.

Dr. David Owusu-Ansah directs the James Madison University summer program in Ghana.

Views expressed by the author(s) do not necessarily reflect those of GhanaHomePage.