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We'll work with govts to get the artefacts back to Africa

AFRICOM and Africa's lost treasures

Published on 24 April 2012

Author(s): The East African/BAMUTURAKI MUSINGUZI

Type:  News

What is Africom? What do you do?

Africom is a pan-African organisation established in 2000. It is a membership-based international NGO, an association for museums, heritage professionals and stakeholders throughout Africa.

Our core business is to contribute towards the development of African museums in particular and the African heritage sector in general through networking and provision of relevant information, capacity building in core museums professions such as collections management and exhibitions development to enable museums to collect, preserve, interpret and protect African natural and cultural heritage as well as to raise awareness of the importance of our heritage.

What are your achievements?

Our major achievements include the hosting of Africom’s first and second general conferences in Kenya and South Africa in 2003 and 2006; the establishment of an information and documentation centre at our headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya;

and a discussion list of heritage professionals for exchange of relevant information and discussions on important issue currently affecting the museums sector; we publish an annual newsletter in English and French; we have organised many seminars and workshop for capacity building in African museums especially in exhibitions development, travelling exhibitions and combating illicit trafficking in African objects.

What measures has Africom put in place to fight the black market in African artefacts?

One of Africom’s five objectives is to fight the illicit trafficking in African objects. Africom achieves this through using its information platforms to quickly disseminate information on stolen or returned material as well as any information related to illicit trafficking.

Photo-Morgan Mbabazi Dr Rudo Sithole, International Council of African Museums executive director..jpg
Photo/Morgan Mbabazi Dr Rudo Sithole, International Council of African Museums executive director

It also organises training and workshops sometimes in partnership with other organisations such as Unesco on ways of combating illicit trafficking as well as building capacity to enable Africans to protect their heritage.

What impact does the loss of the African artefacts have on the continent’s cultural heritage?

Cultural and natural artefacts are important sources of identity for communities and nations throughout the world and therefore stripping a nation of its cultural material is akin to robbing it of its identity.

Africa has been the subject of intense looting since pre-colonial times; a situation that has seen a lot of African cultural and natural heritage material find its way to Western museums, art galleries and private collections.

Estimates of African cultural material currently out of Africa range from 50-90 per cent of what remains in the countries of origin.

These are part of the culture, traditions and identity of the African people and communities from which it was removed.

In addition to contributing towards a people’s identity, cultural materials provide economic support for communities through creating employment in museums, archives and sites as well as through exhibitions that attract tourists and hence loss of cultural material may have contributed to the diminished role of museums in the economic development of African societies.

Which are the most significant African artefacts still held in museums and private collections in the West?

The list is endless but includes iconic objects such as the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria, the Dogon from Mali, the Vigango and Head of Nandi from Kenya, the bust of queen Nefertiti, the Rosetta Stone and Zodiac of Dendara Temple from Egypt and the Broken Hill Man from Zambia.

Will Africom play a part in the return of these artefacts to Africa?

Yes, it is already playing a role through information dissemination and awareness raising through workshops but it would like to go a step further by playing a more meaningful role in facilitating the return of some of the objects. It is therefore calling upon African governments and emerging African millionaires to partner with us for the return of African objects back home.

What does Africom plan to do to turn national museums into vibrant self-sustaining institutions?

To provide relevant information, network African museums with other museums in Africa and outside Africa as well as train professionals to enable them to raise African museums to world standards as well as protect our objects from illicit trafficking. We are therefore calling upon the donor community, private corporations and governments to partner with us so that our vision of a rich, secure and vibrant African heritage can be fulfilled.

Why do we continue to register low numbers of visitors to national museums in Africa?

The low visitor numbers can be attributed to a number of factors, chief among them the generally low standards in our museums, lack of capacity among museum professionals to develop vibrant and dynamic public programmes resulting in the absence of new exhibitions. By the way, a lot of exhibitions in African museums were mounted during colonial times, hence there is nothing new to attract visitors to the museum. In addition, the locals do not identify with the narratives in those exhibitions.

It is, therefore, imperative that African museums are revamped and dynamic exhibitions programmes initiated and sustained. This is precisely why Africom has partnered with the Norwegian government for the training of East African museums in exhibitions design and development. The project has resulted in the opening of new exhibitions in Burundi and Uganda in February and exhibitions in other East African countries will soon be opened.

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