UNESCO empowers African museums

Africa prioprity for UNESCO

Published on 13 June 2010

Author(s): AFRICOM News, issue 8 2009-10/Karalyn Monteil & Vanessa Kredler

Type:  Feature

UNESCO: 15 Field Offices spread across Africa and support from its Headquarters in Paris—including a specialized department dedicated to coordinating activities in Africa

The 193 Member States (and 6 Associate Members) of the United United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have made Africa a priority for all of its specialized programme sectors. With 15 Field Offices spread across Africa and support from its Headquarters in Paris—including a specialized department dedicated to coordinating activities in Africa , UNESCO is actively making that priority a reality.

Community Museum Initiative for Sukama Heritage in Tanzania photo credits Laurent Levi-Strauss Unesco.jpg

Community Museum Initiative for Sukama Heritage in Tanzania, photo credits Laurent Lévi-Strauss/UNESCO

Every two years the Member States of UNESCO come together to decide upon a programme and budget for the next biennium. In addition to the activities financed by UNESCO’s Regular Budget, some Member States also contribute Funds-in-Trust grants to support individual projects.

The majority of UNESCO’s museum projects focus on capacity-building of museum staff. Projects take a variety of forms from pilot projects to museum partnership projects. Developing
community museums has become the focus of many projects as well as an overall effort to fight illicit trafficking. In addition, a series of training manuals, publications and handbooks ere created to support capacity-building activities.

As part of UNESCO’s Programme for the Preservation of Endangered Movable Cultural Properties and Museum Development funded by the United States of America’s contribution UNESCO, three pilot projects were recently completed in Kenya, Mali/Niger and Ghana, which exemplify the potential of UNESCO’s actions to empower museums in Africa:

Safeguarding Kenya’s costal cultural assets

In an effort to preserve the endangered cultural assets of the Swahili, Taita, Miji, Kenda, Pokomo, Waata, Dahalo and Boni people along the Kenyan coast, the UNESCO Field Offices in Nairobi and Dares- Salaam worked closely with the National Museums of Kenya and the Center for Heritage Development in Africa (CHDA) to improve inventories, documentation, conservation and storage conditions at four coastal museums in Mombasa, Lamu, Rabai and Gedi.

The project focused on the collection, conservation, documentation, and presentation of textiles, manuscripts, basketry, wood, leather, metal objects, and other movable cultural properties. These objects are often associated with intangible heritage such as traditional healing, rain-making rituals, food production and related rituals. Today, many of these cultural practices are disappearing, and traces of their existence had not been documented nor collected for conservation and education by museums.

Dispaly of Ashante Textiles at Community Museum in Ghana photo credits Laurent Lévi-Strauss.jpg

Dispaly of Ashante Textiles at Community Museum in Ghana, photo credits Laurent Lévi-Strauss

While the project promoted inter-ethnic understanding and cultural diversity that characterizes the Kenyan nation, it also showcased the economic potential of culture and particularly of practices and activities central to cultural tourism. These efforts are significantly contributing to the strengthening of the identity and dignity of the Kenyan coastal people.

Preservation of Ashante Textiles

The long and proud Ashante Textile tradition is one of the most prominent features of Ghanaian culture. Kente, Ghana’s famous hand-woven and narrow strip cloth has become an international icon of African tangible and intangible cultural heritage. It is the best known and most widely recognized of all African textiles.

UNESCO’s office in Accra worked closely with local communities, government cultural agencies, civil society organizations, and the private sector in Ghana to strengthen institutional
development and capacity building for the preservation of the endangered Ashante textile tradition. Activities of this project focused on developing concrete methods to preserve these textiles, such as cataloguing and documenting existing national and regional textile collections.

A community-based pilot project; dubbed on-site museum for living cultures, was also launched to create income-generating activities and introduce new vocational skills and job opportunities for the youth, as well as to implement museum education programmes for promoting the national cultural agenda.

Arts of the Dogon (Mali /Niger)

UNESCO through partnerships has started building capacity of local managers responsible for looking after the endangered movable and immovable cultural heritage [objects and sites] of the Dogon people. The focus of the training was to preserve the outstanding universal values of the Dogons and the Cliffs of Bandiagara World Heritage Site.

Conservation Laboratory at Fort Jesus Museum in Mombassa Kenya  Karalyn Monteil-UNESCO.jpg

Conservation Laboratory at Fort Jesus Museum in Mombassa, Kenya - Karalyn Monteil/UNESCO

Due to pressures associated with tourism, the Dogon culture requires constant check, refreshing of local management skills and traditional know-how being simultaneously developed, preserved and sustained.

UNESCO’s Bamako Office worked closely with the communities, Government cultural organizations in charge of the site and local authorities in this initiative. Also represented in the communal initiative are artisans, Non-Governmental Organizations, the private sector and the international community.

Strategies in the Conservation and management of Dogon collections

Several activities were undertaken for the promotion, training on conservation and management of cultural resources as well as the development of heritage resources for the reducing  illicit trafficking of Dogon cultural objects. Community theatre was also used to raise awareness among Dogons communities about the importance of preserving their own cultural heritage and fighting illicit trafficking.

Main floor gallery Sherif Harar city Museum Ethiopia photo credits Karalyn Monteil-UNESCO.jpg

Main floor gallery, Sherif Harar city Museum, Ethiopia, photo credits Karalyn Monteil/UNESCO

The project resulted in the development and refinement of village “keeping places” or community museums; training of local museum authorities and staff in documentation and digitisation of the Dogon collections; rehabilitation of tourist sites in response to the growing tourism industry in order to retain authenticity of the sites; training of local tour guides; and
developing the women dyeing industry.

UNESCO Section of Museums and Cultural Heritage

UNESCO is continuing to work closely with its partners in Africa to empower museum professionals and safeguard cultural heritage collections across the continent. For more information on UNESCO’s museum programme, please consult:


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