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Plans to Demolish the Uganda Museum

Open Letter to President Yoweri Museveni, Republic of Uganda

22 February, 2011

His Excellency Yoweri Museveni
President of the Republic of Uganda
State House
Kampala, Uganda

REF: PLANS TO DEMOLISH THE UGANDA MUSEUM

I am writing to you in my capacity as President of the Society of Africanist Archaeologists (SAfA) to express this Society’s concern with regard to the news that a 60-storied Trade Centre is planned to be erected on the grounds where the Uganda Museum now stands.  The planned demolition of the Museum to give way to a trade centre will effectively end the 102-year history of one the oldest cultural institutions in Uganda.  In the 1970s, the Ugandan government, then under General Idi Amin Dada, presided over the destruction of the old Museum at Lugard’s Fort.  This act was decried by many Ugandans and was indeed viewed as a government culturally devastating act against its people.  I implore you to reconsider this imminent act, which will be seen by Ugandans and around the world in very much the same vein, especially give the unfortunate destruction of the Kasubi tombs--Kampala’s only World Heritage site--last March. 

Founded in 1908, the Uganda Museum is the principal repository of the material culture of the people of Uganda.  The Museum holds the original "charms' donated by Baganda chiefs in 1908/9.  Some of the charms and ethnographic objects in the Museum have ties with shrines that today serve as the nerve center of what being a Muganda, Mugika, Munyoro, Munyankole, Mlugbara etc., means.  Collectively, these collections illustrate to past, present, and future generations of Ugandans, the essence of being Ugandan.  They illustrate the poignant and proud history of the Pearl of Africa.

A large percentage of these collections are rare, fragile, and can never again be collected.  Even if the resources were available to acquire them, the knowledgeable men and women who created them are long gone leaving the people of Uganda—their descendants—this material culture that bears witness to a once illustrious and glorious history of the peoples and cultures that make up this beautiful, rich, and rising country.

I understand from very reliable sources that a two-storey section of the trade centre will be given to the Museum.  My concern is that the fragility and irreplaceable nature of many of the ethnographic and some archaeological artifacts will most assuredly ensure that these items will virtually self-destruct.  Some of the collections in the Museum still have not been catalogued.  The highly informative and readable catalogue Tribal Crafts of Uganda, produced by curators Margaret Trowell and Klauss Wachsmann, still remains one of the few in use.  Large highly valuable collections in the Museum have yet to be fully inventoried.  The archaeological material has been growing, thanks to the sustained research by the British Institute in Eastern Africa its students, and Uganda colleagues.  This collection constitutes the heartbeat of Uganda.  We urge the government to protect this heritage by avoiding any further deterioration of the collections though the proposed relocation for temporary storage and return to a small space in a Trade rather than Cultural Centre. 

Moving the collection to another site, during the time of construction of the Trade Centre, will expose the collection to a number of problems.  First, many of the collections are fragile would be subject to deterioration due to traumatic movements. Second, a vast majority of the collections in storage are poorly labeled and their provenience will be lost making them irrelevant.  Third, the collections, particularly the royal regalia, arts and crafts from the many precolonial and colonial chiefdoms and kingdoms, will most assuredly fall prey to vandals, looters, petty thieves and art collectors.  Witness the recent Baghdad and Egyptian Museum traumas.  The Ugandan people, and indeed the African and international community, will hold your government responsible for the destruction of the heritage of the people of Uganda.  The gains made during the last eighty years may be severely eroded.

Museums in Africa and elsewhere exhibit, nurture, celebrate, and promote culture.  The Uganda Museum has recently been playing a leadership role in promoting regional and national unity and consciousness amongst East Africans and Ugandans.  The Society of Africanists Archaeologists whose membership is global implores you to intervene to save the Uganda Museum from destruction.

As a national heritage institution, the Uganda Museum promotes Uganda’s cultural and national heritage through research on the cultural, social, technological, and political achievements of Ugandans, protects all movable and immovable antiquities and monuments within national boundaries, and fosters national unity and pride through exhibitions and displays.  The nine-acre plot currently allocated to the Museum is not adequate to serve the needs of a modern Museum.  To confine it to a two storey section within the trade centre sends a clear message that the government is not interested in preserving and indeed fostering the cultural heritage of Uganda.  This will be tantamount to reducing a national heritage institution into a gallery where the business community and tourists might visit to view the ‘savage’ past of Uganda.  How will school children, who constitute more than 60 percent of the current museum visitors be accommodated?  How will they learn to be proud Ugandans, when their past is placed in a trade centre built and financed by foreign interests?

The members of SAfA are acutely aware of the challenges and dilemmas that Uganda faces in its tasks to reconstruct itself and its economy.  Nevertheless, the national and global significance of the Museum, its value to scholarship, and its unique characteristics, compel this organization to urge that an alternative location be found for the Trade Centre.  Destroying the Uganda Museum very likely will lead to an irretrievable loss of the pre-colonial, colonial, and postcolonial cultural heritage of the nation.  Great nations are those that safeguard and promote homegrown political, economic, social, technological, as well as cultural institutions.  We believe that Uganda belongs to those nations that have proud histories and take pride in safeguarding that heritage.

Therefore, we urge the Government of Uganda to develop a plan directed towards preventing any interference with the Museum and to include plans that will prevent any possible encroachment of the undeveloped Museum land and the immediate surroundings.  As part of this action, we would recommend that information about the Museum, its national, regional, and global, significance be made widely available to local communities and discussed in local schools.  We further urge the Government to consult with AFRICOM (headquartered in Nairobi), UNESCO, Commonwealth Association of Museums, and other heritage agencies and specialists to find a lasting solution that will allow the Government to achieve its goal in providing space for the proposed Trade Centre.

We respectfully thank you for your consideration of this request.

Yours sincerely


Dr. Chapurukha M. Kusimba
President, Society of Africanists Archaeologists
Professor of Anthropology, University of Illinois-Chicago
Curator of African Archaeology and Ethnology, Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago USA.