15 December 2007

West African Museum Review

From Senegal to Ghana, I managed to see quite a few museums, although I did miss the national museums of Sierra Leone and Cote d'Ivoire. Here are my thoughts on them, in order of visit.

Jon and I visited the IFAN Museum in Dakar, which had raised its tariff to 3000 CFA from 500 CFA from when I last visited in April 2006. It basically has a bunch of simulated village settings of Senegalese and other West Africa ethnic groups (especially Guinea Bissau). Not a whole lot to see.

A nice bonus, though, was an extra wing which had an exhibition of an artist named Eduardo Nery. I've interspersed a few of the blends of masks and faces, which Jon photographed.

In Labe in the Fouta Djalon, we attempted to visit the Musee de Fouta. First we walked to its old location. When we arrived some hours later at the correct address, we discovered it was closed. Oh well.

In Conakry we visited the dusty old National Museum, which was just one large room in this case. Here they had models of the different compound styles in Haute Guinea, Basse Guinea, and the Fouta. Someone made a half-hearted attempt to sell us some clothes and paintings, then we were off to fight for seats in a share-taxi out of town.

After Jon returned to Dakar, I made my way to Sierra Leone. Here I visited the National Railway Museum; the trains stopped running in 1971. Someone from the UK helped the Museum secure funds to repaint and refurbish the old trains -- most of the metal was pilfered by desperate refugees trying to trade parts for something to live on. The trains are fairly well restored, although they don't enjoy a lot of visitors. I also passed by the ruins of the Old Fourah Bay College's main building. The stairs leading up to nowhere hosts vendors, barbers and a drinking spot, and there's a few more sellers in the courtyard. Fourah Bay was one of the premier West Africa universities; a few of my old Gambian friends were here before the war forced them to transfer to the University of Ghana. I missed the National Museum in S.L.

In Liberia I did make it to their very humble National Museum. I think most things of value were looted. There are a few old paintings and trinkets. Otherwise, there is a wall of computer printed pictures of Liberia's presidents. It really is in deplorable shape, and doesn't yet have anything on recent developments (aside from presidential photos of Charles Taylor and Ellen).

In Grand Bassam in Cote d'Ivoire, they have fixed up a couple of colonial buildings quite nicely. What I think was the old governor's residence is now home to the Musee National du Costume. They had a bunch of traditional clothing, as well as performance garb, of Ivoirien ethnic groups. The north of the country looks really interesting, which my travel guide suggests too. They also had the miniatures of traditional compounds, and a somewhat disturbing picture of a colonial official manually inspecting a teenage girl's breasts at a market in the early 20th century. One unfortunate development over the years is that a lot of artifacts famous to certain countries or regions are now produced all over, with varying degrees of quality. This includes Ashanti stools, Ivoirien masks, mud cloth, and indigo cloth. As evidence of this, the artisans on hand in the Musee du Costume courtyard included a number of non-Ivoiriens. I got to practice Wolof with a few Senegalese artisans, who come from a country without such a rich woodcarving tradition, although the quality was decent.

In Abidjan I again missed the national museum, but headed to the suburb of Cocody where I visited the aforementioned Musee Municipal d'Art Contemporain, which had an interesting and enthusiastically guided exhibit of student artwork.

In Ghana I visited Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park. The museum and park are in good shape, but most of the historical photos are just of him visiting with various heads of state. Otherwise, most of the shelves hold copies of his various books.

Also in Accra I visited their National Museum. This one was quite nicely put together, with a lot of items, and quite a few explanations too (particularly of kente and adinkra symbols). There also seemed to be a recent effort to engage with youth, so there were a few pictures of this, and much writing on the virtues of preserving culture and national heritage. The Museum also did a good job of discussing the similarities between Ghana and other African countries, and displayed similar artifacts (or ones with similar purposes) together with Ghanaian objects. They also had a nice guest exhibit of photos of Japanese children, taken from 1945 up to the present.

Kumasi has several museums which cover Ghanaian, and particularly Ashanti, history. Of the museums I visited, the Armed Forces one had the most enthusiastic guides, and all of them go over the same potted history of the Ashantis. Sadly, the hat museum was closed for renovations.

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