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Friday, 17 June 2011

Museums: more than just a collection of dusty old bones

The Livingstone Museum

By Andrew Mulenga

IS it possible that a heritage as diverse and complex as Zambia’s museums can be summed up as just storerooms for relics? Probably not. Livingstone Museum for instance, Zambia's oldest, is not just a storage for some personal belongings of a 19th century Scottish explorer - Dr David Livingstone. Livingstone Museum actually is a blend of scents, sounds, colours and gives an anecdote of Zambia’s cultural heritage, history in motion – all in one building.
A cast replica of the Broken Hill skull in Livingstone, 
the original is in London and there is no talk of its return
But in a country whose majority of citizens are clearly a "non-museum- going" people, if there was ever such a term, it is easy to fall prey to such beliefs.
An amateur workplace survey taken by the author revealed that not even one in 20 workmates had ever set foot in a museum, and imagined that Zambia has six dotted across the country. Many see museums as stops for tourists and school pupils and as such, not even the average entry charge of K2,500 is able to attract them.
Well, a word to all museum skeptics or "non-museum-going" folk, you do not know what you are missing.
Take the largest, Livingstone Museum for instance. It has several galleries that show everything from the relics of the prehistoric inhabitants of Zambia to British colonial rule, to the struggle for independence as well as a large collection of David Livingstone’s personal items that include hand written letters, journals and maps.
The introduction area, right under the clock tower that was once rumoured by locals to house storage for dead bodies has a scale model of the Victoria Falls and its gorges. The most striking feature in this area is a colossal wood carving of an Ila Chief called Mukobela, by Ivan Mitford Barberton. Here, there is not much to see, but as you enter the Natural History galleries, the first being the  Archaeology gallery, it becomes more interesting.
It is aptly labelled; "The Origins Of Humans In Zambia". The display tries to put together remains from the earliest settlements as well as provide maps depicting Ethnographic migrations of Zambia's modern day inhabitants.
Zambian museums are crowd-pullers for foreign tourists, 
but locals rarely set foot in them, 
even at an entry fee as low as K2,500
Among the key features here are a die-cast replica of the Broken Hill Man, or discovered in Kabwe in 1921, unfortunately for purists, the original fossil which is said to date back to about 200,000 years-ago has been in the UK since the find was discovered. Also notable is a rock painting extracted from the Nachikufu Caves near Mpika that depict a hunter chasing an eland, a type of large antelope that no longer exists in that area, then there is a skeleton from 700 AD excavated from Isamu Pati mound near Kalomo. Then there is the 14th Century copper bracelets from the Ing'ombe Ilede site in Southern Province. Interestingly, Copper was never mined in this area, so this suggests that there was trade between the ancient inhabitants of this area with the people of the interior, what is now Congo.
As you exit the pre-history area, the visit takes you to a section labelled "Our Village", which basically gives an insight into modern day village life. Here, you reach a 'fork in the road' and have the option of either continuing with a "Natural Environment" tour or go straight to the "Your Town" section. The "Natural Environment" gallery displays an array of meticulously preserved animal specimens; reptiles, birds and mammals, including a rare treat such as the Black Lechwe which is only indigenous to Lake Bangweulu in Zambia.
A visit to the  "Your Town" mimics the urban migration from hence the "Our Village" to "Your Town". Through models, this display interestingly tries to portray what village folk go through when they migrate to the city for 'greener pastures'. This area has an interesting and nostalgic collection of grocery products that disappeared from supermarket shelves years ago. Older Zambians may recognise popular products of the past such as "Wendi" and "Dynamo" detergent pastes.
A copy oh Nkhani, one of the 'native'
language newspapers from 1959
Still within the ethnography galleries, the tour continues through a number of displays showing artifacts from initiation rites, marriage and long lost crafts such as cloth made from the bark of trees. Further down we find a display of herbal remedies and traditional belief systems that include witchcraft and sects that involve ancestor worship and border on Zionism. Featuring, quite prominent here are witches, or sorcerers tools such as "lilombamema" a ghastly looking bundle of beds, cloth and reptile skins that is said to have been used to kill people by supernatural means. It was discovered by a witch finder in Dambwa Site and Service, Livingstone. The nearby community alerted the museum of the discovery and the witch-finder who confiscated it then donated the 'defused' item to the Museum. There is also a "kaliloze" gun used for similar purposes and a wooden, streamlined "aeroplane" the size of a wine bottle that looks like a cross between a speedboat, a jetfighter and a submarine. This is said to have the power to fly its occupants to any destination under the cover of night. It is also said to be propelled by human blood.
The tour is temporarily disrupted at this point as viewers have to exit the galleries on to a Spanish-style courtyard, but it continues through the David Livingstone gallery which displays some of the explorer’s original, personal effects, clothing, guns and signed letters. From this point on, the gallery display takes the visitor on a journey through the history of Zambia from 1500 to 2001. It focuses on the early chiefdoms and later kingdoms and people from the outside world such as the Swahili, the Arabs the early European settlers, slave traders and missionaries. The themes summarised here are the colonization process, colonial rule, the federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland, nationalism or the struggle of independence; achievement of independence and the Independence Day celebrations on 24th October 1964. On display are some very rare and interesting images of the struggle heroes such as Donald Siwale, founder of Mwenzo Welfare Association, Kapasa Makasa who galvanised Northern Province during the struggle, Paul Kalichini whom alongside Frank Chitambala founded ANIP a party which later merged with UNFP to form UNIP and Munukayumbwa Sipalo, a charismatic nationalist leader whom the colonial government considered a radical communist to name a few. It is quite moving to see images of men and women who were ready to lay down their lives for the freedom of their people a clearly selfless breed of leader of whom Zambia has long been bereft, leaders with the people at heart, if only the same could be said of contemporary Zambian leadership, so much for the struggle. It is in this gallery that you can also find a copy of a letter of encouragement written on toilet paper by Kenneth Kaunda that was smuggled to his comrades during the struggle, there are also images of the earliest 'native' newspapers form the 1950s, "Lywashi" and "Nkhani Za Kum'mawa".
Clockwise from top left James Paikani Phiri,
Robin Kamima, John Chanda and Edward
Cresta Ngebe African nationalists who were
accused of having caused
the death of Lilian Burton, a white settler were
sentenced to death and hanged on November 27, 1961
The tour ends on a completely political note with themes from the First Republic, the Second Republic and finally the Third Republic, seeing us through Kenneth Kaunda, Frederick Chiluba and Levy Mwanawasa. At this stage you would have forgotten about your journey into time at the beginning of the tour, the rock painting extracted from the caves of the Kalambo Falls, the skeleton from 700 AD excavated from Isamu Pati mound near Kalomo and  the 14th Century copper bracelets from the Ing'ombe Ilede site in Southern Province.
Nevertheless, as a Zambian, one leaves the museum with a rekindled sense of identity and an inspired urge to "Stand and sing of Zambia" as per National Anthem.

Behind the scenes

Having viewed the galleries, any visitor to the Livingstone Museum would leave content that they have had their fill of the institution’s treasures. But in fact what is on display for public viewing is not even 5 per cent of the museum’s catalogued artifacts. Not open to the general public is a labyrinth of corridors and storerooms, that people do not even know exist. Fortunately the author was given a personalised tour of the inner recesses of the museum by the director himself, Victor Katenekwa.
Katenekwa and his expert team of anthropologists are in fact a lot more than a band of museum staff who dust off old bones and artifacts for a living. His is a team of Herpetologists (who study reptiles and amphibians), Entomologists (who study insects), Osteologists (who study detailed bone structure), video production specialists and archivists whose job is to painstakingly collect, document and catalogue every manner of insect, animal and cultural activity in Zambia. Much of this work cannot be appreciated by the public because they do not even know that it is being undertaken.
One can only stare in wonder as the likes of Peter Chitungu assistant conservator- natural history specimens opens drawer after drawer of both common and rare insects, points out shelf after shelf of animal bones and hides, lions, leopards and kudu. 
Lilombamema a 'Defused' sorcerers
gadget formerly used to kill people 

But it is the spine-chilling chambers overseen by Mungoni Sitali senior keeper responsible for ethnography and art that leaves one in wonder. Here several 'defused' gadgets formerly used for sorcery can be found among the witchcraft collectio,n some of which are even strewn across the floor. And as you enter, the thought of the gadgets still having their potency crosses the mind. But alongside the witchcraft can be found hundreds of traditional stools, masks and weapons from all over Zambia.
The museum’s famous tower is used for storage too, but contrary to the urban myth, it doesn't house dead bodies. It’s storeroom for thousands of the nations earliest documents and newspapers, here you can find the likes of Kingsley Choongo, assistant conservator-paper and archives, carefully cataloguing documents that are now in the process of being digitised. When all the documents are digitised visitors will be given passwords with which to access the virtual archives of the museum.
Although all these areas are out of bounds to the general public, upon request, by directly writing to the director, researchers may be given access to certain areas.
But as can be seen, there is more to museums than collection of old bones and archives, maybe they can best be described in the words of executive secretary Flexon Mizinga: "As museums, we are generally the custodians of the country's heritage. And also for the purpose of future generations to know who we are, and where we are coming from. But in a nutshell, the national museums were created so that the country's heritage is collected, interpreted, documented and preserved". 
And Clare Mateke a mammalogist (studies mammals) at the Livingstone museum challenged locals not to leave museum visits to tourists. 
"Don't wait for foreign guests to ask you to take them to the nearest museum. We should not see museums as places for tourists" she says.
Mateke also emphasised that Zambian museums are not just one off displays of artifacts, but they are research institutions that are constantly studying the past and present and networking with similar institutions across the globe.

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