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Monday, 11 November 2019

Copperbelt Museum (Part 1): the past and present

By Andrew Mulenga

Every now and then, this column drifts from mulling over art to address or highlight broader concerns with regards culture and heritage and this two-part article that highlights the Copperbelt Museum does just that.

Minister of Information Unia Mwila officially
opens the museum in 1978.-
Photo courtesy of Copperbelt Museum
Situated in Ndola’s central business district, at plot No. 911 Buteko Avenue. The Copperbelt Museum is quite easy to access but it is similarly easy to miss. The inconspicuous museum can be described as very small and almost insignificant but it is when you walk through the space that you appreciate how rich its heritage is and to get you started is the rich information on the left side of the entrance that provides a detailed history of the place. On display, the museum displays an intimate but noteworthy collection of geological, historical as well as ethnographic artefacts.

As you proceed past the introductory texts on the wall that highlight the history of the museum and of the copperbelt, ignoring the corridor that leads to a public restaurant and restrooms, you will find a flight of stairs, climbing them you land at another wall with introductory maps of Zambia and its mineral deposits.

However, straight ahead it gets more interesting. Here you find a wall that has text with a title that reads “Derivation of towns of the Copperbelt” and below it, you find the origins of every name of the province’s towns from Chambishi to Chililabombwe, from Luanshya to Mufulira, the latter of which interestingly meant “the place of forging” by the Lamba people long before the arrival of the Europeans. Mufulira “came from the word ‘fula’ or ‘fulila’ meaning to forge iron goods or blacksmithing”. That is just one of the many names that have been explained.

The Copperbelt Museum on Buteko Avenue
in Ndola - Photo by Andrew Mulenga
The next display does not comprise of text alone but also has actual artefacts ranging from traditional basketry to pottery as well as an elaborate assortment of musical instruments and smoking pipes along with a variety of tobaccos and snuff holders. Next to this is an impressive collection of defused witchcraft some of which were actually used to kill people or make some victims go insane as the provided texts explain. This space also has an assortment of traditional herbs including one little plastic bag with a frightful powder that “allows ‘everlasting’ erection in men”; imagine having to explain that to a group of curious pupils on a school trip.

The next section on the same floor has a collection of butterflies and birds, among them a vulture and a fish eagle. Although smaller than the vulture, the fish eagle is surprisingly large and as a national emblem, the tiny depictions on the coat of arms or Zambian flag do not give this noble bird justice. It is huge, and something any Zambian should see at least once in their lifetime—not just sing about it in national anthems—and the only place that can be done, is in a museum, well unless you live in a game reserve. As much as it is a national symbol, it is a very rare bird, people live entire lifetimes without seeing one.

The crafts and souvenir shop is visible from
the busy street - Photo by Andrew Mulenga
After the bird exhibit is a rather uncharacteristic display of posters that commemorate the holocaust, important perhaps, but it does seem a tad bit out of context amidst the other items on display. But then again the museum, although a public exhibition space is open to ideas and displays of all sorts as long as the idea is sold to the museum compellingly. Nevertheless, beyond the holocaust display is a display of homemade toys, mostly made of wire, wood and other found objects.    

At this point, you find another flight of steps having gone round the top floor almost full circle. Descending the stairs leads to a rather remarkable geological exhibition that has on display some fossilized items, some sequences of rock formation and uses of different types of gemstones and minerals, the kind of information that learners would find particularly interesting.  

A collection of traditional instruments -
Photo by Andrew Mulenga
According to the information made available by the museum and borrowed generously here, the museum was founded in May 1962 when a steering committee of civic and mine leaders from various districts on the Copperbelt met in Ndola to form the Copperbelt Museum Association with the aim of establishing a museum of Natural Resources with emphasis on ecology, geology, conservation, mining and local history of the area.  

By 1963, the Association had acquired a substantial collection from the Livingstone Museum and South Africa’s Natal Museum for temporal exhibitions at Caravelle House, along Buteko Avenue, which would be its first home.

Ndola was however in competition with other towns such as Luanshya and Kitwe as the collection continued to grow, two years later, Ndola Municipal Council won as a suitable site for the museum because of its centrality, with easy access by road, air and rail. Since its inception in 1962 until 1968 the museum was owned and administered by the Copperbelt Museum Association under the chairmanship of a Mr. Willem Van Der Elst. From 1968 to 1973, it was under a Mr. Messiter-Tozze and later on a Mr. James Moore.

A display of traditional smoking pipes
In 1968, the museum was incorporated as part of the National Museums Board of Zambia (NMB). From 1973, the Copperbelt Museum Association ceased to function and was replaced by Museum committees that provided administration for the institution up to 1993. The Secretaries of the committees served as remunerated administrators under Chairmen and Committee members who worked as volunteers. In 1975, the National Museums Board employed a Zambian, Pythias A. Mbewe as curator to work full time at the museum.

As the museum’s collections increased, it shifted its collections and activities from Caravelle House to Bwafwano House until 1978 when the collections were again moved to their present location. Speaking of the current location, for those who are a bit more adventurous, the museum is right next door to a bar and restaurant called “Mixed Doubles” which has a splendid display of well-aged reed handicrafts on its walls.—these are definitely worth a look. You cannot miss the place as it is slightly opposite ZESCO’s main offices which is also stone throw away from the Savoy Hotel, a building once popularized by the singer John Mwansa in his early 1980s hit song “Mukamfwilwa” alongside Falcon Bar (or Fakoni) which is also just around the corner and not too far away.

Nsansakuwa exorcises J.S. Chichabo
and Nelson Kale who were accused of 
bewitching babies in mine townships -
Photo courtesy of Copperbelt Museum 

The museum has an impressive collection of 
diffused witchraft - Photo by Andrew Mulenga


A fish eagle is one of the many birds on display

Part of the geological exhibition currently 
on display - Photo by Andrew Mulenga






Nevertheless, before we end up rambling on about time-honoured bars, restaurants, hotels and bands, at present, the major programmes of the Copperbelt museum still include acquisitions. This is the collection of information, artefacts and specimens, which mainly come through research, donations, purchases and exchanges. As small as it might appear, the museum has over 3000 artefacts in its custody. 

However, it is only able to display a fraction of its collection and the present small size of the museum has been a hindrance to almost all public programs, this is why it has for some years now been earmarked for expansion. Next week, read about the plans to expand the Copperbelt Museum into the Copperbelt Museum of Science and Technology. 

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