Community museums preserving culture, history

Friday May 18 2018

A traditional musical instrument

Music. A traditional musical instrument as displayed in one of the museums last month. FILE photo  

By Henry Lubega

Today, Uganda joins the rest of the world in marking the International Museum Day with this year’s theme being: ‘Hyper connected museums: New approaches, news publics’.
The day was first celebrated in 1977.

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) describes a museum as a permanent, non-profit institution, in service to society and its development. It is open to the public to acquire, conserve, research, communicate and exhibit the humanity tangible and intangible heritage plus its environment for enjoyment, study and education purposes.

Ms Rose Nkaale Mwanja is the commissioner at the Uganda Museum, which came into being in 1908 on the orders of Governor George Wilson, who called for all articles of interest in Uganda to be procured.

Governor Wilson’s orders gave birth to the national museum.
“To fit in with the theme of this year’s celebrations, we are in the process of getting digital so that a person in Gulu does not have to come to Kampala to visit the museum,” Ms Mwanja says.

To many, museums are places of tourism, where people go to look at how pre-historic man lived. But in the recent past, museums have become a place where individuals have increasingly invested, leading to the opening up of more than 35 private and community museums in the country.

From the foot of Mountain Moroto to the plain lands of Kamuswaga’s Kooki, through the rugged hills of Kabale and the flat land of Adjumani, the communities and individuals have tried to preserve their culture and history by creating community museums.
The community and private museums have a more detailed preservation of culture and history in a way the national museum does not.


“At the national museum, we showcase tits and bits of the different cultures without going into their details because we are a national museum. We have to cover the whole country. The creation of community and private museums is a welcome venture; to showcase what we as the national museum cannot do. They are specialising in preserving all aspects of the cultural history of that community which cannot be done by the national museum,” Ms Mwanja says.

The drive to start community museum in almost every region of the country has been the desire to preserve culture and history.
Mr Ibrahim Kitawulwa, the secretary to the Uganda Community Museum Association, says there was a risk of communities losing their history as it was being distorted. He says there was need to preserve it and at the same time promote community tourism.

“The expansion is due to the desire to preserve and take out culture to the young generation. The main objective of these community museums is to preserve culture but they are not stopping at that. We have been able to set up heritage clubs in different secondary schools across the country as means of tapping the young generation and interest them in their culture and its preservation.”

Ethnic minorities such as the Ike and the Ethur people of Karamoja have no representation in the national museum but through their community museums in Kaabong and Abim respectively, they have been able to preserve and promote their culture and history.

Much as they are little known, the culture and way of life of the Ethur people is preserved in their museum, thanks to Florence Omony, the person behind the museum.
The Thur cultural museum is a collection of the traditional way of life from dressing, housing, defence, agriculture and entertainment, among others.

Ms Omony says: “We want to set up a cultural village to showcase the functional part of our culture other than just pictures.”
The Ethur people are said to have used the technology of the sliding door called Kika way before modern civilisation.

Just like their minority counterpart in the region – the Ike people – have their own museum in Kaabong District which they call House of Memory of the Ike. Its aim is to collect and preserve the history of the Ike people.

On the foot of mount Moroto, outside Moroto town, sits the Karamoja Museum and Cultural Centre. Unlike a similar one in Abim which has all its story told through painting, the Karamoja museum has physical cultural artifacts.

The curator to this one roomed museum is Peter Epaja, who says the museum is short on funds which limits its ability to get more artifacts from the locals who are still holding onto some cultural pieces.

In the museum, there are camel hide sandals said to be more than eight generations old. The museum displays the warfare tools of the Karimojong such as the knives curved as wrists bands.

“They were always worn all the time. In times of war, the cover is removed and they become weapons, while in peaceful times they are like ornaments,” says Epaja.
There are also ostrich egg shell ornaments. These were sign of wealth.
“If you had a challenger who had more of the ostrich egg shells, he would take away what you have. The more women, children and cows one had, the wealthier that person was,” he adds.

Besides the artifacts, there is literature on the history of the Karimojong people. For instance, there is the story of the body scars. Epaja says the tribal scars worn by men on their chest represented the number of people they have killed.

“When the chest is full, he would ask his sister to wear the rest on his behalf. The death scars have no art in them but those worn by women for beauty have art in them,” says Epaja.

The Karamoja museum is not all about war but also the way of life of the Karimojong people. Besides the artifacts, the tribal oral literature is on display for the tourist to learn about the history and culture of the Karimojong.

Though most of the museums in Uganda are about culture and its preservation, there are a few unique ones such as the Kikonyongo Money Museum at Bank of Uganda. It is a museum of money with the history of the evolution of money in Uganda from the cowries to the paper and coin currency we have today.

However, unlike most museums, this one requires prior appointment before one visits it.
There are other museums such as the St Luke Community Museum in Masaka District. This one is under the care of the Banakaloli brothers in Masaka Diocese.

In this museum, there is paraphernalia once used by reformed traditional medicine practitioners before they abandoned them. It is also used to show how herbal medicine is prescribed and administered without having to invoke the ancestral spirits.

The Uganda Martyr’s University Museum on the Masaka-Kampala road is probably the only one anthropological and ethnographic museum in the country. It has artifacts from within Uganda and neighbouring countries. It is a must go to place for students and researchers in the fields of anthropology, African history and sociology.

Closely related to the above in nature is the Museum of the Center for African Christian Studies. Established in 2004 by a group of Christians and Uganda scholars, the aim of the museum is to bring to the understanding of Christianity in the African context and its impact on the social and cultural development of the country.

For almost three decades, most part of northern Uganda has been under civil war, which took a toll on the people. This is what gave rise to the Human Rights Focus Peace Museum. As its name suggests, the museum’s focus is on the young population of the region whose lives started or was spent in the Internally Displaced People’s camps during the years of war. It centers on rituals such as Matoput, which is a traditional way of reconciliation.

There is also Ssemagulu Royal Museum in Mutundwe, which is more about Buganda and to a smaller extent Uganda. This museum has paintings and statues and it is a one stop centre for one to learn about Buganda’s history that is not found in history books.
Though most museums are about preserving history and culture, at Ssemagulu, it is more about the history through learning.

“For us, we are focusing more on the information than on the art. Ours is not an art gallery but information source about Buganda and its evolution,” says Mr John Ssempebwa, the proprietor of the museum.
But more museums are moving away from being a collection of artifacts to being centers of learning and research.

Mr James Tumusiime, the proprietor of Igogo, says these museums are doing more than preserving the country’s historical assets.
“They are engaging and bridging the gap between the young and the old to steer a legacy of the community. Besides that, these museums are becoming centres of research,” Mr Tumusiime says.

However, there has been no support from the government to the community museums.
“There is limited political will and resources to support the culture sector, as well as the lack of collective ownership of our heritage. These make it difficult to recognise and promote community museums and their outreach programmes that would encourage Ugandans to visit and support the museums,” says Mr Fredrick Nsibambi, the Heritage Programs Manager at the Cross Cultural Foundation Uganda – a civil society organisation working for the preservation of culture and heritage.

Oldest. The Uganda Museum is the oldest museum in East Africa, having opened its doors in 1908. Its founding was a directive by then Governor of Uganda George Wilson, when he ordered that all articles of interest on Uganda to be collected in 1902.

The beginning. The first museum was in a small Sikh temple at Fort Lugard on Old Kampala Hill. From 1920 into the 1940s, archaeology and paleontological surveys and excavations by people such as Edward Wayland, Bishop J. Wilson, Church Hill, and others led to the discovery of a significant number of artifacts which necessitated a bigger museum. The collections were relocated to the Margret Trowel School of Fine Art at Makerere University in 1941.

Permanent home. The colonial government looked for funds to build a permanent home for the museum on Kitante Hill where it moved in 1954. This year, the museum is 110 years old. Among its collection include musical instruments, hunting tools, traditional war tools, archaeology and entomology.