Uganda Museum scoops prestigious conservation grant

Saturday January 18 2020

An aerial view of the Uganda Museum. It is one of the ‘must-visit’ tourist attractions in Uganda for both native and foreign tourists. FILE PHOTO

In 2010, an artistic impression of 20-storey building was published in the newspapers. The architectural plan was to house the East African Trade Centre. It was slated to be erected in the land where the Uganda Museum stands.
Fortunately, that project has not seen the light of day and with the current plans to conserve the Uganda Museum building, probably, it never will.

The Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Antiquities is spearheading a campaign to conserve the Uganda Museum building. Launched late last year, the Museum won a prestigious international conservation grant, worth $135,000 (Shs500m) awarded by the Getty Foundation, USA. The Keeping It Modern Initiative project recognises the unique historic site-the Uganda Museum and seeks to protect the architectural design from deteriorating in order to prolong the life of the building.

The historic building
The Uganda Museum was one of 10 buildings around the world that won this prestigious award. The grant enlists the building among iconic architectural marvels such as the Opera House in Sydney Australia, which has won the grant in the past.
Unlike the Opera House, the Uganda Museum does not have magnificent structures or a vantage point from which to see the beauty of the tiny building. However, according to experts, the building is nothing short of a marvel.

Unique architecture
According to Doreen Adengo, a conservation architect on the project, Uganda Museum is a goldmine. “As the first modern building in Uganda, it has open halls that stand strong without the help of columns. Built in 1954, it also has one-piece glass dome with cutting-edge innovations that still exist even today,” says Adengo.

She adds: “It was the first building in Uganda to use stone-walling in the way it did, after which the design became so popular. It is a model structure and an inspiration upon which many engineers and architectures have constructed buildings in Uganda. It is an exceptionally firm building that has stood the test of time, 65 years after construction.”

Fast-track legislation
Adengo emphasises the need to protect historic buildings. “These buildings are historical sites which tell stories of our country, despite the fact that innovations in the real estate sector are exerting immense pressure, threatening their existence. Legislation to conserve such historic sites ought to be fast-tracked. We hope that this will be the beginning of the conservation of all historic modern buildings,” she urges.


Venue for annual events
The Uganda museum remains a popular landmark for local and foreign tourists. It has become the perennial venue for the popular Blankets and Wine concerts and other events such as the annual Octoberfest, and the Beer festival.
Other important events such as the monthly book market also take place here. The museum thus maintains a central position in Uganda’s urban culture today.

A must-go to place for tourists
When it comes to tourism, the Uganda Museum is a default starting point for most tourists that visit Uganda. According to the chief executive officer, Uganda Tourism Board, Lilly Ajarova, the museum plays a central role in the country’s tourism sector.

She says: “The initiative by the ministry of tourism, supported by the Getty Foundation will market Uganda as a preferred tourism destination. It is timely because this year, we shall embark on promoting museums and monuments as part of the tourism packages for tourists.”
Uganda is ranked the 8th MICE (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences and Exhibitions) destination in Africa, and according to the Ajarova, the new project will work towards boosting that image.

Value of historic buildings
According to the commissioner of museums and monuments at the ministry of tourism, Rose Mwanja Nkaale, the grant is a wakeup call to government to recognise the value of historic buildings and the urgent need to preserve them.

She says: “Our collection of artifacts attracts thousands of visitors across the world, every month. There has been a temptation to only focus our attention on the artifacts and forget the value of buildings that house artifacts. Because of lack of expertise, the building was slowly losing shape, exposing artifacts of Uganda’s heritage to the risk of damage,” says.

Demolishing old buildings
There is a school of thought that believes old buildings should be demolished. The spirit is driven by the fact that some of the most prime locations in Kampala and other historic sites are occupied by old ‘inconsequential’ buildings.
That is how Fort Kampala, the first prison in Uganda and the old Uganda Broadcasting Corporation headquarters were demolished to pave way for the new Pearl of African Hotel in Nakasero.

That is how Shimoni Demonstration Primary School and Teachers College were demolished to pave way for a fancy shopping mall. The National Theatre was nearly demolished to pave way for a shopping mall, until artists went to court and secured an injunction.

Architectural story
Uganda Museum was designed and built by Ernst May, a German pioneer of urban planning in 1954. It was part of a larg expansion plan for the fast-growing capital city of Kampala, at the time.

As the first modern building in Uganda (followed by Amber House later that same year), the museum influenced the design of other government and institutional buildings throughout the country.

Stylish creations such the flat roofing sections, cast-in-place concrete construction, horizontal rows of windows, the cantilevered entry canopy and polished concrete floors became the norm for decades to come.

Angled walls
To protect the artifacts from the destructive power of ultraviolet rays from the sun, the architect angled the walls in such a way that they neither face the east nor the west.

The engineers of the museum ensured that only diffused interior lighting was achieved. To provide interior light, they added a glass dome in the centre of the museum that is still intact.

It was the first construction site to use glass as a part of the walling. He was also sensitive to environment and that is why he added perforated partitions for cooling the airflow.

Why it won the grant
According to Rand Eppich, a consultant on the project, one of the reasons the Uganda Museum won this prestigious grant is because the application for the grant came from the current users of the building.

Eppich says: “One the applications for the same grant came from Mozambique. But it was written by someone in Portugal. Another competing building was in Cuba, but the application was written by someone in Italy. The Ugandan application came from Uganda and was written by Ugandans with a compelling historic stories to tell,” he said.

He adds: “Besides compelling stories, other factors such as the historic positioning of the building, its architectural breakthroughs and the threat on its life, were also put under consideration.”

The first in East Africa
A statement on the Getty Foundation Website states that one of the reasons the grant was awarded was to protect this landmark building from real estate development pressures. The grant has in the past been awarded to landmark buildings as the Sydney Opera House in Australia and the Salk Institute in California.
This grant is the first in East Africa and probably the last considering that the grant will be no more after this year.

What the grant will do
The grant worth $135,000 (Shs495m) will be used to develop a conservation management plan to guide future interventions, conservation and maintenance.
The fund will also be used to train museum staff on how to monitor the structure’s interior and exterior, to protect the valuable collections and raise awareness about the significance of the building.

Adengo adds: “We will also investigate the materials on the building, assess the major elements of the museum including the garden, artifacts, original furniture and the fittings. We shall assess potential cracks, evaluate the lifespan of the concrete and undertake timely renovations.”

What the grant will do
The grant worth $135,000 (Shs495m) will be used to develop a conservation management plan to guide future interventions, conservation and maintenance. The funds will also be used to train museum staff on how to monitor the structure both interior and external featur es to protect the valuable collections. The fund will also be used assess cracks on the museum, evaluate the remaining lifespan of the concrete and undertake timely renovations.

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