Friday, 15 February 2013


by Jonathan R. Walz

Beit el Amani in July 2011, before renovation (copyright Martin Walsh)
Public engagement and conservation are two principal concerns of the African Studies community in general. However, more often than not, those interested in conservation in Africa emphasize natural history, national parks, and wildlife. As recent events in Timbuktu in Mali demonstrate, historical sources, archaeological remains, and architectural legacies also deserve robust and sustained commitment. Governments, museums (and other institutions), and scholars play key roles in this endeavor, as the parties who ensure the responsible conservation of cultural heritage in Africa and who facilitate public education about African history and contemporary societies.

There is broad recognition that African archives and museums are in a poor state. A visit to the Swaziland National Archives in Mbabane, for instance, reveals insufficient infrastructure, financial resources, and staff to meet the basic conservation needs of the unique and remarkable historical sources housed there. The archives and museums in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, like other states in the global tropics and sub-tropics, suffer from multiple legacies. Among other factors, these include regional impoverishment, insufficient leadership and staff training, and a gaping disconnect between scholars and such heritage institutions. International scholars in particular often conduct research and then depart countries without attending to the further management of the materials they collect. Recent adjustments to antiquities research fees in many countries, including Tanzania, are beginning to rectify this problem by collecting monies intended for curation.

Beit el Amani in July 2012, after renovation (copyright J. R. Walz)
Of course there are exceptions to the tendencies of poor management in museums and archives outlined above. Notable success stories include the Hargeisa Provincial Museum in Somalia (Mire 2007) and various branch museum organizations in Niger and Senegal (see Merrick Posnansky’s comments in Walz 2010: 208-209). And the International Council of African Museums (AFRICOM), as well as other international, continental, and national working groups and funds are making headway in the struggle to improve heritage training and awareness. However, the destruction in Timbuktu shows how quickly a success story – the South Africa-Mali Timbuktu Manuscripts Project – can turn. There is much serious work to be done in partnership among stakeholders.

Tanzania faces challenges similar to other African countries (see Schmidt and McIntosh 1996). A 2001 conference in Dar es Salaam celebrated the growth in historical scholarship and heritage studies in Tanzania since mainland independence in 1961. But at the same time attendees bemoaned the many significant impediments to heritage development (Mapunda and Msemwa 2005). Zanzibar Town and other historical places of Tanzania’s offshore islands also face threats to heritage as well as the institutions that enable the conservation of historical sources and public engagement.

Disarray in Storage D, Beit el Amani, July 2012 (copyright J. R. Walz)
In July 2012 I visited Beit el Amani – the Peace Memorial Museum (aka the Zanzibar Museum) – in Zanzibar Town. Lying at the intersection of Benjamin Mkapa and Kaunda roads, it contains artifacts and other historical sources of Zanzibar’s long-term history, from great antiquity up to and through the early twentieth-century: archaeological remains of Swahili urbanism, relics of the Omani sultanate, material culture from European exploration, items of railroad and postal history, and crafts common to Zanzibari households (for the early history of the museum see Longair 2012). The museum was under structural renovation when I visited in July (and had been for more than a year previously) and therefore the material collections and displays were off limits to the general public. Aesthetic and structural improvements appear to have been successful (as the museum’s façade has been renewed), but they conceal striking problems.

A museum official kindly agreed to show me the archaeological collections in ‘storage,’ some of which had been relocated due to the ongoing renovations. Storage Room D is demonstrative. Disarray and destruction (surely unintentional) of this type should elicit great concern. Storage boxes and bags are broken or otherwise disintegrating in Storage Room D and the original provenance of a proportion of material has been lost. Most apparent are ceramics, beads of glass and semi-precious stone, and even non-archaeological materials, including a stuffed duck. Sadly, my photos illustrate this desecration of history. Relevant objects include those excavated in the 1990s from Unguja Ukuu and other regionally important archaeological sites located on Unguja (Zanzibar) Island and its smaller sister, Tumbatu.

Another view of the jumble in Storage D (copyright J. R. Walz)
After speaking with a Zanzibari official, I contacted numerous international heritage groups and funds, including the U.S. Embassy in Tanzania. However, for various reasons – including surpassed funding deadlines – no monies were available for immediate improvements. Then I approached the Office of Community Engagement at my academic institution, Rollins College (in Florida). Thankfully, I was granted a small sum to clean and organize the materials in Storage Room D, a task I will complete during July 2013 with Rollins students. This scheduled activity integrates well the engaged liberal arts and two courses I teach: “Cultural Heritage and Museums” and “Heritage and the Politics of Now.” Zanzibari museum staff and students in new archaeology and heritage management programs at the State University of Zanzibar (SUZA) will work alongside us to improve circumstances at Beit el Amani. Stay tuned for a follow-up blog as the case progresses.

The archives and museums of eastern Africa, and all of Africa, deserve greater care. In this instance, archaeologists who work in Zanzibar and wider Tanzania should step forward and find more concrete ways to ensure proper curation of materials. Although Rollins College supplied funding to launch this project in Zanzibar, donations, volunteer support, and suggestions for additional funding are much appreciated.

Thanks to Martin Walsh for facilitating this blog post. I further appreciate the support of Abdul Sheriff during my stay in Zanzibar in 2012. Many commentators offered assistance through a previous online post about Beit el Amani.


Longair, S. C. 2012. ‘A Gracious Temple of Learning’: The Museum and Colonial Culture in Zanzibar, 1900-1945. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Birkbeck College, University of London.

Mapunda, B. and P. Msemwa (eds.) 2005. Salvaging Tanzania’s Cultural Heritage. Dar es Salaam: Dar es Salaam University Press.

Mire, S. 2007. Preserving knowledge, not objects: a Somali perspective for heritage management and archaeological research. African Archaeological Review 24 (3-4): 49-71.

Schmidt, P. and R. McIntosh (eds.) 1996. Plundering Africa’s Past. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Walz, J. 2010. An interview with Merrick Posnansky. African Archaeological Review 27 (3): 177-210.

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