Ghana’s National Museum: superb restoration but painful stories remain untold

A museum

Ghana’s national museum has reopened its doors after a seven-year closure to allow for major renovations.

The museum was first opened in March 1957 as part of the celebrations marking the transition from colonial rule to independence.

The opening also marked the end of a bitter struggle between members of the museum staff over issues related to the creation of a new memory space. I traced this history in a paper about the origins of the museum.

Often, museums are considered spaces for the past. However, they also reflect how the past is understood and used in the present. In 1957, the makers of the museum wanted to create a space for foreign visitors, telling a history that focused on peaceful aspects of Ghana’s past. In the process, less peaceful histories were excluded, such as the slave trade and the destructive aspects of colonial rule.

Over time, histories of the slave trade were added to the museum’s exhibitions. The recently completed renovation has provided the museum with the opportunity to develop a new exhibition where these histories were part of the main narrative.

I was intrigued to find out how the museum compared with the original vision.

After visiting it I concluded that it does an exemplary job of presenting the dynamic diversity of Ghana as a nation. But it still excludes certain histories – most notably those of the slave trade and colonial rule. The museum is leaving out crucial aspects of Ghana’s past. It misses the opportunity to be a space where these can be discussed and processed peacefully.

Origins of the National Museum

The idea of establishing a national museum in what was then known as the Gold Coast was first raised in the 1940s by the colonial government.

In 1951, the archaeologist A.W. Lawrence became the director of this future museum. With a collection consisting of archaeological artefacts and an archaeologist as its director, it had a strong historical basis.

Over the next few years, new politicians decided where to house the museum and what histories it should tell. Together with British officials, the anti-colonial Convention Peoples’ Party became responsible for it.

The building was designed by Denys Lasdun of Fry, Drew, Drake & Lasdun, a partnership known for Modernist tropical architecture.

The museum consisted of several modern elements, not least the building materials. A prefabricated aluminium dome covers most of the building. But domes also characterise many European museums. The building can therefore be seen as a compromise between the traditional and the modern.

Inside the museum, Lawrence wanted to tell a history that was referred to as “Man in Africa”. This history focused on the Gold Coast against the background of what “Man has achieved throughout the rest of Africa.”

To tell this story, the museum acquired artefacts from ancient Egypt, the Roman period in Morocco, and two original Benin bronze heads, among other things. Lawrence also acquired European objects used in West Africa in the past centuries to illustrate the relationship between the Gold Coast and Europe.

However, one member of the staff, John Osei Kufour, who was an ardent supporter of the Convention Peoples’ Party, wanted the museum to be a space for anti-colonial history. He was highly critical of the objects acquired by Lawrence, particularly those from Europe. He wanted the museum to focus exclusively on Ghana and its traditions – traditions he hoped would soon be confined to the past by the government’s development plans.

In 1956, shortly before the museum was about to open, he used his contacts in the party in an effort to remove the director. It failed. The party leaders did not want the museum to be an anti-colonial space. Rather, they saw it as a suitable meeting place where visitors to the country could learn something of its history.

Opening exhibitions

Two temporary exhibitions were unveiled at the opening in 1957.

One was based on objects and told the history of “Man in Africa”, and the other used documents from the newly established national archives to narrate recent history. Both presented narratives of the past characterised by ordered progress and development resulting from the interaction between the people of Ghana, West Africa and other parts of the world.

In general, the national museum excluded all references to the parts of Ghana’s global past that were problematic. It contained references to European contact but not to the slave trade. The documents excluded the anti-colonial narrative of colonial exploitation or resistance.

Over the following decades certain changes were made in a bid to adjust the museum to new demands. In the 1990s, for instance, the history of the transatlantic slave trade was included. This enabled visitors from the African diaspora to find their past too.

In 2015 the museum was closed for reparation and restoration. When it opened in 2022, it started with a clean slate.

What now?

The museum has been beautifully restored, and is worth a visit for all who appreciate modernistic architecture from the independence era.

But I have a few criticisms.

The new exhibition is entitled “Unity in Diversity”, which I think is an excellent title. But the opening exhibition fails to explore or discuss this. What does diversity entail? How is it connected to tolerance and acceptance?

Also, as in 1957, difficult histories are excluded. The transatlantic slave trade is not discussed. Nor is the colonial period.

In general, the museum seems unfinished. But this can be a good thing: it allows the museum staff to continuously develop the exhibitions and invite new forms of participation from visitors. Rather than telling the singular “history” of Ghana, it could tell many histories of Ghana – from perspectives that also bring out the diversity of country.

Museums are potentially important places for dialogue and discussions. The National Museum in Ghana can be a place where people use their diverse experiences from the past to discuss how to solve issues in the present.

Jon Olav Hove does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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