Sunday, 29 April 2012

Mali National Museum

Yesterday being Saturday, there was less obligation to be at work than usual. Obviously still *some* obligation to do work (report to edit to be submitted on Tuesday. Three proposals next week = trying to get the stuff I can get out of the way out of the way. Living the dream, I tell you). But also time to get out and do other stuff.

I have a Lonely Planet West Africa, which told me that the National Museum was interesting and informative, so I figured that while I had a relatively free Saturday I might as well go and see it. The two people I'm sharing a guesthouse appartment with (the guesthouse here consists of four three-bedroom apartments, and I'm sharing with two other women - Anne Solenne, who is the EFSL coordinator, and Christine, the regional M&E advisor normally based in Dakar) decided to come too, and as we were considering leaving Stefano, who has now been allowed to return from Dakar, wandered upstairs looking for coffee, and joined the gang.

Since nothing in life is ever easy, before going we had to work out if we were able to go. There were rumours of a demonstration in town, which might have made it unsafe to get to the museum in the town centre (though we might have been able to get in through the back). So we phoned around the Oxfam security tree to try and find out what was going on. No-one seemed to have heard anything, and the only evidence we could find for the demo was an update on the French embassy website posted last night, so we decided it was worth taking a chance - after all, if we were blocked we could always turn around and come back.

Turned out, though, that everything was fine, and our taxi dropped us safely outside the museum, which turned out to be definitely worth the visit. The first room was about fabrics, which are a core part of West African culture - not just the brightly coloured cotton pagnes that I've loved for years, though there was a great explanation of how they were made traditionally, but also indigo fabrics (traditionally a plant beaten into the cloth, now usually mixed with synthetics and dyed normally), woollen rugs, including a type known as mosquito-net rugs because they're usually hung around the marital bed to prevent mosquitoes getting in, and embroidered boubous, with explanations of the meanings of different types of embroidery. Lots to learn, not least the French for 'loom' and 'shuttle', and a beautiful exhibition.

Next up, masks. This was much harder to get my head around than the fabrics, because while I already knew a bit about fabrics so could figure out what it was probably saying even when I couldn't understand the words, I didn't know anything at all about masks. But masks are important to all the different ethnic groups in this area, often used by societies into which members of the group are initiated as they reach adulthood. The masks take different forms and have different functions - some resembling animals and designed to scare, others with different degrees of anthropomorphism, emphasising different features according to the culture of the group. I found some with small mouths, emphasising the virtue of judicious silence, particularly interesting!

The last room was statues and artefacts, which charted a pretty detailed history of the different cultures in Mali, how they've grown and shrunk over the last millennium, how they've interacted with one another, and their trade links with other parts of the world. Again, didn't follow it all - archaeological vocab also not being a strong point - but it was very interesting. One of the great things about this region, at least when I'm wearing my ex-historian hat, is that we know a lot more about it's early history than we do in more southern parts of Africa. This is partly because the climate - dry desert and mud by the Niger river - is good for preserving things, but also because Islam brought with it writing, which meant there was written history far earlier than in many other areas (though how accurate it is is another question). And where the history wasn't being written down by people from this region, there were Islamic geographers and travellers writing down what they found.

More disturbing was the labelling of the artefacts - almost all of them were labelled as having been looted and recovered in raids, or found by French customs. I wasn't clear where they were being looted from - the original sites or the museum - but it was clear that there has been enormous looting of Mali's historical heritage, and intuitively it seems likely that the recovered objects on display represent only a tiny fraction of what's been lost. Of course the issue is more complicated than that, and not just because I like being able to see Malian and other African stuff in the British museum. I remember in Uganda hearing about a British lady who had inherited the Kabaka's stool from her father. Of course it belongs in Uganda. But the stool still exists, whereas the Kabaka's drums were destroyed in Uganda's wars, and had the stool been in Uganda it would have been destroyed in the fire at the Kasubi tombs in 2010. Wars are bad for museums - see Iraq and Afghanistan - and Mali isn't particularly stable, so maybe the artefacts are better elsewhere. But the people of a country should be able to see their heritage. The person I'm replacing is going to run an African cultural exchange NGO based in South Africa, so I remind myself to ask her if her NGO does anything to work with museums on protecting and recovering artefacts.

Out of the museum (three rooms = good size for a museum!) there's a garden with scale models of famous Malian architecture. None of them were labelled, so I'm clearly going to have to do some research then go back and look again (will try and take someone who has a camera with me), but since I can't travel to the North to see any of them in real life (rebels/kidnapping = not so good for the tourists) it was nice to at least be able to wander round and get an idea of what they would look like. Overall, Mali National Museum = highly recommended if you ever happen to be in Bamako.

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