The Paradox and Plight of the Uganda National Museum

Ideas and Issues
diarama from Uganda National Museum of log musical instrument

            Kampala         Sunday was catchup day in Kampala.  Time to finally answer some emails left hanging, pull the pieces of Social Policy together for another issue, and generally check some boxes off on my daily “to do” list that were getting moldy from constant repetition and no action.  Before coming I had heard that a visit to Jinja, about 80 kilometers away, was a “must,” because of the town’s beautiful setting at the source of the Nile in Lake Victoria.  That was not to be, but I asked my colleagues, how about the Uganda National Museum, would it be open and worthwhile?  Yes, they replied, absolutely open, but it seemed neither had been there. 

            I stepped out onto Bombo Road at mid-afternoon to flag a motorcycle ride to the museum.  Knowing it was near the British Embassy and what is locally called the “new hospital,” gave the driver a frame of reference, and we made it alive, probably because it was a Sunday.

            No one was at the reception desk.  A woman came over from the knickknacks shop promising to take my money and get the change when someone showed up.  It seemed I had the museum to myself, though later three adults came in for a bit, as did a mother with a couple of children.

            Tile was cracking, paint peeling, and layers of dusk sometimes made it difficult to see clearly through the cases, but once I got past the minimal maintenance and pressed my nose to the glass, the ethnological content and basic science in the few main halls of the museum were excellent and consistently informative.  There were some rocks of course and the obligatory few pictures of local animals and one large comparison of apes, but these were cursory.  The main story was the where, why, and how of larger Ugandan tribes with extensive displays of fishing and hunting equipment, lodging arrangements, prehistoric sites, and more. 

I’m a big fan of dioramasin natural history museums, and I was rewarded with several on display, though they may have been fifty years old or more. Not only was there an excellent one on cave dwellers living and production areas, though it was almost impossible to see clearly, but also one featuring a way that music was made by hitting a log.

side blow trumpets

The several display cases detailing how various tribes made music were amazing.  There were huge side blow trumpets and other instruments made from gourds or bows played with teeth.  There were turtle shell tambourines and animal skin drums.  The inventiveness was constant.  As a visitor, I wanted to hear them played right now, since the displays were so compelling.

There were also several brilliant displays that featured bark cloth, which is exactly as it seems, cloth made from the bark of a tree in the ficus family.  The garments were special given the labor involved and the beauty of the final product, used more often for funerals, ceremonies, and royalty displays.

The only somewhat semi-modern displays were promotions for international oil and gas companies and hydroelectric projects.  The whole oil production process from exploration to refinery was laid out, panel after panel, as if the national museum were a higher form of a high school science fair somewhere in Louisiana or Texas where oil is king.  The companies had gotten a donation of an out-of-date gas pump from the French oil giant, Total, and facsimile trucks from the oil services giant, Halliburton, think Dick Cheney, and Baker-Hughes,now a GE-subsidiary.  Somehow the museum had been hijacked, perhaps willingly, from an old commitment to ethnography of the country to the new partnership of exploitation. 

The Uganda National Museum display area is not large.  An hour exhausted the offering fully.  I walked back out to the street looking for another motorcycle ride back to my hotel with a lot more knowledge about Uganda than when I walked in, but a sadness for this treasure’s disarray and the attempts to exploit its mission for corporate promotion, even if somewhat half-heartedly.

I live in a city that touts itself as one that “care forgot,” and this museum carried that same slogan, unwittingly, written in dust and disuse.

corporate propaganda from Halliburton

Please enjoy Summer’s End by John Prine.