The idea of a ‘village museum’ seems a curious paradox is it a village, or is it a museum? Perhaps it is neither in the conventional sense. It is certainly not a living village, but rather a collection of authentic furnished homesteads representing some of Tanzania’s many different rural cultures. Nor is it a museum in the traditional sense (there is not a glass case to be seen). All 16 houses can be entered, and there are plenty of objects to see and handle. The Kiswahili word ‘makumbusho’, ‘reminders’, is more apt here than the English ‘museum, with its classical muse associations. Herein lies not only the unique charm of the place, but also the real importance of the site.
The museum was founded in 1967 by two anthropologists, Tom Wylie and Peter Carter. The idea was not original, but in the Tanzanian context it had a particular significance at that time. By representing the diverse cultures of the newly-independent nation, it was like a microcosm of the country as a whole. From the start, the museum was built by Tanzanians, for Tanzanians. Representatives of the different ethnic groups built their own distinctive houses on the 8 ha site. The location in Dar es Salaam (next to the New Bagamoyo Road) was also significant, enabling people who had moved to the city to retain contact, and take pride in, their rural roots.
Since its inception, The Village Museum -in common, it must be said, with most rural life museums in the UK -has had its ups and downs. By the early 1990s, it was apparently suffering from a serious shortage of funds and qualified staff and was threatened with closure. Since 1993, however, there has been a remarkable revival in fortunes. Staffing arrangements were restructured giving The Village Museum access to greater expertise. A grant through the Swedish African Museum Partnership (SAMP) enabled repairs to be carried out and new houses to be constructed. More recently, responsibility for the museum has passed from the Education Ministry to Tourism and Culture showing a new awareness of the site’s potential.
So what of the museum today? Undoubtedly it is in very good hands. The Director General and staff of the National Museums of Tanzania have a strong sense of the museum’s responsibilities to the wider community and are keen to support its future development. The Curator, Jackson Kihiyo, who is a social anthropologist, has energy and imagination as well as a clear vision for the museum. It was a great pleasure to welcome him to Norfolk for a week’s visit in September. He has recently franchised the operation of the museum cafe to a first rate caterer who specialises in traditional dishes. Dance displays are now presented every week-end, while artists and craftspeople (such as Petre Paulo Mawige, a clay sculptor of striking originality) work on site on a commission basis.
More significantly, perhaps, has been the development, since 1994, of the Ethnic Days programme, when, for two or three days (and attended by thousands), groups of people from particular ethnic groups present a cultural festival of music, dance, popular crafts and foods. They also bring with them records of their own lives, histories and traditions, which museum staff will compile into books for posterity. The Maasai book will be published soon. The museum’s Education Officer, Lucina Shayo, runs an imaginative programme for schools and has also raised funds and organised special events for some of Dar es Salaam’s ‘hidden’ children -the blind, disabled and mentally handicapped.
So what of the future? Clearly, The Village Museum has a great deal going for it. But it also has its difficulties. Shortage of funds can cramp new initiatives. There is no photocopier or printer, no OHP or slide projector and only one computer with E-mail but not internet access. The overall visitor experience could be enhanced by improved interpretation on site -the existing panels are informative, but brief, and lacking the photographic references which could help ‘people’ the houses. A new guidebook is needed. The many different species of trees and shrubs on site could be labelled, and trails devised to focus on natural history or maths activities. A themed adventure playground would help to cater for family needs, and everyone would benefit from more seats around the site.
Some of these projects have already been costed by museum staff, and business sponsorship is being sought to help with funding. The museum’s impressive thatched hall could provide an ideal venue for business conferences, training events and presentations, which would all help with funding (it recently made an atmospheric setting for a film festival). Next year, I plan to work at the museum in a voluntary capacity from July to December, helping with fundraising, educational resources and displays. I hope that during 2002, we will be able to host an exhibition about Tanzanian village life in Norfolk, including residencies by museum staff and craft makers. Meanwhile, some useful contacts have been established through the British Council and local Rotary clubs (who have funded a promotional leaflet).
Website http://www.homestead.com/villagemuseum/index.html is also under construction. Please take a look at it -and, of course, be sure to visit the museum when you are next in Tanzania!