C o m m o n w e a l t h
A s s o c i a t i o n o f
M u s e u m s
CAM Bulletin Number 5 - Dec. 1998
Ghana: A Museum Development Project
In 1989, the then Regional Minister in Ghana, Mr. Ato Austin, visited the United States to seek funding assistance for a major development that would "present its rich history and unique character before the eyes of the world and to draw tourists to the country. The heart of the concept was to set up museums in two of the 30 ancient European coastal fortresses, not far from Accra, and, close by, to establish a national park, preserving a bit of rain forest and the wildlife native to it." This visionary project is so described and richly portrayed in Ghana: The Chronicle of a Museum Development Project in the Central Region, published by The Smithsonian Institution in 1997.
The result of that visit was the financial support of USAID and technical and management assistance of five major US non-governmental organizations including the Midwest Universities Consortium for International Activities (MUCIA), the grant manager, and The Smithsonian Institution, who received and managed the grant for museum development under the project management of Dr. Vera Hyatt, Director, African and Caribbean Projects, Office of International Relations. The five year project saw the realization and vitalization of the idea into museums at Elmina and Cape Coast Castles and the establishment of the National Park at Kakum, just north of Cape Coast, with a visitor centre, trails, towers and walkways and interpretive programmes.
The two fortresses, Elmina, built by the Portuguese in 1482 and the oldest European structure in sub-Saharan Africa, and Cape Coast Castle, constructed by the Swedes in 1653 but eventually a British possession until Ghana's independence, were already World Heritage Sites and offered exciting opportunities to bring Ghana's coastal cultural heritage to life in a colourful and impressive setting. Cape Coast Castle already housed a small museum but both structures urgently needed repair and stabilization with as much attention to traditional building materials and methods as possible combined with the provision of modern facilities for adequate visitor services and access and museum requirements. Elmina Castle required more extensive restoration work before it would be suitable for larger more comprehensive museum exhibitions and programmes.
Planning for the interpretation of the sites was the joint work of teams from the Smithsonian and Ghana Museum and Monuments Board (GMMB). Dr. Francis Duah, Director of the Central and Western Region, aided the process with guidance and assistance and, because of the scarcity of trained museum professionals especially in specialist areas, a group of young Ghanaians was selected to work on the project and encouraged to consider this a beginning of a museum career. Training was provided initially by a six months sojourn at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., U.S.A. A Content Committee of Ghanaian scholars and community leaders was also chosen to collaborate and contribute their expertise to develop the exhibition script. A similar team of museum experts in the specialist areas, mainly from the U.S., joined the recruits, the Content Committee, and several senior museum professionals from Ghana now including Kwesi Myles, to work on site to develop the exhibits.
The main exhibition for Cape Coast Castle "Crossroads of People, Crossroads of Trade" soon took on a life of its own telling the powerful and moving story in four distinct segments tied together by the underlying theme of trade. The sections treated firstly the history of Ghana from the earliest times through the stone tools, terra cotta figures, to the Iron Age and development of towns, the extraction and use of gold and the eventual arrival of the adventurers and traders from the Mideast and Europe. The second part relates the dramatic and gripping story of slavery through a more dynamic presentation of the hold of a square-rigged slave ship. The exhibit team felt the need to finish the story by telling of events in the New World, what happened to the slaves after they were forced from their African home, their leaders, their experiences, their courage and the persistence of the human spirit against adversity and hardship in a new land. Finally the excitement and independence of the present day republic of Ghana and the rich culture of the Cape Coast region would draw the threads together.
The project successfully opened the National Park in March 1994, the Cape Coast Castle Museum with its magnificent exhibition in December 1994 at the time of Panafest (a Pan African Festival) and the Elmina Castle with a panel exhibition "Images of Elmina Across the Centuries" and a small museum shop in August 1996.
There has been controversy over the project, not unexpected because of the international attention accorded to it and the intensely emotional nature of the slavery story and the nature of the project. At the same time, it has also been immensely successful and evaluated favourably.
The story of the exhibition is comprehensively told in the Smithsonian publication cited in the first paragraph. The account is informative, colourful and provides a useful description of the development of a major museum development project. It is available free of charge from The Smithsonian Institution, Office of International Relations, S. Dillon Ripley Center, Suite 3123, MRC 705, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560, U.S.A.
NOTE: Any Ghanaians involved in the project are welcome to write to the Bulletin with additional comments and remarks on the project and its impact in Ghana since 1996.