A broken museum, in a broken country: Meet the man trying to save CAR’s history

The national museum of the Central African Republic has seen better days.

Located on one of the diagonal dirt roads that bisect the boulevards in Bangui, the museum is housed in a ramshackle double-storey building that used to be the residence of Barthélemy Boganda, the country’s first president.

Today, the building is falling apart. The walls are cracking, the window frames are warped, and the cream and mud-brown paint job is peeling off. Worst of all, the roof leaks, endangering thousands of priceless historical artefacts.

It’s Abel Kotton’s job to preserve and, eventually, display those artefacts. He is the director of the museum, with a mandate to catalogue the collection, and turn the museum once again into a proud showcase of Central African history.

It is a daunting task. “This museum is the country’s ancestral heritage. It’s meant to bring the country together. But right now, it’s closed,” he said.

His office is on the ground floor, his simple wooden desk perched in front of a stone wall. The wall itself, patterned to resemble leopard print, is a relic of an altogether more ostentatious era.

Opened in 1966, the museum brought together items of artistic, cultural or archaeological significance from all 16 of the country’s provinces. But in 2014, as civil war broke out — an ongoing conflict — the exhibits were hastily boxed up to prevent looting or damage. The museum was shuttered and has yet to reopen its doors, despite the fading sign outside that proclaims that opening hours are from 9am to 3.30pm.

[Central African Republic national museum (Simon Allison)]

Kotton has a lot of work to do. “First, we have to fix the leaks. Then secure the windows. Eventually, we want to build a new foyer to welcome visitors, maybe a coffee shop for refreshments and a souvenir shop so you can buy something on your way out.

“And we need a website. Museums must be virtual these days. Have you ever heard of a museum without a website?”

Kotton estimates that the complete overhaul will cost 70‑million CFA francs ($126 440). “We’re looking for partners who can help us rehabilitate the museum,” he says.

The crates in which the collection was so hastily stored are upstairs. They look like oversized wooden coffins, and there are dozens and dozens of them. Many of the pieces inside have lost their labels; it will be difficult, if not impossible, to catalogue them again.

The few that have been unpacked, however, reveal an extraordinary wealth of history.

The artefacts include Puehl milk containers, traditional handmade rifles, a collection of cooking utensils from the marginalised Pygmy community and all kinds of traditional jewellery. There are one-of-a-kind tools, decorations and souvenirs from all over the country, and from each of its many ethnicities, all gathering dust and in danger of decay from being exposed to rain and humidity.

In one corner, a taxidermised gorilla stands tall; in another, the official imperial emblem of Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa leans casually against the wall.

“That’s why I won’t authorise you to take photographs up here,” says Kotton. “To have the imperial emblem on the floor like that strips the emperor of his dignity. We are working here to restore the dignity of our history.”

Outside, in the museum’s unkempt, untended garden, Kotton dares to imagines what his museum could become. “In time, this will be a proper museum,” he says. “People will be coming here from all over the country. Muslims, Christians — it doesn’t matter; they will come here to learn.”

But now, with so much work still to be done, Kotton’s vision feels far from reality. “The museum itself is a display case,” he says. “A display case for a country.”

As it stands, the national museum’s display is disorganised, damaged and in grave danger of further deterioration. It’s an all-too-apt metaphor for the country itself.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison, The Continent
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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