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.

Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Africa Editor for @MailandGuardian. Also @ISSAfrica.
Advertisting

Inside Uganda’s controversial ‘pregnancy crisis centres’, where contraception is discouraged

Undercover investigation shows that controversial US-linked centres are defying government policy and providing inaccurate medical information

Coronavirus reaction: Sinophobia with Western characteristics

Western media has racialised the coronavirus outbreak, leading to increased Sinophobia in several countries. Such dehumanisation of a race has no place in functioning democracies

Golding opportunity for kleptocrats

Government must take steps to clean up the country’s dirty real estate market, which has long offered a safe haven for criminals

SAA’s rescue men fly in defiance

The airline’s business rescue practitioners ignored a warning not to announce route closures and possible job cuts ahead of a restructuring plan
Advertising

Press Releases

Response to the report of the independent assessors

VUT welcomes the publishing of the report of the independent assessors to investigate concerns of poor governance, leadership, management, corruption and fraud at the university.

NWU student receives international award

Carol-Mari Schulz received the Bachelor of Health Sciences in Occupational Hygiene Top Achiever Award.

Academic programme resumes at all campuses

Lectures, practicals, seminars and tutorials will all resume today as per specific academic timetables.

Strategic social investments are a catalyst for social progress

Barloworld Mbewu enables beneficiaries to move away from dependence on grant funding

We all have a part to play to make South Africa work

Powering societal progress demands partnerships between all stakeholders

So you want to be a social entrepreneur?

Do the research first; it will save money and time later

Social entrepreneurship means business

Enterprises with a cause at their core might be exactly what our economy desperately needs

Looking inwards

Businesses are finding tangible ways to give back – but only because consumers demand it