It great when your expectations are surpassed or former impressions overturned, so I was delighted to revise my first impression of the Uganda Museum, formed in December, when I first visited. My experience of museums in Africa has been to expect little and not be too disappointed by what you find. In Lagos, the museum is in a large compound, and while I was there, put on a wonderful exhibition of Ife Bronzes.
But behind the scenes, storage facilities were poor and the library lost valuable documents every rainy season due to leaks in the roof. In Abuja, the museum is a little known room on the second floor of an obscure block, which is locked unless you request access to look at some very dusty glass cases.
In Sierra Leone, the original building housing the museum, had been a railway station, then the telephone exchange, so was itself of historic interest. The displays had been revamped and there were enthusiastic guides on hand to tell visitors about the museum.
In one corner was this bicycle, which the guide told us had been ridden, in the 1960s, between Sierra Leone and Uganda – and presumably, back again! – a journey of some 7350km each way, according to Google maps, which says cycling option is not available! You will notice the lack of gears or any luggage space!
So, although Uganda is rather more developed than Sierra Leone, I did not get up my hopes when visiting the museum for the first time. The building itself is attractive as an example of modern architecture: thankfully a battle was won in the courts a few years ago to prevent its demolition and replacement with a glass tower block. The design, by a German architect, Ernst May, allows natural light to illuminate the interior. The rotunda in the central hall is particularly striking.
Despite being illuminated, the displays disappoint. They must have been state of the art when the museum moved to this building in 1954, but museums have advanced somewhat since then, becoming interactive and innovative in displaying material to inspire inquiry. The static, dusty cabinets with curled, faded labels fail to engage visitors. So this was the impression I left with having spent a couple of hours trying to appreciate the artefacts.
So, imagine my surprise when I returned and ventured outside! I had seen on the internet pictures of different thatched huts and wanted to see if they were still there. Yes, they are! and well worth exploring. I didn’t have time on this occasion to visit each one (you might be glad of this…) but the ones I did investigate were fascinating, from the variety of outward appearances, to the construction of the roof, the use of different materials, different division of space and the furnishings inside.
I love the interior of this roof!
Another surprise at the back of the museum was a ramshackle collection of old cars under a makeshift cover. There were a couple of bulletproof 4WDs, which had proved their worth, now riddled with bullet marks. A couple of other prestige cars, including the last Governor’s Rolls Royce, lie abandoned beside some more work-a-day models the significance of which escaped me.
There is the metal skeleton of a new transport wing under construction behind the main building, but little work going on and no opening date advertised.
Before I left the museum compound I have another pleasant surprise in discovering a craft shop in two thatched huts to the left of the museum building as you enter the compound. [And a less pleasant surprise when I stubbed my toe on a small concrete step en route :(] This shop is run by the National Association of Womens’ Organisations in Uganda [NAWOU] which encourages the economic empowerment of women, particularly through skilled craft work. The shop is full of colourful wares.
I wished I knew a toddler for whom I could buy a giraffe or zebra on wheels! There were also textiles and local honey, more wood carving and beads. I encourage anyone in Kampala to shop here and support the women.
Perhaps my lesson learned is sometimes its worth giving a place a second chance to impress and, do your homework on what to expect, so you don’t miss the best bits!