The Liberia National Museum, that age-old national heritage structure at the corner of Broad and Buchanan Streets, has stood the test of time, through many governments, through thunderous rain and shine, many wars and peace. For the generations that knew its significance, it is one of the few remaining land mark structures in the country that represents Liberia during “normal-days” and even more than a century before that. A monument in its own right, the Museum’s solid external shell itself is
153 years of history, as of this year. But on the inside, the building and all that it represents has been dying a slow, painful death that not many can comprehend.
Badly in need of a renovation and restoration, the Museum’s two upper floors are death traps. Warning signs on the two upper levels call the attention of visitors to beware of soft spots on the decaying wooden floors. Visitors have to walk gently not as a matter of museum etiquette, but primarily for their own safety. The entire building has one working toilet, no running water, inadequate lighting and barely a handful of original relics that have remained there since the civil war that ended in 2003. A gigantic drum, donated to President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf on her inauguration in 2006 as a gift from the people of River Gee County, stands tall at the entrance of the museum but is also decaying.
All other artworks featured in the museum since the end of the war have included ongoing exhibitions of paintings and photography done by various groups of Liberian and expatriate artists, as well as some imported sculptures that were on loan to the museum by local merchants, simply to have something to show.
Now that the Government of Liberia has set aside a budget to “fully renovate” the museum, cultural advocates are skeptical. Many argue that the plan is not new. In 2012, the government attempted a renovation, which turned out to be only minor repairs, rather than a full-scale renovation. With expectations of a renovation being unmet at the time, artists and cultural advocates were disappointed.
The lack of confidence from cultural advocates toward this latest plan by the government comes as no surprise as GOL has failed to execute series of projects aimed at preserving the nation’s decaying cultural heritage. Many suspect that high level corruption in this government will hamper the actual vision for the project.
The renovation of the National Museum is however a late bid to boost public confidence and demonstrate that government can protect and preserve the values of Liberian culture. The cost of the upcoming renovation project, which includes structural works as well as installation of running water and electricity, is valued at US$345,000. However, government has not announced a specific date to kickoff the project.
The National Museum Director Albert Markeh said the pending renovation of the museum will prove critics’ wrong notion that government cannot take care of its full responsibility.
“I cannot comment on the technical aspect of the project, but the renovation of the museum is needed in order to save the small, remaining cultural artifacts for future generations,” he said.
However, Madam Louise McMillian, Assistant Minister for Culture at the Ministry of Information Cultural Affairs and Tourism (MICAT), said in an interview last week that work on the museum will commence this month but did not disclose project time frame.
“All those items that are partly or fully damaged will be restored and preserved for future generations,” Min. McMillian said. “When the renovation is completed, it will restore the museum’s dignity as a place to learn about the country’s heritage.”
Cultural advocates however say they may very well remain skeptical until they see the final outcome of the project.
“To tell you that some corruption is in the making,” says Peter Brown, a sculptor based in Caldwell, “the project doesn’t have a specific time frame.”
Clearing the air, many have cited numerous let-downs on the part of Government in terms of much needed security and protection for the arts and cultural heritage sector. The most hurtful in recent time, according to many cultural practitioners, was when the Government of Liberia turned over the historic Kendeja Cultural Center 2008 to an African-American billionaire, Robert L. Johnson, to build his hotel resort. At least US$50,000 was transferred to GOL coffers for the relocation and rebuilding of the cultural center, which up to now has not materialized.
Despite government failure in the past to promote the Liberian people culture and develop ruin historical site for future generation, the renovation of the museum is a crucial step to fade away some criticism.
Internationally acclaimed Liberian artist Leslie Lumeh says though this renovation plan is not anything new, “let’s just wait and see. The fact that money was given before and partial renovation was done, it is possible that the same could still happen.
But the renovation of the museum should be done in good faith.” Lumeh, who is founder Executive Director of the Liberia Visual Arts (LiVArts) Academy, believes that once the renovation is done, “perhaps it will convince people out there to repatriate some of the art works that were taken out of the country during the civil war.”
“One is better them zero,” says Siafa K. Ballah, Vice President for Administration Liberia Culture Union, “so for me, the renovation is a welcome idea.” Ballah, whose legendary father, the late Peter Ballah, led the Liberia National Cultural Troupe for many years before the war, is taking the news of the renovation with unique optimism. “I commend government for this timely initiative to save the heritage from dying, but hope that they have a good implementation system and transparency with exist.”
Many citizens interviewed hold the view that as soon as this renovation is completed things will change.
However, any possible failure for government not to deliver on it Promise will increase more criticism from the public, and supporters of the project will see it as crackdown on culture.