18 May has been celebrated worldwide as the International Museum Day since 1977 after an initative of the International Council of Museums (ICOM). According to ICOM:
This day is an occasion to raise awareness on how important museums are in the development of society.
For the cause of this blog, we thus find it important to give an example of how a museum can fail this objective. The case is the Merowe Dam Archaeological Salvage Project and the building of the Merowe Museum in Sudan.
When the call for salvage archaeology in the Fourth Cataract region was issued in 2003 by the National Corporation of Antiquities and Museums (NCAM) during the building of the Merowe Dam, it was proposed to build a museum exhibiting the artefacts from the Merowe Dam campaign at Al-Multaga, the first resettlement site to be built for the affected people.
When the salvage campaign was well established with many international teams working in the Fourth Cataract, NCAM shifted the policy and decided instead to build the museum at the dam site. This was naturally provoking to the Manasir Executive Committee, one of the democratically elected local committees aiming at representing the affected people. The representatives became strongly opposed to the building of the museum outside the region inhabited by the affected people – and especially at the site of the Merowe Dam, which is not only a symbol of the destruction of their land, but also in a neighbouring tribal territory. Ali Askouri, one of the leaders, expressed it like this:
(…) our history is given to another community (Sudan Tribune 27.02.2007).
The building of the museum for the region to be flooded at the dam site, was probably the final drop of provocations for the representatives of the affected people, for all archaeologists were expelled from working in the land of the Manasirs by their tribal representatives. They subsequently issued a statement saying that the request for the archaeologists to leave followed:
(…) the failure of the government to honour an undertaking that archaeological treasures salvaged from the reservoir area would not be removed to distant museums’ (Sudan Tribune 27.02.2007).
The Dam Implementation Unit finally financed a new museum in the town of Merowe, which was officially opened by President al-Bashir on 3 March 2009 – the same day as he inaugurated the Merowe Dam. However, the exhibition focuses on the region of Napata and Merowe.
Neither the people of the Fourth Cataract nor the fate of their land were mentioned on the posters in the displays, when the museum was previewed in 2010. The museum remains closed for visitors until this day… It seems like the Dam Implementation Unit has used funds for building a museum for the affected people to construct the Merowe Museum (and resort) for a neighbouring tribe and region.
As ICOM and the International Museum Day remind us, it is important to have local and regional museums in order to represent subordinate or alternative identities and for the past to be more accessible for people living outside the capitals. Local museums should be built in the region of the people that they represent. In the case of the Fourth Cataract, where the land is flooded and the people uprooted, the museum should be built where the majority of the displaced people live, i.e. at one of the resettlement sites.
The article Ethical implications of salvage archaeology and dam building: The clash between archaeologists and local people in Dar al-Manasir, Sudan by Henriette Hafsaas-Tsakos concludes the matter like this:
In my opinion, the heritage that archaeologists uncovered in the Fourth Cataract will become an important focus for identity maintenance in the future, as the people of the Fourth Cataract have been uprooted from their familiar natural and cultural landscape. It is thus essential that they have access to the interpretations of their history as well as the collected remnants of their heritage, so that they can use archaeology to form their own narratives and understandings of their past and thus grasp the implications for their present and future.