This is a feisty book which tackles the heavy legacy of colonial museums in Africa today. The authors carefully explain just how awkward a museum, as an institution founded to support race-based colonial assumptions, can be. Throughout Africa, colonizers built museums both to celebrate their own claims to technological superiority and to hold the indigenous people in place as curious others. This book demonstrates how such apparent handicaps can be turned inside out and put to good use. It includes a series of case studies of initiatives successfully undertaken at the Mutare Museum in Mutare, Zimbabwe.

As a guide not only to what is wrong with museums, but to a host of remedial actions, it is a book that should be of interest to anyone interested in museum management throughout Africa. In fact, it should be required reading for all decisionmakers and funders within the sector. The lessons can easily be extended to other places where the decolonization agenda is pursued.

The need for public historians to collaborate with the communities they wish to represent is nothing new. But this African example underscores just how important this still is in places where a museum is like a foreign country to its neighboring people. Through a serious commitment to changing such dynamics, the Mutare Museum became a community resource for meeting, discussing, and resolving issues. People felt welcomed and at home, thus inverting previous power dynamics.

Both authors currently work as academics in the sphere of historical studies, so present their findings in a professional but straightforward way. Additionally, Njabulo Chipangura worked at the museum for ten years, during which time the innovations took place, so he writes as a direct participant. Their analysis of the museum is placed within the framework of international museological best practice and theory.

The first case study is perhaps the most useful for other African museums who are intent on decolonizing their holdings. It shows how an old-fashioned, passive exhibition of African drums got transformed by energetic community participation. Interviews and filming at special events captured the sights and sounds of the meaning of drums for an entirely new exhibition. Practitioners explained the subtle spiritual values of drumming in today’s society. When local people enjoyed a strong curatorial role, they “considered themselves to be the higher voice, the purveyors of their own culture and holders of knowledge that the museum sought” (40). The living value of drums in the present replaced their role as mute curiosities of the past.

Mutare is perhaps best known to Zimbabweans as the place to go for mountain get-aways. It is Zimbabwe’s third largest city, on the eastern side of the country. What many outsiders do not know is that stone structures similar to those at Great Zimbabwe, an eleventh-century stone city, are scattered throughout the whole country. The Mutare Museum serves as caretaker for two such archaeological sites. The case studies relating to these are particularly interesting for two reasons. One is the challenge of working with contemporary communities to respect and preserve such ancient sites. The other is the fact that this kind of extended mandate, well outside the walls of a museum building, provides a viable model for the rest of Africa. In both case studies, the overriding goal was to abolish the “expert-vs-community” dichotomy (76). At Matendera, a sixteenth century walled city, the museum coordinates an annual festival. It includes performances of ancient cultural practices, as well as modern-day sports, singing, and cooking competitions, allowing for widespread participation. Thorough planning assigns key roles: local leaders oversee the food, singing, and sports events; NGO’s provide prize money; and the museum coordinates the extensive consultations which link the past and present. It established a “culture hut” onsite to offer interpretive materials for both locals and visitors, based on a balanced blending of archaeological knowledge and contemporary cultural practices. As the authors put it, the festival is about “intangible social activities that work towards a state of equilibrium by bringing people into direct contact with their heritage” (80).

The authors frankly admit that management of another site at Ziwa was much more fraught. The insistence by local people that they had a right to cut down trees within the heritage site had resulted in running battles with museum security guards. A thoughtful process of negotiations, led by the museum, however, resulted in a new by-law which stipulated when wood cutting was allowed, linked with guarantees that the community could use the site for its own traditional rain-making ceremonies. The museum also facilitated the addition of planned wood lots, as well as beekeeping to help meet local economic needs.

This direct activist approach to current issues is echoed in another case study. The museum mounted an exhibition which gave the local side of the story about the discovery of diamonds in Chiadzwa in 2006. A multimedia presentation shared peoples’ memories of first, rampant free-for-all diamond hunting, then forced removals from their homes to make way for a new mining company. The role of the museum as a site for exposing injustices eventually resulted in additional compensation for the displaced people, an end to martial-law measures, payment for the reburial of loved ones and setting up a community trust for profit-sharing.

The authors clearly embrace the term “new museology” to describe what guided the various projects. But they are perhaps too reticent in speaking about what forms of resistance they might have encountered. How did they contend with entrenched interests, including older museum professionals and outside stakeholders who might feel threatened by too much change? How did all these experiments get accepted and supported? If others are to learn from their exciting examples, resistance and how to handle it matters.

The public history sector in most of Africa remains heavily challenged by the competing interest of the tangible, which reflects the Eurocentric built environment, as opposed to the intangible aspects of African culture which take many forms. The authors show how the two worlds can be reconciled and how to turn the old into the service of the new. It starts with viewing the people living in the vicinity of the museum as both valuable sources of information and as necessary collaborators.

Julia Wells, Rhodes University in Makhanda