A national cultural icon turns 50

02 Oct 2018

What began as one man’s dream became an important national institution that is central to preservation of Botswana’s heritage, writes MESH MOETI

Nineteen-sixty-eight was a year of events that defined the 20th Century. And the world has never been the same again. From the Prague Spring, worldwide student protests against the Vietnam War, the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, shocking images of malnourished and starving Biafran children during the Nigerian Civil War, to Apollo 8’s orbit of the moon on Christmas eve, 1968 is regarded as one of the most tumultuous single years in history.

Something else happened that year.

On Monday 30 September 1968, Acting President Quett Masire opened the Botswana National Museum and Art Gallery before an audience of about 200 invited guests. It was the second anniversary of Botswana’s independence, and the event capped the effort that had been almost two years in the works. For one man in particular, it was realisation of a dream.  That man was Alec Campbell.

Botswana is yet to accord Campbell respect and recognition he so richly deserves.

In May 1966, with independence just a few months away, Campbell had taken a rather odd step to write, in his private capacity (very important to note because he was then also employed in the public service) to the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs, Jimmy Allison, to suggest that the administration should make plans to create a museum. The response came a few weeks afterwards. Campbell was tasked with seeing to it that his dream came to fruition. He was to start the museum, in his private capacity, while government pledged to assist him. That meant driving project on top of his day job as Senior Game Warden in the Department of Wildlife and National Parks. He was made Honorary Curator of the envisaged Botswana National Museum. In that capacity, he served with various governing bodies of the Museum that at various times were known as the museum board, the museum committee, or the board of trustees, until it was turned into a government department.

From the “Minutes of the fourth meeting of the Museum Committee held at Gaberones on Friday 15th September 1967”, we see that Campbell is part of an 11-member team chaired by Amos Dambe, the Minister of Home Affairs. The committee had a wide representation drawn from different government agencies such as Ministries of Commerce, Industry and Water Affairs; Works and Communications; Education, Health and Labour; as well as Geological Survey Department, and the Attorney General’s Chambers, as well as from the traditional leadership. Being the lead agency, the ministry of home affairs also provided the secretary. It is hardly surprising, given the dynamics of the time when Botswana’s civil service was dominated by expatriates and volunteers from different donor countries of Europe, that the representatives of the various government agencies in the committee were mainly expats.

While Campbell’s idea was for a museum, when the matter was discussed in government a decision seems to have been taken to widen the scope to include a national gallery. So a bill was drawn to establish a National Museum and Art Gallery by an Act of Parliament. It was envisaged that the entity would be run as a quango.  

Even before the Parliament passed the National Museum and Art Gallery Act, Minister Dambe – acting on the advice of the Museum Committee at its meeting of 15th September 1967– set up a new governing body, to be known as the Museum Board. Chaired by Chief Bathoen II of Bangwaketse, the Board also comprised Campbell, J. R. Crawford, D. R. Kent, George Sim, A Stephen, and Ben Thema, the Minister of Education, Health and Labour.

A public appeal for contributions towards the national museum and art gallery was launched under the Office of the President. In the 1968 Annual Report, the Board chairman – Bathoen II – would enthusiastically state that from inception, the public’s response to the appeal had been overwhelmingly enthusiastic – “greater than originally... anticipated”, were his words. An architect in the Government Architect’s Office, Clarke, was commissioned to draw plans for the museum building.

The project was put to tender in October 1967, and was awarded to Richard Costain Ltd, at the cost of R29, 500. Interestingly, the Board had decided to postpone the building of the art gallery “for a few years in order that the museum might be securely stabilised”. However, that did not stop the Board from taking a decision to devote some of the museum’s funds each year towards purchase of artworks for the national collection and to use one of the rooms in the building under construction for art exhibitions.

The contractor completed the project and handed it over in May 1968, allowing Campbell and his two-man volunteer team that consisted Crawford of the Attorney General’s Chamber and Dr Child, a FAO expert who had been seconded to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, to put together a temporary display in time for the September 30 official opening. Archival material shows that the Board had big ambitions. For instance, a plan was already in motion to set up a permanent display that was projected to last for 25 years.

But big ambitions need fulltime staff to implement them.

An advert was put out for an assistant curator, and from the shortlist of eight, a 28-year-old teacher at Moeding College was picked to be the museum’s first employee. What seems to have put Doreen Nteta on a pedestal higher than other applicants for the job was that she had university education. She had a BA in anthropology from South Africa’s Rhodes University. She would go to Britain on a nine-month UNESCO fellowship in November 1969 to work and study at the Horniman Library and the British Museum. The generosity of the UN agency did not end there. It further pledged to sponsor another recent employee Alice Rampa to train for nine months in Nigeria.

Other than the few fulltime staffers and other unpaid helpers, the museum appears to have benefitted from international volunteer organisations such as The United States Peace Corps. In one instance, the Peace Corps was said to have generously agreed to extend the stay of one Miss L. Farmer for an additional six months at the end of her 11-month tour. She was reported to have spent part of her time in Kanye where she had collected artefacts, folk stories, early history, and made a study of customary society amongst the Bangwaketse. She was also said to have reorganised the Bangwaketse Museum in Kanye that was, coincidentally, started by Chief Bathoen II.

In April 1968, government had agreed to make annual grant of R3, 000 to the museum to assist with running expenses. Later, this was increased to R5, 000. But the spectre of inadequate funding was already looming over the arts and heritage sector. Even with the state’s subvention, Chief Bathoen II would still bemoan that, “Owing to shortage of funds it was not found possible to increase the staff to the extent that was needed”. Then he warns that “it [is] impossible to keep caretakers in each gallery and as a result... some...valuable material was stolen”.

“My Board’s greatest worry,” he wrote, “is how to finance a Museum and Art Gallery in terms of the Act which established it: to provide an efficient Museum and Art Gallery service in Botswana. To do this, it is estimated that by 1973, the museum will require a minimum of R15, 000 running expenses annually, if its staff is to be adequately trained and paid, and it is to provide even part of the service required of it.”

The 1968 temporary exhibition made way for an enlarged and redesigned one in 1969, which was also enlarged and redesigned twice in the two successive years. Three new galleries were added to the original buildings – which had consisted of three galleries, one of which was used as an art gallery. The new additional space allowed the museum to a taxidermy workshop.

It was light years before Botswana attained middle income status, and the donor community was generous to local development efforts. For instance, in 1973, the Danish International Development Agency (DANIDA) made what was described as a “substantial grant”, through which an auditorium and Art Gallery.  The Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA) agreed to provide volunteer staff.

The museum was closed to the public throughout 1974 to allow for construction of a permanent display. The 1974 annual report notes that “since so much money has been made available by donor agencies and the public, the displays must be of must be of a very high standard and adequately fulfil the purpose for which it is erected”. However, it appears attracting and retaining the adequately trained and experienced personnel for the task proved a challenge. In one instance, a Swede who had been hired to curate the permanent display quit before he even started after Denver Museum of Natural History in the United States offered him a post “with a salary in excess of three times what this museum can pay”.

Against the Board’s doubt about the advisability of such a move, the National Museum and Art Gallery became a government department in 1st April 1976, with none other Alec Campbell as its first director.

Interestingly, and despite the ideological differences that existed between Botswana and Rhodesia, in the early years the National Museum and Art Gallery seems to have had good relations with like-minded organisations in the neighbouring country. In 1967, it received a collection of railway historical items relating to the construction and operation of the railway “during the end of the last century” from the Rhodesia Railways Historical Committee. The items had been part of a collection mounted in the Rhodesia Railways Museum in Bulawayo.

The National and Art Gallery grew into an iconic cultural centre of excellence. From the late 1970s up to 1985, when South African refugees were forced to flee, it was Botswana’s epicentre of cultural resistance against South Africa’s apartheid regime. The museum was the spiritual home of Medu Cultural Ensemble, which comprised both locals and South African exiles such as the famed artist Thami Mnyele, who was killed in the 14 June 1985 Raid on Gaborone by the apartheid regime’s commandos.

Today, the National Museum, Art Gallery and Monuments turns 50 and it’s a behemoth with a staff complement of about 150. Perhaps, this is a fitting moment to honour the organisation’s founding luminary – Alec Campbell.