Sierra Leone’s National Heritage


The term museum is from ancient Greek, Mouseoin, which means “the place sacred to the museums.” According to Greek mythology, Mouseoin was the temple of the muse, the nine goddesses who presided over poetry, songs, art, sciences and learning. In Greek mythology, the nine goddesses were the daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods and Mnemosyne, the goddess of remembrance. The Greeks believed that the mice lived on Mount Olympus with their leader, the god Apollo (American Association of Museums, 2000). In the 3rd century BC under the rule of the Ptolemy dynasty, when the Greeks ruled over ancient Egypt, Ptolemy 1 Soter founded an institution for literary and scientific study in Alexandria and called it a museum. With the revival of learning during the Renaissance in the 15th century A.D. Italian scholars stored their collections of historical materials in rooms called museums. The Renaissance noblemen had also adorned their palaces with art, sculpture and curiosity collections. It was much later that private collections went over to public property and were displayed on display. For example, Pope Sixtus IV opened the Capitoline Museum to the public in 1447, and this was followed by Cesarini also in Rome. The first museum operated as a national institution was the British Museum in 1753 followed by the Palace of Louvre in Paris in 1793. Other famous museums are the Art Gallery, where Mona Lisa is portrayed, Metropolitan in New York, Prado in Madrid, the Hermitage in Petersburg (Leningrad) and the Smithsonian in Washington (Sears, 2006).


“There’s always something new from Africa,” said Pliny, who lived from 23-79 A.D. This huge continent in Africa has some many firsts. Northern Africa is believed to be the cradle of civilization that is ancient Egypt. It was in ancient Egypt that the first museum came into being. Further to the south are almost impossible barriers to desert and tropical forests, and beyond these lies the greater part of Africa known by the Arabs as Bilad-as-Sudan, the land of the black people. It was in this part of Africa in the Rift Valley of East Africa, also known as Eastern Sudan, that the oldest form of human life was discovered. Western Sudan (West Africa) boasts powerful ancient empires such as Ghana, Songhai, Mali and Kanem Bornu.

Sierra Leone also has a very rich and diverse heritage. She has an abundant natural life; her archaeological sites date back to the ancient Stone Age of Africa. Oral traditions date back to the time when the ancestors of the present inhabitants settled in their respective territories. There is a great diversity of countless secret societies with their associated cultural materials such as Poro, Bondo, Gbagbani, Kofo, Regbainlay and Mathoma Secret Sociations. There are also the ancient traditional arts and crafts monuments and relics that are reminiscent of people and events long ago. This legacy has been built upon over the years by works by sculptors, architects, painters, musicians, blacksmiths, goldsmiths and other creators of form and beauty. Until 1957, Sierra Leone had no museum. The Monument and Relics Commission of June 1, 1947, provided the basis for the protection and preservation of ancient, historical and natural monuments, relics and other objects of archaeological, ethnographic (traditional art) and historical or other scientific interest as provided by law. These historical relics were scattered all over the country, collecting dust and mold in government houses, while her ethnographic treasures were destroyed by breathing insects. In 1954, Sir Robert de Zouche Hall, a former Governor of the Sierra Leone Society, challenged the creation of a national museum for the country. According to the governor, this museum can contribute to the growth of national pride by collecting and preserving objects and making them available for contemplation and study. This challenge was taken up by M.C.F. Easmon and others with the formation of a museum selection (Cummings, 1996). The Old Cotton Tree railway station was acquired and rehabilitated by the government and opened on December 10, 1957. According to Sir Maurice Dorman, the National Museum was intended to collect, order and preserve the work of man’s hands that quickly disappeared from Sierra Leonean life. The National Museum, I added, ‘should be a place where the illiterate can be inspired by the display of what’s best in his culture, both in the past and the present, by keeping a record of Sierra Leone in posterity.’


The Sierra Leone National Museum covers three areas: Archeology, History and Ethnography. In the field of Archeology, there are great steatite (Klebersteins) heads, Maye Yafe or Chiefs’ devils. These are believed to bring good luck to the Chiefs and bad luck to the common man. There are numbers called Nomoli, which is a riddle and is of unknown antiquity. The curator believes these numbers go back to the Middle Ages. There is a large collection of poetry and pottery, and it is believed that some of the pots displayed at the museum date back to B.C. day. There is also an abundance of old Stone Age tools such as hackers, hand axes and polished New Stone Age tools along with many steatite drilled stones that were once used as currency and as digging weights. In the area of ​​History, the most prominent subject is the original charter of Sierra Leone signed in 1799 by King George III, making the settlement a British colony. There are also models of the Reuter Stone, which the admiral engraved his name upon firing Bunce and the Tasso Islands in 1664. Bunce Island was a depot where slaves were transported across the Atlantic. There are broadcasts of the late Sir Milton Margai, the first Prime Minister of Sierra Leone and Bai Bureh, the last warlord who fought the British from 1898-1902. There is also a wealth of materials drawn from the colonial era, such as cannon, staffs of chieftains, swords, medals, coins, photographs, paintings and documents. In ethnography (traditional art), there are fully dressed masked dancers, e.g. Bondo Society, Goboi, Chiefs regalia, Secret Society accessories, exquisite carved masks, human and animal carvings, indigenous musical instruments such as the drums integrated into African rituals of birth, initiation and death, textile, basket and other crafts. The Sierra Leone National Museum has a magnificent collection of artifacts and is truly a storehouse of the country’s cultural treasures (Sierra Leone National Museum Prospectus, 2013).


The Sierra Leone National Museum preserves the national heritage; it is a complex institution for research, education and culture. It is an instrument of mass education that meets the needs of the literate and illiterate, both young and old. School-aged children make up the largest public served by the National Museum through guided tours. Apart from school groups, individual children visit the museum every day. The museum exhibitions are more relevant to the school curricula more in disciplines such as history, social sciences, agricultural sciences and societies. Thus, essay and poster competitions are run by the Museum of Children. Since art is the most natural expression of people who cannot read and write the exhibitions in the National Museum, they are arranged so that they can speak for themselves. The museum is an important research center. It is research that brings the museum to life and makes it much more than an archive of dead objects. As a research center, the National Museum is the only place in the country where anyone can find such historical documents as the Sierra Leone Charter. Thus, students from both higher and tertiary institutions as well as researchers (locally and internationally) use extensive use of museum material to write their projects. Some of the topics that are widely researched in the museum are the origins of St. John’s Maroon Church, tourism as an instrument for socio-economic development, traditional schools in Sierra Leone in pre-colonial, colonial and contemporary, interment rituals by key leaders among various ethnic groups in the country and mining in pre-colonial Sierra Leone.

The Sierra Leone National Museum is not only established for elites and the scientific community, but also for providing a service to the public. The basic purpose of the museum is to enable the public to know and appreciate, under display conditions, the artifacts that the institution collects, preserves and protects. Admission to the museum is free because it is not only a national museum but also part of an international agreement (the International Council of Museum) of which the Sierra Leone National Museum is a signatory. Sierra Leoneans are aware that the National Museum is an integral part of local culture. The samples of the cultures represented at the museum are currently in use and people are aware of their existence and functions. Although the museum also interests the museum non-nationally, consisting mainly of European, American and Asian nationals, most of these are unaware of African culture in general and Sierra Leonean culture in particular. Paradoxically, the museum has affected both an informed and largely illiterate as well as educated and totally uninitiated audience. The following are a few notes from the museum’s visitor book:

• It’s spectacular, keep it up! (To Nigerian).

• We entered into African mysteries (an Italian).

• Very interesting! Very painful especially the slaves (an American).

• Most and the best experience in local history).

• Conserving our cultural heritage (A Sierra Leonean) goes a long way.

The Sierra Leone National Museum is an exhibition and communication center. It provides contact with real objects. It disseminates information about Sierra Leonean Art. Artworks are in themselves documents that are eloquent. From naturalistic figures in the museum, people can learn about the dress of the time. A sculptural piece reveals little more than the person portrayed. For example, a carved warrior or hunter in the museum displays the weapon type used at the time. The museum avoids ethnic distribution in the country of its objects. It aims to represent rather than point out local peculiarities. Eg. Are the rhythmic arts (musical instruments), professions (fishing gear, basket and pottery), cultural objects (insignia of Chiefs and dowry) and women’s activities (ornaments, combs and kitchen utensils) portrayed in the museum. The reason is that both urban and rural visitors are eager to see their life forms reflected in the “Ancestral Home”, which is the museum. When local visitors walk around the museum, they are attentively looking for tools, tools, weapons or familiar faces and usually or sometimes complain to staff when they are absent. In short, the museum plays a very important role at national and international level. It helps the public appreciate articles that illustrate history. As a repository for the national heritage, it helps people find the elements of their past and to acquire new spiritual wealth. In the Sierra Leoneans, the museum renews a sense of belonging to a particular civilization and stimulates within them the spirit of national pride and cohesion, which are essential ingredients in nation building.


The Sierra Leone National Museum is a member of several professional bodies both at home and abroad. It has been a member of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) since 1964. The Museum is also a member of the Organization of Museums, Monuments and Places in Africa (OMMSA), the cultural arm of the then African Unity Organization (OAU), in currently the African Union (AU). The museum is represented in the Arts Education Association of Sierra Leone, which previously organized arts festivals in schools and colleges; it is also represented on the Public Archives Commission and the Sierra Leone Association of Librarians, Archivists and Information Professionals (SLAALIP).

The Sierra Leone National Museum continues to enjoy cordial relations with UNESCO, which has assisted with staff training and equipment provision; the West African Museum Program in Dakar (WAMP), which has held several art preservation and conservation workshops. Foreign missions have also contributed tremendously to the development of the museum. For example, the Federal Republic of Germany in Sierra Leone listed an extension of the museum as a half-year gift. The French Embassy in Sierra Leone through the French Cooperation’s technical department rehabilitated the Old Cotton Tree Museum Building. The United States of America through the Department of the United States Information Services has on several occasions encouraged the curator to visit the United States, which has resulted in close links with the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, the Museum of African Art in Washington, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. The U S embassy was also instrumental in the twin relationship with the Museum of Coastal History, St. Simons Island, Georgia. Through these links, the museum provided the results of Indiana-American research projects, leaflets, calendars of upcoming events, posters and future exhibitions. Twinning with the Museum of Coastal History, St Simons Island, Georgia, USA has led to the study of “Trans-Atlantic Linkage-Sierra Leone and the Gullah / Geechee Connection.” There have been a series of exchange visits between curators and the Great Spring Lecture was held at Fort Frederica, St Simon Island in 1995. The same year a joint exhibition and symposium on “Trans-Atlantic Linkage” was held in Georgia.


One of the Sierra Leone National Museum’s primary concerns is how to combat theft and illegal export of cultural artifacts. The government of Sierra Leone has formulated a comprehensive national policy with statutes contained in the 1947 Monuments and Relics Regulation. The regulation provides for the preservation of ancient, historical and natural monuments, relics and other objects of historical, ethnographic and scientific interest. Any person wishing to export ethnographic item from the country must submit it to the National Museum; a license will be issued to the customs authorities at the point of departure. If a particular commodity for export has cultural, historical or archaeological value, it will be preserved in the country as part of the national heritage. Anyone found to be in violation of any of the rules may be prosecuted under the terms of the regulation. If found guilty, the person must pay a £ 200 fine. In case of non-payment, the person pays a maximum imprisonment of six months. However, despite the museum’s efforts to protect the smuggling of cultural properties by artifacts, it continues. It is disturbing to note that educated and intelligent people in Sierra Leone buy, sell and export protected cultural materials just to promote business. In addition, Sierra Leone has porous borders that people advantageously use for criminal smuggling out of the country.

Furthermore, the public service played by the National Museum guarantees public spending, especially if standards are to be maintained. Unfortunately, government grants for the museum are meager, and this presents another challenge for the museum’s operation. Often, wages paid to staff are not only discouraging, but also late payment. In 2014, for example, so much payroll reserve was due to staff hitting, and the museum ceased operating for a while. In addition, the National Museum does not have branches in the provinces, but only centers in the capital, Freetown. The staff is limited in number and poorly motivated. Hardly are they engaged in capacity building due to lack of funds. This has led to massive staff turnover. More than working at the museum is not considered nationwide. Most people see it as a job for drop-outs in school. Thus, young people do not like to pursue museology as a career. The staff also does not embark on massive public education about the importance of the museum in the community. No wonder why school children form the largest number of visitors to the museum as opposed to government officials and key stakeholders in the country. Even the Ministry of Lines, Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, the museum is located below does not seem to understand its importance in nation building. The ministry prioritizes its activities, and support for the museum is not a priority. In times of economic rigor, the museum is a prone area to scam funds (Sierra Leone National Museum Prospectus, 2013). Therefore, if the government wants the National Museum to continue to play an ever-increasing role in national development, there is every need for government officials to consider how best to support it to achieve this goal. Where the challenges faced by management, the museum can also help generate the much needed foreign exchange market in addition to preserving the national heritage.