The Gambia National Museum

Story: Clifford Pereira FRGS
Photography: Clifford Pereira
Monday, May 20, 2019

Established in 1985, this is perhaps one of the smallest national museums I have ever visited. However, behind the modest entrance are three floors and several rooms of fascinating collections. One of the original staff members is Mr. Baba Ceesay who remains director of the museum. From 1999 to 2008 the curator was Mr. Hassoum Ceesay, after a break Hassoum Ceesay is once again the curator and is an author and television celebratory who speaks on various history topics.

The ground floor concentrates on the city of Banjul, which with just over 31,000 people feels more like a town, even though it’s the capital of The Gambia. The ground floor concentrates on the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history and cultures of St. Mary’s Island and The Gambia. The building itself was the colonial Bathurst Club which was restricted to Europeans only and so embodies the colonial history of the country.

A section on the region’s Mesolithic and Neolithic cultures recall a prehistoric period of a greener Sahara. The museum features a panel on the prehistoric monuments of Southern Senegal that tease the visitor into connecting these monuments to those of Msoura (Morocco), Burgos (Spain), Evora (Portugal), Carnac (France) and Stonehenge (Britain).

There is some disappointment that the pre-colonial history failed to highlight the importance of the Gambia River to the medieval Mali Empire. The colonial history included the Portuguese, but yet again failed to convey the fascinating story of the Duchy of Courland and Semigallia in modern-day Latvia that established trading rights by local treaty on St. Mary’s island and along the Gambia River. The time-line seemed to fast forward to the British with a small display on the Gambian Regiment that saw action in the two world wars.

The upstairs rooms contained some very interesting ethnographical collections and some Islamic genealogies as well as fascinating images. Overall the collection demonstrated the strong connections between the peoples of The Gambia and Senegal, but somehow did not convey how and why this finger of a country into Senegal came under British rule while Senegal became a French colony.

The displays are sorely in need of some “TLC” and there is need for a clear timeline and route, artefacts and images are grouped but it is difficult to fit them into a concise history and some artefacts lack adequate labelling that provide context.

Behind the scenes the museum does have an active programme transcribing oral histories and collecting important documents. It also supports a few other museums in the country.

At the end of the day this is Africa and The Gambia is a small country and an ex-British colony with few resources. It is culturally separated from its larger neighbour Senegal which is an ex-French colony, only by its recent colonial history. It is easy to see that maintaining a historic difference for the sake of nationalism is no easy feat. Overall the collection demonstrates the strong cultural and historical connections between the peoples of The Gambia and Senegal, but somehow did not fully convey how and why this finger of a country into Senegal came under British rule while Senegal became a French colony. This was the basic response from a group of 30 international tourists.

The Gambia’s prehistory and history are both fascinating, however the state of the under-funded museum would bring most curators or museum directors to tears or perhaps lead a campaign to completely transform this eclectic national collection. The museum staff are polite and helpful, though the photography charge is rigidly enforced and the museum is best explored solely or with a group of no more than five people. The heat and cramped spaces, especially on the upper floors make viewing and appreciation difficult. There is a museum shop, actually more of a kiosk, in the museum grounds to the right of the entrance, where souvenirs can be bought and for a change in the part of the world and to their credit, I did not find items any that were made in China.

Museum Information: Tel +220 226 244.
Location: Independence Drive, PMB 151, Banjul, The Gambia.
Admission: 50D or 1 Euro.
Opening Hours: Monday to Thursday 9:00am – 18:00pm. Friday 9:00am – 17:00pm.
Closed Sundays.
Note – There is a small charge for photography.

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