Public engagement in history

Museums have been a part of human history for over 2000 years starting with a Greek wing as temples built for enlightenment. Today, the museum concept has spread all over the world and captured public attention than ever before. But the question still remains, who “the public” is? And why engage in the past?

Museums have been a part of human history for over 2000 years starting with a Greek wing as temples built for enlightenment. Today, the museum concept has spread all over the world and captured public attention than ever before. But the question still remains, who “the public” is? And why engage in the past?

During my reading adventure in public archaeology, I came across a similar question: why the past? And research in this particular area brings out clearly the importance of the past as memory (emotional expression) – something that keeps history in motion and binds us (the public) together. By and large, we are globally shaped through collective memories. And among other places that represent, generate and keep these memories is a museum. Visiting a museum is, therefore, a natural and proper thing for each one of us to take pride in knowing our history, its absolute meaning and stories, possessed as heritage or identity.

Heritage and development

Museum philosophy does not address a specific audience like schools do, but invite the general public to come enjoy and learn. The public can be an individual(s), schools, private and public institutions, who would like to create and make a learning environment more practical, interesting and fun. There is no any other way, absolutely, than engaging in museum visits. Museum education has become more interesting in enriching and improving on the material resources and information that can, if utilised well, communicates shared memory and identity.  

It’s on record that sites live longer when the public feel to be part of their past and participate in preserving the same. The moment this aspect is devoid of community participation, some valuable attributes of the site will vanish and this will make heritage sites less and less attractive to the general public. Management and sustainability of heritage sites should not be left to heritage owners or cultural institutions alone. The more stakeholders get involved, the more valuable it becomes.

Rwanda museums

At a time of increased globalisation, the protection, conservation, interpretation and presentation of heritage and cultural diversity of any particular place or region is an important challenge for people everywhere and that calls for each and every one of us to be stand up and be counted. Heritage and development can thrive together. They have to. Many countries and cities sadly only realise the value of their built and natural heritage when it’s too late. We need to act now if we must.

 Rwanda is home to some of the best breathtaking museums and heritage sites that are the highlight of any visit. As custodians of culture, they offer a wide spectrum of cultural heritage catering for all tastes.

The Institute of National Museums of Rwanda (INMR) is committed to sustaining heritage sites and assets by handing on what is valuable to future generations. These cultural, natural, and archaeological heritage sites form a unique and universal understanding of our past legacy. These mixed heritages are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspirational to many. And they are our touchstones, our points of reference, our identity and must be guarded jealously.

The core mission statement is to identify and sustainably manage heritage sites by preserving and conserving them so that they can be accessed and enjoyed by present and generations to come. This, however, does not mean foiling places but managing change carefully so as not to damage what is special. But in a way that bends time, helps us (the public) care for what may be a very complex asset/site and to reassure that it benefits future generations.

Conclusively, and in a main streaming sense, public engagement is very critical in the management and sustainability of Rwanda’s past. The presented and generated memory kept in museums and heritage sites across the country call for each one of us to partake in conservation in one way or another. Awareness without action changes nothing. Together, let’s talk and walk the path of history in a more holistic perspective that includes multicultural aspects, old and new history, tangible as well as intangible legacies of our past. Greater efforts to acquire and interpret significant cultural resources are needed if Rwanda is to safeguard its national heritage.  I believe Kigali and Rwanda still have time to seize this opportunity before it is too late.

The writer is a cultural heritage analyst and philosophical studies expert.

Email: nkusidavid@rocketmail.com

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