National Museum of The Gambia

My Magazine 2022/06
9 min
Just about five kilometres after crossing Denton bridge to the island of Banjul along the Independence drive, there are the big blue gates and, on the other side, the headquarters of the National Center for Arts and Culture (NCAC). Frequented by schools and tourists is also the National Museum of The Gambia, which has been there even before NCAC was created.

The old museum is a treasury of national and international importance, storing and interpreting The Gambia's history and culture. Alongside a mini craft market can be enjoyed, observing the technics of a silversmith or a sand painter. To rest the feet, a small park offers shade and benches, but also a well to fetch the water and statues (among them the soldier with the baby, erected next to the Arch 22 in president Jammeh's regime.)

The cultural sector in The Gambia has not always been enjoying the support from the government, but that doesn't mean there is no interesting and worthwhile cultural heritage in this small country. In fact, throughout history, efforts have been made to preserve the nation's cultural identity. In the 1980s, the first artefacts were collected, and researches were done due to the efforts of pioneering historians, such as Dr Florence Mahoney, Bakary Sidibeh, Ablie Bayo, Burama Sanyang, Baba Ceesay. The latter became the first director of the newly funded first governmental institution concerned with culture: the Oral history and antiquities division. It was created in 1974 under the office of the first president Sir Dawda Kairaba Jawara, and its role was also connected to the sites, festivals and oral archives. In 1985 the National museum was created by the first ministry of culture, and three years later, a first cultural policy was implemented. It stated that there should be a governmental body in charge of all culture, so in the same year, the OHAD was changed to NCAC (National Council for arts and culture). NCAC was a department of the ministry of culture with some autonomy in the sense that it could collect revenue from visitors. 2003 it was changed to National Center for arts and culture (the goal was for it to become more evolved in technical matters – conservation, field recording, publishing etc.), but other than that, the structure remained almost the same.

General information

The biggest breaking point in The Gambia's modern history is gaining independence on 18. February 1965, only after that we can talk about the »nation« and »national history«. While the notion of a nation is still somewhat loose, it is worth noting that the Gambia was never before a homogenous unit for many different ethnic, cultural and religious groups inhabited the land around the river Gambia. They coexisted peacefully for many decades, and still today, Gambians take pride in obtaining good relations between them. Through intermarriages and cultural exchanges, the differences and dynamics we could observe in the past have transformed, but each group still claim their own peculiarities, from the range of languages spoken to different passage ceremonies and other cultural matters. While most Gambians are Mandinka, the Mandinka language is not the most common. It is the Wollof that is used as kind of a lingua franca in Senegal, Mauritania, and The Gambia. Speaking about The Gambia's history is inevitably connected to the traditions of Jola, Fula, Mandinka, Wollof, Serer, Serahule, Manjago, Bambara, Aku etc. Their source is each unique, and each contributes to the face of modern-day Gambia. Another big influence on The Gambia came from the east in the 11th century with the Islam preachers, the marabouts. After centuries of Islam scholars educating the youths and jihads, led by marabouts in the Soninke-Marabout wars of the 19th century, more than 90 per cent of the country submitted to Islam. In the minority but nonetheless present are the Catholics – a legacy left by the Europeans. Portugals came to The Gambia in the 14th century (River Gambia was one of the first portals into the inside of the African continent), Spanish, French and British followed – and the British stayed until the independence. All of those legacies contributed to the formation of the city of Banjul, Gambia's capital. 

The former exhibition started a lot earlier before it was revitalised and updated in 2003, a few years after a new curator (later becoming Director general), Hassoum Ceesay, took charge. The national museum's ground floor (this is where the reception is) became a space for the »Banjul, Bathurst, Banjul« exhibition, telling a story about The Gambia's capital. Downstairs the collection of musical instruments can be found, and upstairs is somewhat crowded with archaeological, chronologically-historical, ethnographical and even natural (only descriptive) section of the exhibition. The latter is presented on the first floor's left wing, and everyday objects (baskets, clothes, jewellery, tools, leather and jujus - lucky charms) are gathered in the right wing. Since those objects represent the biggest part of the overall exhibition, they are also used when felt that they can help describe a certain community or period. The archaeological section introduces a survey on the origin of the human species, some over 10 000 years old tools and even some accounts of the stone circles of Kerr Batch and Wassu. Stone circles represent one of a few monument sites all over The Gambia, which fall under the jurisdiction of the Museum and Monument Division of NCAC. A problem with many of these sites is the inadequacy of the funds for their reconstruction, which is in some cases urgent. 17th-century fort on the famous James Island later renamed Kunta Kinteh Island, is in danger of collapsing since the island's shoreline proceeds to erode. Other sites include Fort Bullen in Barra, Arch 22 in the gate of Banjul, Jufureh village, Kunta Kinteh Island, Mungo Park Obelix, Janjabureh Kankurang centre, Wassu and Kerr Batch stone circles. The traditional masquerades are definitely the most popular aspect of The Gambia's intangible cultural heritage, even recognised as such on Unesco World Heritage's list. For that reason, the Kankurang centre was built in Janjabureh, in the country's remote interior, and it hosts a Kankurang festival annually. Originally, the Kankurang masquerade appears on special occasions, such as circumcisions and the start of a rainy season, but to make it more approachable to visitors, the centre and the festival were ignited. 

»Banjul, Bathurst, Banjul« exhibition

In the national museum in Banjul, masquerades are being presented as part of the »Banjul, Bathurst, Banjul« exhibition. Mamapara (from Susu minority), Gesseh (from Sierra Leone), Agoogu (Gambian version of Nigerian Yoruba Egungun) and different types of Kankurangs (Jamba, Wulengo, Suta, Senkoo) can be admired on the paintings while dancing Zimba (Wollof), scary Bundu devil (from Sierra Leone) and The hunting devil (Yoruba Egun Odeh (hunters masquerade)) and beautiful Fairy (from Ghana) can be seen in a real-sized costume-wearing mannequin form. They patiently stand facing each other on a sandy surface in a glass showcase, accompanied by jujus and informative texts that shortly describe their origins. 

As stated on the introduction poster, the »Banjul, Bathurst, Banjul« exhibition is divided into five parts: for the first part, the Pre-European Banjul is presented. A visitor will be able to visualise the history of the place from prehistoric hunter-gatherer society's arrows, continuing to everyday objects used for cooking, fishing, storing of objects and games to the special showcase dedicated to Oku Marabout, descendants of Muslim Yorubas who migrated to the Gambia but mostly live in Banjul area. One can not miss two big crafty model boats parked on the side of the exhibition space. They are called Fanals and are decorated and given to specially selected patrons as a part of the New Year's ceremony. The tradition was introduced to Banjul by Christian Wollof boat builders.

There is also a model of a bamboo tree-covered house. Bamboo was called banjulo by local people. The legend says that when Europeans came to the island of the former Kombo kingdom (later chieftaincy), they asked a house builder for the name of the settlement. The builder did not understand the question and thought they were asking him what is he building. So he replied Banjul – wooden house. The island was later renamed Bathurst after Lord Bathurst, and so that name became a symbol of the British colonial rule over it from 1816 to 1965. With that being said, the second part of the exhibition is dedicated to colonial Banjul. During the time of British rule, some colonial buildings were erected in the western part of the town, while in the eastern part, separated with the main road, settlement started to grow. After colonial times came the struggle for independence– important politicians and early nationalist movements are presented in this part. Sir Dawda Jawara became the country's first president in 1970, but his presidency came to an end in 1994 with Yahya Jammeh's coup d'etat. Under his dictatorship, human rights violations have been reported, and he persecuted journalists, political opponents, alleged witchers and others. An exhibition commemorating the testimonies of Jammeh's regime can be visited at the Arch 22 monument, which he himself erected. The arch has just been renamed »Never again Memorial Arch« by the 2016 elected president Adama Barrow.

Permanent exhibition

It is worth noting that the main objective of the overall exhibition is to educate, so the museum is most frequented by schools. The footnotes, therefore, often contain general information about the history; but every visitor can also be provided with a museum guide who will explain the interesting details about the objects and also give some context. The tour can be conducted in local languages or English, depending on the visitor's request. 

Upstairs the archaeological exhibition takes place. Driving over busy Gambian roads, one can still today spot the shell mounds, leftovers from extracted oysters and other shellfish. In the stone age, fishermen of Senegambia, »the shell mound people«, built shell mounds as big as houses. Some may also use them as cemeteries. Suggestions are made about the origin of those people, and associated ceramics are also being kept. From there, the exhibition takes you on a chronological walk through the Gambia's history – from wealthy Ghana and Mali Empire, known for its ruler Mansa Musa whose pilgrimage and spending on the way to Mecca caused the fall in the value of gold, Jolof Empire and the kingdoms of Sina and Saloum, Kabuu Empire, Fuladu Empire, kingdoms: Bundu, Futo Toro. The exhibition also familiarises you with some key personalities of Soninka-Marabout uprisings that resulted in the 60-year war between Muslims, animists and Europeans, colonial personalities and independent nation-building individuals. It displays The Gambia's voting system (even today, marbles are used for voting). 

Exhibition of musical instruments

Hanging from the ceiling on the bottom floor, there are some of the most famous instruments, typical for The Gambia region, used by different groups: konting is a traditional Jola string instrument, while kurango, bolonbata (bologna) and the most famous one; kora, are from Mandinka. There are also fiddle, simbing and a Nigerian trumpet.

In The Gambia, many items are made of versatile calabash - a type of pumpkin, which in dry form can also be a dish plate, a hat or an instrument. In the latter case, it can also be the kora, the most commonly played instrument in Mandinka culture. Kora is made of half of a large calabash, covered with leather, and a long wooden neck to which strings are attached. Its sound is reminiscent of the sound of a harp and sometimes bears a resemblance to a lute and even a guitar.

Another widely used instrument in traditional Mandinka music is the "bal" or "balafon", known in Europe as the xylophone (a musical instrument made out of wooden sticks of various lengths). 

In Senegambia, especially in the Wollof tradition, the accompaniment of drummers is mandatory at every gathering, as most people are excellent dancers who can easily follow fast rhythms. There are different drums: Wollof, for example, plays “tama", drums made from goat or even lizard skin, wood, and rope that hold everything together. A strap is attached to them so that the drummer can tie the instrument over his shoulder. Mandinka play "Sewuruba", which differ slightly in shape and size from the previously mentioned "tama" drums. The people of Susu come from Mali and Guinea, and at various ceremonies, they usually play large goatskin drums stretched over wood, called "jembe", accompanied by simpler "dundum" drums, which are beaten with sticks.

Looking into the future, the Banjul's National Museum will soon be facing changes. Africell is launching an extensive reconstruction project on the building, so all the artefacts will have to be removed and stored in containers until the project is finished. That time will offer the opportunity for the artefacts to undergo the conservation process, which is crucial, especially for the objects sitting in the storage rooms. Among them are many that, even though old and dusty, can still be revived and proudly presented. Hopefully, a breath of fresh air will soon lure the lively traditions of The Gambia out of their old showcases into a form that is proud and interconnected with the life of the present. 

Written by Lana Skorohod

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