Sierra Leone is one of the poorest countries in the world; unsurprisingly, cultural heritage is not a high priority there, and institutions such as the Sierra Leone National Museum (SLNM) are desperately under-resourced and lacking in expertise. While schools are aware of the importance of incorporating culture and history into their teaching, there is an almost total lack of educational resources to facilitate this. Outside the country, by contrast, an abundance of Sierra Leonean artefacts, photographs, sound recordings, and associated knowledges are dispersed in museums and archives around the world. Through participatory action research and the development of an innovative digital resource the Reanimating Cultural Heritage project (RCH) has 'virtually repatriated' and reanimated these collections. Through this website and a sustained programme of associated outreach, advocacy and capacity-building in Sierra Leone's heritage and education sectors, the project has contributed to the preservation and conservation of Sierra Leonean cultural resources; supported the development of the country's museums sector offering; created new and improved existing educational resources; and engaged Sierra Leonean and international audiences with the country's cultural heritage.
(1) Providing new access to museum collections, images and sound archives
Launched in October 2011, www.sierraleoneheritage.org was a key output of the RCH project. The resource provides global digital access to over 4,000 Sierra Leonean objects, images and sound recordings from the British Museum (BM), Brighton Museum, Glasgow Museum, World Museum Liverpool, British Library Sound Archive, and Cootje van Oven ethnomusicological collection. This material was largely hidden away in museum stores and low on museums' priority lists. Participation in the project meant that these museums prioritised the digitisation of these collections, providing access to much of the material for the first time. Additionally, c. 2,000 objects from SLNM collections - which previously had no accurate record of its collection - were digitised. Beyond providing access to the objects, this complete written and visual record of the collection significantly improved its security. It not only provides access to images and information, but reanimates objects by juxtaposing them with contextualising video and sound media showing them in use, being made, or discussed. From January 2012, when visitor statistics began to be recorded, to date the digital resource received 83,865 page views from 16,588 unique visitors (Google Analytics report generated 16/10/13). Related project videos on YouTube have also been particularly popular, with examples receiving over 9,264 and 5,565 views each.
(2) Enhancing the profile of the Sierra Leone National Museum and cultural heritage sector, both within and beyond Sierra Leone
Whereas SLNM was previously regarded by many, including some within Sierra Leone's Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, as moribund and of little interest, the activities of RCH and its various partnerships transformed the Museum into a vibrant hub of activity, with new displays and outreach activities. This has had a significant impact on its perception among the Sierra Leone Government and public. The Director of Cultural Affairs acknowledged that his understanding of the Museum has been changed through participation in the project, and that he has come to recognise the importance of its collections and the contribution it can make to national development. There is increased press coverage of the Museum, more high level functionaries at openings and events, and a change in employment conditions for SLNM staff, the Museum's higher profile having resulted in a change to the way in which they are paid. Previously, staff received a subvention included as an undifferentiated part of the museum's annual funding, which typically meant that they went unpaid for months at a time. This was changed in 2012, such that the Museum's 16 staff are now paid salaries directly from Government, as any other civil servant. More widely, an annual week-long Cultural Festival was instituted in April 2011, and the President has indicated that the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs will receive additional funding to develop cultural tourism.
Prior to their participation in RCH, there was relatively little interest in the Sierra Leonean collections held by the project's international partner museums, including the British Museum; the project has encouraged these museums to reassess the significance of their collections. As a direct outcome of the collaboration, the BM held a 3-month exhibition focusing exclusively on Sierra Leonean collections which attracted approximately 67,000 visitors between 14 February and 28 April 2013, and received much positive feedback. The display was selected in 2013 for the BM's 'History of the World' tour to Abu Dhabi, Japan and Taiwan in 2014. In January and February 2012, the BM and SLNM were partners in a larger, multi-sited exhibition at UCL, which focused on different aspects of the RCH project. This included the loan of 19 Sierra Leonean objects from the BM, and the first ever international loan of objects from SLNM.
Research has thus made an important contribution to challenging negative stereotypes about Sierra Leone by engaging international communities, as well as Sierra Leoneans themselves, with the country's history and heritage beyond the dominant images of child soldiers, 'blood diamonds' and poverty. As the Director of Cultural Affairs described the digital resource, this is a 'powerful tool in changing perceptions of Sierra Leone', with the ability to 'change the mindsets of people'.
(3) Capacity-building in the museum and heritage sector in Sierra Leone
From March 2009, as part of the digitisation process, the project provided a sustained programme of training and capacity-building at SLNM for a museum 'working party' of 8-10 staff members from SLNM, the Monuments and Relics Commission, and Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs. This developed capacity in a wide range of museum skills including conducting a collections audit, cataloguing the objects using a computerised collections management system, setting up a photographic studio and taking high quality digital photographs of objects, and improving preventative conservation and storage techniques. As the senior curator at SLNM explains, 'what was especially valuable about the training and capacity building work we undertook as part of [RCH] was that it was based in our own institution and took into consideration the constraints with which we are daily faced. The activitiesstrengthened the professional capacity of the museum staff by adapting international standards of best practice in the context of our own work'. This training was enhanced through a partnership brokered by RCH with the British Museum's Africa Programme, for which Paul Basu acted as consultant. This ongoing programme of workshops and collaborative initiatives on site included the redisplay of SLNM's permanent galleries, museum education programmes, collaborative exhibitions, and knowledge-exchange visits.
(4) Developing resources for teaching and educational outreach
Although school groups sometimes visited SLNM, little attempt was previously made to enhance their use of the Museum as a learning space. This was particularly unfortunate since there is no provision for the teaching of Sierra Leonean culture or heritage within the national curriculum and no existing teaching resources. Through RCH, various initiatives were developed to strengthen the relationship between schools and SLNM: 200 stand-alone DVD versions of the digital heritage resource were distributed to schools, colleges, universities and community 'access points' in Freetown and other towns where computers were available but internet access was inadequate. In October 2011 a workshop was organised in association with the British Council's 'Connecting Classrooms' initiative at which c. 60 Sierra Leonean teachers and 30 British teachers explored the educational value of the resource, which was very positively received and has since been extensively used. Prompted by the availability of this high-quality teaching resource, several teachers have gone on to establish 'history clubs' at their schools. Following on from this initial educational outreach, a Teachers' Forum was launched at SLNM in June 2012. At a workshop for 25 teachers, led in collaboration with the BM Africa Programme, teachers and museum staff explored ways in which the Sierra Leone National Museum could support the teaching of culture and history in schools. A steering committee was formed and future meetings of the Forum arranged. This was a significant step in building effective relationships between teachers and museum staff, opening up the Museum to a wider range of educational uses.
(5) Engaging Sierra Leonean and diasporic communities in the value of cultural heritage
As part of RCH, much community outreach work was undertaken, collecting oral histories, exploring local understandings of the value of history and cultural heritage, and discussing sustainable approaches to safeguarding heritage sites. This on-going work was used to advise the Monuments and Relics Commission on locally-appropriate forms of cultural heritage management. In the UK, RCH collaborated with the BM Communities Team in a week-long object-based workshop as part of its 'Talking Objects' programme (Sept 2011). Working with 18 young members of the diaspora in London, this used objects from the BM collection to facilitate explorations of their cultural heritage and identity. Community participation was also key to the development of exhibitions and events programmes at the BM and UCL: the Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone display (Feb-April 2013, with community involvement from July 2012) at the BM involved close collaboration with a London-based Sierra Leonean cultural group, who performed a traditional mask naming ceremony at the Museum prior to its exhibition. At the opening, members of the diaspora community performed dances and masquerades at a free public event attended by over 1,000 people. The closing event was co-hosted with the Sierra Leonean High Commission as an Independence Day celebration, introducing this cultural heritage to a wider diplomatic community.