In physical or urban planning, there is recognition that a capital city should represent the imagery, aspirations and perhaps pretensions of a nation, most notably in the iconography and symbolism of its built environs. Museums form part of this common feature of the cityscape.
The largest and most prestigious national museums are automatically identified with the capital of the country and the political heart of the State to serve the cultural-political functions. In fact, this is common indicator of the modern nation-State. Sadly, this is not the case with Malawi’s capital city, Lilongwe.
In 1975 the capital city was moved from Zomba to Lilongwe. Today, Lilongwe is the fastest growing city in Malawi with infrastructures of different kinds occupying each and every inch of the city.
I find the absence of the national museum in Lilongwe as a cultural deficiency that the city and government authorities need to seriously address.
Through their collections, community engagements and other activities museums serve myriad purposes. However, it is the role of a national museum to facilitate nation building, promote national consciousness, unity and national identity that I focus on.
One of the major challenges that nations face is how to construct or reconstruct their identities for purposes of internal unity and cohesion and also in the context of the changing and globalising world. Museums as cultural technologies have shown since times of enlightenment that they can successfully be instrumentalised for the production of the national State ideology to promote the image of what it means to be a nation with a unified purpose.
Thus, it is in the national museum where the iconography of the nation is showcased, the history and the national mythology are told, the visions of the nation are projected, the identity of the nation reconstructed and imagined. While this allows the progressive building of the nation in political sense, it also affords another related factor of educating the citizens in what it means to be a nation by promulgating its values and also promoting a sense of national unity and patriotism among its population, specifically its youths. The net social and political benefit is a sense of unity and belonging to one nation which impacts on the development of the nation as all see themselves as one entity obliged to work for its preservation and progress.
In our Malawian context, we cannot refute the fact that tribalism and its concomitant effects continue to bedevil our nation. The level of national sentiment is quite low. We are more easily fragmented and fractured by our tribal sentiments instead of being solidly unified by national sentiments. Dunduzu Chisiza, in his visionary work Africa What Lies Ahead, identified what he called ‘tribo-parochialism’ as hindrance to nationalism and its unity in the post-colonies, including Malawi. He set out a number of suggestions to counter it. One of suggestions was intensification of the nationalist sentiment.
Although Chisiza did not elaborate how this can be achieved, I argue that national museums have the potential to achieve this through their cultural roles as pointed earlier. A national museum, therefore, in a national capital city will be well-placed to craft the narrative of Malawi drawn from the disparate cultural groups to enhance the imagination of the idea of Malawi. Moreover, the national museum is capable of reconstructing the iconography of the nation through various symbolisms that transcend the tribe. All this enables people to imagine themselves as one people with a common past and common future and destiny, thereby promoting the idea of common heritage.
Forty-five years since its inauguration as a national capital city of Malawi, both the government and the city authorities seem reluctant, ignorant or unwilling to erect a purposeful national museum. Now that the Tonse Alliance government is in power with the agenda of promoting national unity and awareness of the democratic values to the public, as expressed through the establishment of Ministry of Civic Education and National Unity, it is an opportune moment to consider the national museum in Lilongwe for the achievement of this noble agenda.