The country’s museums face a challenge to find alternative ways of sustaining themselves and tackling emerging issues.
The call comes at a time Karonga Museum continues to make news on the wings of an appeal for K20 million to help replace leaky roofs than its important story depicting the evolution of human kind from dinosaurs to democratic creatures.
“The dilapidated roofing is giving way and needs to be replaced with durable materials. Your donation will help preserve culture,” said Paramount Chief Kyungu of the district at what was supposed to be the museum’s 10th anniversary.
Yet, the SOS could be a loud and a clear echo of how museums cannot continue relying on gate fees and government injections alone.
Museum in-charge Harrison Simfukwe says the cultural centre in Karonga receives 10 people per day and nearly three in five are expatriates.
Roughly, this accounts for K3 400 considering that locals pay K100 per day and visitors from abroad K500 each. This amounts to just K102 000 in 30 days.
“The money from the gate fees is too little, very insubstantial in view of the rising cost of running the museum,” he says.
Every year, the money is supplemented by a K500 000 from government—an amount below the line, according to management.
Yet, the low patronage is neither surprising nor exclusive to Karonga.
Director of Museums Lovemore Mazibuko says low attendance is a widespread problem in the country.
But Karonga has a location problem, says University of Frankfurt’s Professor Stephane Schmidt.
The German scholar admits being “blown away by the beauty of Lake Malawi” when he first visited Karonga in 2006.
He calls the continent’s third largest fresh-water body the most beautiful lake on the continent.
Now his passion for the lake has birthed a special affection for the museum, which puts in context what he once found incredible: That the timeline from dinosaur to democracy cannot be put in one museum.
As a matter of fact, he has been part of the Germany-based arm of Ulaha Foundation, which has played a role in putting up what he terms the “best museum not only in Malawi, but the whole continent”.
Yet, this has not blinded him from the harsh realities underlying the running of museums.
“Karonga has a location problem,” says Schmidt. “It’s far from the airports, so far from the capital Lilongwe and tourists find it hard-to-reach.”
This could be the reason the museum registers negligible figures, but Mazibuko says the problem is widespread in the country.
Despite the shortfall, the German warns: “Even if the Department of Tourism put in place programmes for increasing the number of tourists, there will never be enough tourists to run Karonga Museum or any other museum in the country”.
Even in Germany, it is not possible to sustain museums on gate fees alone, he says.
He asks government to increase its injections and put in place efforts to make the tourism sector vibrant.
As an exemplar of what to do, he promised to bring friends from Frankfurt, Germany, and convince them to become long-term friends.
Presently, his organisation invested $100 000 (about K50 million) for the creation of a nature camp at Malema Camp where remains of Malema man, one of the earliest apes from which human beings are said to have evolved, was unearthed.
The funding is also being used to train tour guides in the district.
But despite its precarious financial situation and important role as the epicenter of the cradle of human kind that is Karonga, the museum has found it hard to raise funds for repairs of the roof.
Its fundraising consultant Nkhwachi Mhango reveals that it is difficult to get local companies to donate towards the replacement of the roof because most of them ask: What is in it for us? Just how will it benefit us as a company?
Mhango explains: “This is about culture, national pride and our history. It was surprising that the majority of companies said they could not help until we told them how they would benefit from this. There is no greater value than saving the priceless artifacts being endangered by the deteriorating roof.”
Despite the bleak backdrop, the campaign has earned some goodwill from National Bank of Malawi, FDH Bank, Illovo Sugar and Airtel Malawi, among others.
This decried misconception is aptly countered by Airtel Malawi, the largest donor with the injection of K2.5 million to the cause.
Speaking during the presentation, its corporate social responsibility manager Norah Chavula stated: “A museum is a source of pride of our identity, happiness, pride, learning and identity. This is an institution and bedrock that should be depended on at all cost for it to continue receiving dedicated support from various arts, historical and cultural partners.”
She asked the management to be vibrant in promoting the monument to increase patronage and visibility.
Coming up with projects that tackle real-life challenges in surrounding communities also helps.