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Museums and the value of preserving history

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By Talibeh Hydara

Those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it, so said George. Personally, I believe remembering the past is much more complex than merely not forgetting. It involves a well-designed process to ensure the past remains ever present, in both structures and words. If this is not followed, people will eventually forget their past no matter how important it is to their future. Generally, a lot of us believe a painful past is an unforgettable past. We believe once a people experienced trauma, their lives seized, violated and dignities taken, they never forget it. That might actually be true but history ought to be remembered by not only those who experienced it but by those who are not even born yet. I might never forget what happened to me a decade ago but there’s no guarantee that I will pass that story down to my children, even if that particular experience may well shape their future and those who come after them. Therefore, I should be helped to record what happened to me and keep it for the next Hydaras. History— as painful as it is—must not be forgotten; it must not only be remembered but eternally taught and cherishingly preserved. 

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In my opinion, a country that does this with utmost seriousness and investment is China. This is a nation that suffered horrendously in the hands of invaders and still admirably keeps and preserves almost flawlessly such dark chapters of its history. According to the National Cultural Heritage Administration, China has over 6,000 registered museums by the end of 2021, ranking among the top nations in the world. These registered museums and others contain millions of ancient materials that tell stories of the country’s past; depicting unfiltered life and time in drawings, writings, sculptures, pottery, etc, and offer lessons for the future. Schools, hospitals, and other institutions all have little museums which not only preserve history but serve as inspiration to the younger generation. China’s ability to preserve history and culture has been nothing short of impressive with museums for tea and TCM, preserved palaces, temples, ancient lakes and rivers, littered across the country and admired by even the Chinese themselves. 

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I have had the privilege of visiting a few museums with immaculate record of the experiences of the Chinese people dating back to over five thousand years. From the Palace Museum in Beijing to the world’s best-preserved Ancient City Wall of the Ming Dynasty in Xi’an, there are unmatched efforts and structures ensuring the past remains significant in the present and shapes the future of China.

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In early April, we visited Party School of the Central Committee of the CPC in Haidian, an institution that moulds high cadre members and has become a think-tank ensuring officials align their ideas with those of the party. The school is also a museum of its own, with sculptures of prominent individuals like Chairman Mao, Deng Xiaoping, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels and group sculptures like the FLAG— displaying the spirit of the 56 ethnic groups—and the 13 delegates to the historic First National Congress of CPC in 1921, plus the Red Boat. All of these serve as a vivid reminder of how far China has come and the sacrifices of its first leaders to shape its future. Even the Red Boat symbolises a journey back to the past and how the first leaders went the extra mile to hold meetings amidst danger from French Concession.

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The trip to the Party School briefly introduced us to formative years of the CPC but we had a full-blown experience at the Memorial of first CPC National Congress in Shanghai. The immersive experience in Xintiandi availed us a unique opportunity to learn how the CPC first leaders manoeuvred around French Concession and laid the foundation of what would become hope and inspiration to millions of Chinese. The museum documents every activity and the consequences, with relevant meetings involving Bao Huiseng, Zhang Guotao, He Shuheng, Deng Enming, Chen Gongbo, Dong Biwu, Mao Zedong, Wang Jinmei, Li Hanjun, Chen Tan Qiu, Liu Renjing, Zhou Fohai, and Li Da, sculptured across the museum. 

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Also, in hundreds of other sites in Yan’an including the Baota Mountain, Yangjialing, Liangjiahe, almost every important event that influenced and changed China’s historical evolution have all been documented for posterity; the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression, the War of Liberation, Rectification Campaign, the Great Production Campaign, and the 7th CPC National Congress. No major event is skipped or ignored on its path to modernization.

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China and Africa experienced similar pasts. Both were colonized, brutalised, exploited and still discriminated by those who thought they are better than us when actually they only colonized and occupied our lands because what they had was not enough. Unfortunately for Africa, even though colonialism is no longer a major issue, but every other resultant evil is alive and well on the continent. I believe one cardinal reason for that is our inability to learn from history because we don’t want to preserve it. We hate history and we want to quickly forget it. I will give you an example here.

Yahya Jammeh served as president of The Gambia for 22 years. During that period, there were series of state-sanctioned killings and tortures of civilians. We all painfully watched these testimonies at the truth commission. However, as soon as Jammeh was defeated at the election, we rushed to erase history. Posters and monuments brought down. Torture chambers painted. People have been trying to quickly move on from him, even the famous Kanilai—with all its wonders and mysteries—has been deserted and reduced to nothing. In fact, we already have our work cut out as the atrocities in the Jammeh regime have been well documented by the truth commission. These lessons could have been easily incorporated into history syllabuses in our education system so that for the next thousand years, generations will learn what we went through from 1994-2017. The evolution of his monstrosity and torture equipment should have been preserved and transferred to the national museum or a separate one created to ensure we do not erase the past. Instead of using it as a military barracks, we should have ensured the world truly explore Kanilai and the nation takes lessons. The part of Kanilai solely occupied by Jammeh should have been handed to the National Centre for Arts and Culture, which would then work with the Gambia Tourism Board to turn it into a tourist hotspot. This would have boosted even domestic tourism and served as a reliable source of revenue for the state. Jammeh’s palace in Kanilai could have easily been our own Forbidden City.   

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We have to do more to preserve our history. This country didn’t start in 1965; it has been in existence centuries before white men ever thought of exploring Africa. Thousands of Gambians perished during the slave trade. Our people were subjected to the most inhumane and barbaric treatment. The lucky ones were chained, beaten, marked, and shipped to the plantation farms in the Americas while the unlucky ones were killed onboard ships or in slave houses and fed to sharks in the ocean. We still haven’t forgotten and we must not forget but we need to ensure we don’t forget by preserving what’s left of that evil chapter. Africa’s darkest days involved slavery and colonialism but, even in The Gambia, the topics are still not sufficiently discussed or even taught in schools.

Until we embrace what happened to us and keep it for the next generation like China did—no matter how ugly and painful it is —we will continue to forget and keep hugging the enemy who has a dagger.

NB: This is the last edition of China Diary. I have received tons of positive feedbacks for the column since I started it in March having just arrived in China. It has been nonstop ever since and I didn’t know I had so much information about China in my head, as I continued to write nearly three months after arriving back home. It has been an exciting journey but it is now time to return to my old self and my old column: GIBRAMBLE. Xie xie!        

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