Museums in Namibia Unity in diversity

Game of the Damara, Damara Living Museum in Twyfelfontein, Namibia. Together with the San, the Damara belong to the oldest ethnic groups in southern Africa. In the area of Twyfelfontein, where the museum village is located today, there are thousands of rock paintings from the stone age.
Game of the Damara, Damara Living Museum in Twyfelfontein, Namibia. Together with the San, the Damara belong to the oldest ethnic groups in southern Africa. In the area of Twyfelfontein, where the museum village is located today, there are thousands of rock paintings from the stone age. | Photo (detail): gsPhoto © picture alliance/imageBROKER

Namibia has a colourful museum landscape. There are both state and privately funded museums. The Museums Association of Namibia, founded in 1990, provides professional advice to the museums and promotes exchange between Namibian museum experts among themselves and with experts from abroad. Golda Ha-Eiros, curator at the Office for Veterans Affairs, explains.

By Golda Ha-Eiros

The management and funding of museums in Namibia is varied. The National Museum of Namibia, which falls under the Ministry of Education Arts and Culture, has the mandate to run state museums. There are also museums owned by private organizations and municipalities. The Museums Association of Namibia, a non-governmental organization representing museums and heritage institutions throughout Namibia, brings together all the museums from different categories. The umbrella organization facilitates the establishment of cultural heritage institutions as spaces of community empowerment and education at regional and local level and supports these institutions through advice and expertise.

Apart from traditional heritage institutions tasked with conserving, protecting and displaying cultural artefacts and thus safeguarding the rich heritage of the country, there are also ‘living museums’ which recreate historical settings to simulate the practices of  particular indigenous cultures, their way of life and traditions. These forms of museums promote the preservation of oral history and other forms of intangible cultural heritage.

Entangled history

The origin and expansion of modern museums in Namibia and the development of ethnographic collections in museums in Europe reflect a practice of collecting that is closely linked with histories of colonialism, evangelism, trading and war. Ethnographic museums in Germany, for example are in possession of large collections of cultural objects that were taken away from Namibia in colonial contexts. These collections are increasingly becoming the subject of the ‘politics of provenance’ and the debate about their origin and the nature of their acquisition has turned the focus on the biographies of the collections and collectors.

„And I've never just understood how curators in Germany would just be able to curate exhibitions with that have no depth. I realized that the objects are static, they have no story, they are merely just objects. Whereas I strongly believe that objects carry so much depth from where they were collected, their birthright, where they are with the people that used to use them.”

Golda Ha-Eiros in the interview


Controversial as the subject of provenance and restitution may be, museum experts, cultural historians and ethnologists see collaborative research and cooperation between museums in Namibia and Germany as a means to finding lasting solutions to questions that have remained unanswered for many years. In 2019, experts from Namibia and from the Ethnological Museum of Berlin conducted detailed research into the Namibian collections held there. The joint research project led to the production of new knowledge about the collections.

“Back home you don't realize that the skill set really exists until you see it for yourself. And there was a sense of pride: ‘Wow, my people did this’. When I look at how they worked with the leather and how they preserved that leather and the welding of iron - it was just amazing.”

Golda Ha-Eiros in the interview


The cultural cooperation was mutually beneficial because experts from Namibia and Germany were actively involved in all the stages.

Collaborative research 

The team of experts from Namibia had the opportunity to conduct research on the origin and the circumstances of acquisition of over 1400 cultural objects in the collection of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin. For the Namibians, being able to see and handle these objects and engage in an in-depth research process was like unlocking a portal into their past. They realised that the objects in the collection had, because of the translocation, gained a different value, a different significance and that they had lost their previous identity. More importantly, it became clear to them that by tapping into the history and indigenous knowledge of the Namibian communities, the objects could be brought back to life and made to regain their full cultural, social and historical significance in Namibia.

“For the Namibians, being able to see and handle these objects and engage in an in-depth research process was like unlocking a portal into their past.”

It is hoped that the return of these objects to the National Museum of Namibia, will be a huge contribution to the safeguarding of both material and immaterial cultural heritage of the country.

Social museology

The task of cultural heritage promotion and preservation in Namibia continues on various fronts. Apart from the aforementioned cooperation, Namibian museum experts are exploring other collaborations and reinforcing existing partnerships with local communities and institutions. Every year the museums jointly organize a heritage week, during which citizens are invited to participate in celebrating and learning about the country’s rich cultural and natural heritage. A special target group are the youth who are crucial agents in ensuring sustainability of cultural preservation initiatives.

Likewise, local communities in collaboration with heritage institutions are encouraged to organize exhibitions as a means of preserving their cultural heritage and rectifying any past misinterpretations of their traditional practices. By consulting elders in the local communities during research and learning projects, school clubs and cultural societies are able to learn more about their culture.

On seeing her country cultural object's for the first time in Berlin ​– an interview by the Goethe-Institut with Golda Ha-Eiros at the conference “Beyond Collecting: New Ethics for Museums in Transition” in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, March 2020:

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