The following was written almost a year ago in a peaceful park full of straw hut sculptures in Dar-es-Salaam. I was planning to pursue the sketchy observations with a more academic pursuit of how widespread the concept of straw hut museums is, and to compare it with the beloved wood hut museums in my own country, Norway. The academic analysis of the practice of collecting traditional huts in open air museums has, however, yet to happen. I the meantime I pass on the first impressions from the Village Museum in Dar with the wonderful elephant grass hut installations.
18.10.11: I’m at the Village Museum in Dar-es-Salaam. It’s a collection of the houses of “traditional cultures” of Tanzania. One house representing one ethnic group, all placed in a park landscape with trimmed lawns and ornamental bushes lining the walkways. Inside the houses are displays of objects related to the different ethnic groups, presented in a tasteful manner and with English, Swahili and “vernacular” names on the objects. Somehow I feel I have to justify that I quite enjoy being here. It is an aesthetically pleasing experience. I can watch the thatch being changed on a house in complete bamboo construction and ponder which houses look more like the ones I know from Mozambique. Interestingly the house called “Makua house” is round, while the house which looks pretty much like the makua houses in the region around Ilha, is called something completely different.
Three days ago I was on the 8th floor of the building on the other side of the road, which is a main road leading out of Dar-es-Salaam. The group presenting papers at a conference organised by the Goethe Institut, including myself, was on a tour of Dar, watching the way the city is growing beyond its limits and the city centre heritage is disappearing. Just this area around the Village Museum is a hotspot where office towers are growing up to attract a clientele waiting to avoid the congested city centre. So what is a national romantic collection of little (or some quite spacious) straw huts doing in the middle of this blue glass and concrete skeletons of economic boom and property speculation??
The museum was created in 1966, two years after the Union of Tanzania was created, in a country looking for cultural identity in its rural roots. This is exactly what my own country and many others did half a century earlier, creating museums which are now among the most popular of the country. The museum brochure states “Today you can still see many homes like these in Tanzania, but they are fast disappearing as people replace them with new houses built mainly of bricks and corrugated iron sheets. The Village Museum provides an important historical record of how different groups of people lived in a Tanzanian rural setting until the recent past”.
Yesterday I was talking to Professor Lwamayanga at the Ardhi Institute architecture school, who has a PhD is traditional building techniques in Tanzania. “There is so much scientific knowledge to be learnt from how different ethnic groups in Tanzania treat their building materials”, he says. The Village Museum is a way of preserving fragments of this knowledge, as the houses have to be maintained. Only houses which are suitable for hot humid climates have been reconstructed in the Dar museum. Other buildings would not survive. “There is so much information on the block houses on the coast, all imported. I was asking what is the real architectural heritage of this country?” The village museum is, however, not his main interest. “These are just examples for tourists to get a glimpse of what they would see if they travel inland”. At the foot of Kilimanjaro he is involved in an ambitious conservation project to preserve whole Maasai settlements including the architectural tradition, cultivation techniques and other cultural practices. The project includes home stays for tourists in the chiefs’ compounds and a new museum with a living museum surrounding it. So the Village Museum is neither in the eyes of the urbanists nor the conservationists the hot and sexy topic of the moment. To the urbanists I see, however, a potentially very valuable green space in the rapidly expanding city, a peaceful and pleasing environment to relax from the traffic and the office towers.
The problematic aspect of the museum, what makes me feel I have to justify my liking it, apart from admitting being old fashioned and not following the fashionable trends in my profession, is maybe how one knows how much poverty there is in the regions many of these houses came from. When the people from these regions move to Dar-es-Salaam, they may be living in crowded informal areas and certainly not go to a museum to see their grandmother’s sister’s house. Removing the house from its context and turning it into a museum object may give it a form of cultural status. The ambiguity arises because you have very little way of knowing what the lives of the people who were living in these houses, are like now. The romanticism of the happy rural life, undisturbed by the traumas of modernity, is a myth not needing repetition. Maybe the Village Museum itself serves as a relic to a type of museum representing a certain historical approach to culture, no longer accepted, when vernacular architecture was seen as groups clearly distinguished and with clearly standardised customs? Life is much more complex than this, but as an attempt to grapple with identity in a new nation, the “one house, one culture” approach may be a small beginning, and a way of preserving something disappearing as life changes, even if it means putting it is boxes much too small to contain what life was like in these huts and how certainly the same village not one hut was exactly as its neighbour.