Are we together? Yes, we’re together! - museum work on Zanzibar

August 2005 -

On 2 July 2005, the President of Zanzibar opened two new exhibitions at the House of Wonders, Zanzibar’s national museum. There’s something special about the whole endeavour, not just about the two exhibitions, which look at the history and culture of this Eastern African island, but also about the way they came about.

Professor Abdul Sheriff is the driving force behind everything the museum does. Some years ago, he decided to turn fifteen of his best employees into professional museum staff. Most of them had had almost no formal education, not to mention the fact that they had no experience of museum work either.
The first step was to contact the Dutch embassy in Dar es Salaam, which put them in touch with the KIT (the Dutch Royal Tropical Institute). The KIT was happy to advise: the Information & Library Services department advised the museum library’s employees on the best way to turn the huge collection of books on Zanzibar’s history back into a proper library. Staff from Amsterdam’s Tropenmuseum anthropological museum trained the employees in the management and preservation of collections, the organisation of exhibitions and in marketing & public relations.

To provide the training and advice, the KIT both drew on its own experiences and expertise and worked closely with the Programme for Museum Development in Africa (PMDA). This work led to museum experts from Botswana, Kenya and Zambia visiting the museum in Zanzibar to share their experiences with the House of Wonders staff. After much hard work, the museum staff were now able to run their own museum professionally.

The project achieved many notable successes, including the two wonderful and impressive exhibitions that have opened, with staff now having enough expertise to ensure that the following exhibition(s) will be at least as impressive. In fact, the project also succeeded on another level, namely in the excellent collaboration between the different parties. A single maxim - 'Are we together?’ ‘Yes, we’re together!' - typifies the collaborative environment enjoyed by the KIT, the PMDA and Professor Sheriff’s team. In the months leading up to the opening, everyone worked long and hard. Whenever the group momentarily lost its focus or felt its collective spirits sink, there would always be one person who would yell the team’s maxim: 'Are we together?' At which the rest of the group would yell back: 'Yes, we're together!'

Anna Brolsma works at  the KIT Tropenmuseum