Historical symbols: a source of social cohesion or subjugation?

The key functions of historical structures and artefacts are to uphold the heritage of a community, shape the community’s identity, promote social cohesion, and spark conversations on societal issues. Refilwe Mashigo applies findings from a Cameroon study to the recent debate on historical monuments in South Africa and concludes that, for museums to play their role in serving the public, they must remain free from political control.

While most of the historical structures gracing South Africa’s parks are easily and freely accessible to the public, this is not the case in the Cameroon Grassfields. In line with the government’s policies to bring history and heritage closer to its people, museums in Grassfields are often erected in restricted areas, contradicting the very reason for their being.

Artefacts in Grassfields are under the control of kwifor – a secret regulatory society. According to Dr Mathias Fubah Alubafi, the siting of museums in restricted areas, such as a king’s palace, induces the community to regard these artefacts as ‘sacred and secret’, thus impeding the learning experience of its members.

In an attempt to inform Cameroon’s government of the consequences of establishing new museums in palaces, 35 participants, ranging from museum officials and government representatives to local and foreign museum visitors, were interviewed to establish the preference between public museums and museums built within kingdoms.

In assessing the case of the Grassfields museums, Alubafi argues that the community members are deprived of the opportunity to engage with their heritage through historical artefacts and structures, as is their right. Due to the location and restriction of the palace museums, Grassfields museums experienced a significant decline in the number of visits to these museums between 2009 and 2013, despite the activities undertaken to increase the numbers.

‘This decline is occurring in spite of the fact that many traditional activities – such as annual dances, death celebrations, twin celebrations, periodic rituals to the ancestors and deities of the kingdom, as well as contemporary or secular rituals by community members – take place in these palaces, sometimes attracting a large population on a daily basis’ (Table 1).

In contrast, South Africa’s structures of historical significance, monuments placed in the public eye, are easily accessible and are consequently open to constructive criticism from members of the community.

Recent demonstrations and conversations on colonial structures in South Africa, such as the #RhodesMustFall movement, have triggered debate in society around structures and symbols that define our history. In essence, historical structures such as statues and museums exist to inform future generations on historical events and trigger conversations on an array of societal issues and current affairs.

The #RhodesMustFall movement not only changed the narrative on colonial symbolism, education and race in South Africa, but also spread to the United Kingdom, where the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at Oriel College, Oxford University, was also brought under scrutiny. Because of the location and accessibility of both monuments, the communities were impelled to discuss their relevance in today’s society.

Although the movement brought contrasting results, with the removal of the statue at the University of Cape Town, and its retention at Oriel College under a clearer historical context, it is evident that accessibility to the monuments prompted a fresh discourse on historical backgrounds and other social matters.


Reflecting on the removal of the statue in South Africa, Advocate Sonwabile Mancotywa of the country’s National Heritage Council writes: ‘The recent protests around statues have shown us that we need to pay proper attention to the symbols of our democracy. We all need to ask what symbols could represent our societal values and can serve as an inspiration.’

Public policies, people and participation

How then have policies on heritage preservation in Cameroon Grassfields influenced its community’s lack of engagement with its heritage, cultural practices and history?

The study argues that policies on the establishment of museums in the king’s palace failed to consider the relation between the community and heritage symbols, and consequently, community members had less interest in visiting palace museums. Alubafi suggests that ‘museums should be established in community centres where greater focus is on the relation between the museum and communities rather than between the king and the museum, as is the case with the palace museums’.

Moreover, Grassfields museums are perceived as being associated with royalty and consequently ‘a site of power relations or as an institution representing the interest of elites’.

Young people and women, however, challenge this relation and question the kingdom’s claim of its dominance over historical artefacts. As a sign of protest, young people have become creative with traditional royal cups made from cow horn, engraving them with images of Bruce Lee, a Hong Kong-American film actor known for his action-packed martial arts roles.

The politics of museums and artefacts

Defying tradition and challenging the role assumed by the elite vis-à-vis the community’s heritage symbols corroborates the argument that placing museums within the king’s palace hinders social engagement on issues that could result in social change and criticisms that the kingdom cannot refute. By establishing ‘community centre museums’ – museums which are accessible and apart from kingdoms – community members begin to engage in conversations that not only expand their knowledge of their heritage or history, but also question their relevance in today’s society, as witnessed with the #RhodesMustFall movement.

So what are the avenues for changing these policies to museum access? Alubafi recommends the following:
•    Public policy revisions should be effected that allow for museums to be relocated to or constructed in community centres because of their restriction-free access.
•    The Cameroon legislature should revise its public policies in order for community centre museums to be constructed on communal land rather than on land owned by the king or elites. This will minimise the influence of kings, traditional elites and ‘royal eligibles’ on the facility.
•    In building museums, there should be community consultations to ensure that the museums conform to communal principles and to encourage community participation and ownership of the facilities.
•    Museums should adopt an inclusive approach by focusing on issues affecting the entire community, including commoners, women, the youth, elites and visitors.
•    Museums in community centres should collect and display secular and entertainment arts rather than only sacred and secret art as is the case with the palace museums.

In conclusion, to foster engagement on issues of heritage and how it is interpreted by today’s generation, governments should consider establishing monuments outside areas under their control. In order to realise its wish to bring heritage to its community, Cameroon Grassfields should consider building museums that are freely accessible, under no royal or elite control and reflective of the community’s heritage, and not only the royal relics. Common spaces such as parks, town squares and libraries are areas that are welcoming and safe, and are thus the preferred spaces for monuments that will promote community involvement and reflect the culture of all those who live in it.

Refilwe Mashigo, former science journalist, Research Use and Impact Assessment, Science Communication, HSRC.