Museums as Agents of Change is an 18 month partnership project between National Museums Scotland and Museums of Malawi, funded directly by the Scottish Government. The project was designed to deliver training in a variety of museum skills and to update exhibitions and displays at the National Museum in Malawi. In November 2012 I was appointed to run the project and it has been a fascinating experience.
In early 2013 I travelled to Malawi for the first time to meet our colleagues in Blantyre, Malawi. I was made very welcome and myself and my colleague, Phil Howard, our taxidermist, travelled with them all to Liwonde National Park to carry out our first workshops.
In April 2013 four key staff from Museums of Malawi made the return trip to Edinburgh for two weeks of intensive workshops. However, they did get the chance to explore Scotland at the weekend when we visited the other Blantyre, birthplace of Dr David Livingstone, the man who started the special relationship that exists between Scotland and Malawi.
After visiting the National Museums Scotland Dr Livingstone exhibition and his birthplace museum, on their return to Malawi the team started preparing for a new Dr Livingstone exhibition for their own museum. In September 2013 I travelled back to Malawi to assist with the installation.
This was the biggest display project the museum has undertaken since it was built in 1966 and the transformation has been remarkable. The exhibition was opened on Tuesday 17 September 2013 by the Minister for Tourism, Wildlife & Culture. The opening was also attended by the Deputy British High Commissioner and over 200 invited guests. We were treated to performances by cultural dance troupes, poetry readings and short plays by local schools. Visitor numbers at Chichiri Museum have increased by 35% in the 3 months since the opening.
After the exhibition opening it was back to work with some more training on collections care, looking at security and environmental monitoring. I was also fortunate to be invited to the City of Stars arts conference and festival in the capital, Lilongwe. This was an excellent opportunity for everyone working in arts and culture in Malawi to share experiences and ideas. As usual in Malawi, there was a large Scottish delegation including the National Library of Scotland, Scottish festival directors, film makers and musicians. After the conference and four weeks of hard work it was a luxury to enjoy the City of Stars music festival on Friday and Saturday nights. There was music from the Malawi Mouse Boys (who featured on our exhibition film), Scottish band Bwani Junction and a choir from the Tilinanu orphanage, as well as many others.
The last phase of our project was delivered in February 2014 when two colleagues and I returned to Malawi. Jennifer Reid was running more collections workshops, Phil Howard returned to finish his taxidermy training and I was helping update the natural history displays.
Jennifer was leading a workshop on care of natural history collections, which meant a week in the stores dealing everything from snakes in jars to elephant bones.
The new taxidermy was installed in a refurbished showcase and the display enhanced by some hands-on interactives.
It has been a hugely successful project with staff from both organisations learning from and supporting each other. Although our project has come to an end, Museums of Malawi and National Museums Scotland continue to have a connection through our shared history and collections.
The final event in the formal partnership project took place on 31 March 2014 when the National Museum of Scotland hosted the Scotland Malawi Partnership Youth Congress. It was a fitting final event, with its theme of inspiring a new generation to get involved in supporting projects in Malawi.