MONROVIA, Liberia — Wooden artifacts sit in piles, labeled with Post-it notes, in what someday will be the Liberia National Museum's gift shop. The only room in the museum with a lock, it houses everything not on display, including several snake skins more than 6 feet long and an old transistor radio missing its antenna.
The museum was not always this ramshackle — it was once home to almost 6,000 pieces for display and had a UNESCO-devised plan to make it one of the best museums in West Africa.
The museum, with its ups and downs, both tells and parallels the history of Liberia, whose story it is devoted to chronicling.
The museum, in the capital city of Monrovia, now gets just three or four visitors a week, as well as occasional visits by school groups. More than three-quarters of those 6,000 pieces were looted or destroyed during Liberia's 14 years of on-again-off-again civil war.
Liberia was once an economic powerhouse and relatively well-developed West African country. Founded by freed American slaves in the mid-1800s, Liberia was never colonized by European powers the way almost every other African country was. In the 1960s, Liberia boasted several five-star hotels, a booming tourism industry and a growing rubber export market.
Twenty-five years ago, a UNESCO consultant wrote a report to the Liberian government commending the museum and recommending that “the whole building should have air-condition and hydro-temperature control” and windows with ultra-violet light protection.
But instability began in 1980 with the assassination of President William Tolbert. Tensions flared between the Americo-Liberians, the freed slaves who founded Liberia, and the indigenous Liberians who had been excluded from the country's power structures. When Samuel Doe took control in 1980 he ended the rule of the Americo-Liberian elite. Doe's rule became increasingly repressive and corrupt.
A full-fledged civil war engulfed Liberia in 1989 and lasted until 1996. One group of rebels was led by Charles Taylor, a warlord now on trial for crimes against humanity he allegedly committed in neighboring Sierra Leone. War broke out again in 1997 and lasted until 2003. Now Liberia is rebuilding, under the leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state.
The last war hit the museum — and Liberia — the hardest, according to the museum’s acting director, Albert Markeh. He said the bulk of the looting happened in 2003 after a grenade destroyed an entire wall of the building.
“They [the looters] sold stolen objects between the second and third war so they knew their value,” said Markeh. “I myself fled for my life.”
Today, the museum, with no electricity, is far from being a regional stalwart, and it’s hard to imagine a time when Liberia might have needed a UNESCO museum consultant. Today consultants abound in post-conflict Liberia, but they make recommendations about how to provide basic health care, infrastructure, and education — things not currently available to ordinary Liberians.
Relics of the war that made Markeh and so many others flee are also on display in the museum. In one display, a pair of combat boots sits carefully placed alongside bullet shells and other pieces of ammo. They belonged to Prince Johnson, a rebel leader who orchestrated the torture and execution of President Samuel Doe in 1990. Johnson can be seen in a videotape of the grisly torture, sipping a beer in the background. Johnson later opposed Charles Taylor, fighting him from outside the country. Johnson returned to Liberia in 2004 and is now a prominent member of Liberia's senate.
Even though the museum has some newer acquisitions — like Johnson's boots — it’s hard to replace all that was lost, said Lamie Taweh, a guide at the museum. He mentions that founding president J.J. Roberts brought over a silver plate and spoon from America, both of which were on display in the museum. During the war, looters stole the spoon.
Other artifacts of the ruling Americo’s regime remain. Former President William Tubman’s carved wooden “throne” from the Stone Mason society — an iteration of the American Masonic order — is still there. Thumbtacks pushed into the red velvet upholstery hold up a paper giving the dates of Tubman's presidency from 1944 to 1971.
A newspaper from May 19, 1944, near Tubman’s chair carries the headline, “Why do Indigenous enterprises fail so frequently?”
On his tour, Taweh says that the museum houses three types of artifacts: an ethnographic gallery on the first floor, a classical art gallery on the second floor and a contemporary art gallery on the third. He then clarifies that only the first floor is currently in use.
The museum director Markeh said the historical artifacts are some of the museum's most important items because they help tell the country's story.
“This is a place of reconciliation," he said. "If you are lost and don’t know about yourself, you have to ask. And we explain.”
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