Of Museums, Really Old Things and Weeping By the Rivers of Babylon

When I touched down in London town, I just could not wait to see all the museums and old things. As a certified history buff, I knew I would enjoy the City of London thoroughly. I remember going to the national portrait gallery and gawking at photos of the Brontës for instance… as if I didn’t have the same photo saved in the photos folder on my laptop. I was in museum mode. I was in heaven.

As the days progressed, as I walked through the city, looking at old things – old buildings, old paintings, old statues, even old graves – I said to myself “Clearly these are people that understand the value of preservation of culture”. So why did they loot and steal and destroy other peoples’ culture?

I couldn’t help but remember that night in Kumasi, when I wept while reading a book by Richard Austin Freeman – Travels and Life in Ashanti and Jaman. I felt like I was walking with him through the now destroyed city of Kumasi when he noted ”

“The wholesale destruction of native houses that took place when Kumasi was burnt down by the British troops in 1874 is likewise a matter for great regret on the part of anthropologists”

Same Anthropologists and Historians that would later say that the African was an inferior human being, seeing as (s)he had no history. Ironic. Painful.

If a young British person wants to study history of british architecture, that’s easy. Let’s take the element of recorded/ written history out. They can simply go and look at the old buildings in London. Me, a Ghanaian that wants to study history of architecture here? Nothing.. My only resort is journals of British explorers and missionaries. Heartbreaking – who knows what prejudices clouded their thinking? Who knows if we can trust their words and sketches?

In preparing for my mock exam, I came across a question: “British Colonial Rule Was Inherently Pragmatic. Discuss”. What’s there to discuss? Of course it was. Destroy a person’s history and watch them struggle for years, FOR centuries to find themselves.

In an African Studies seminar the other day, an archaeologist noted wryly that the ruins of an amazingly well-constructed and elaborately planned town in South Africa are believed to have been put there by aliens. They’ll rather believe that aliens from outer space came down to Southern Africa and constructed a cattle-herding town than accept that people with dark skin did that.

And it’s not just white people. In trying to justify my selection of a topic for my M.Arch thesis, one lecturer flippantly remarked “History? Which architectural history? We know it all already – mud houses with thatched roofs”. Not surprising, because in studying history as young architecture students in Ghana, after Egyptian pyramids, we hear nothing “good” about precolonial architecture of Subsaharan Africa. Do you know that homes in the ancient city of Kumasi had “flushable” upstairs toilets before they had them in Britain? No you didn’t. Did you know that the water closet was “allegedly” invented by a black slave? Probably not. Do you know about the Aban? I didn’t either till I came across a photo caption in some obscure record. The Aban was a stone palace constructed by Fante builders where the Asantehenes kept all the state gifts and other important items. You can guess what happened to the Aban.

Where is our history? Destroyed, Demolished. And there’s nothing I can do about it.

By the rivers of babylon, there we sat down
Ye-eah we wept, when we remembered zion.

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