The Cultural Weapon 30 March 2011

The Cultural Weapon

 Mike van Graan

 Development as a destroyer of Culture

 The Government of Uganda has decided that the Uganda National Museum – the country’s only national museum – will be demolished to make way for a 60-storey East Africa Trade Centre.  The proposed “ultramodern” building – which politicians suggest will take 3-5 years to complete but which will take closer to 30 years according to civil society activists and commentators familiar with such Ugandan  projects – will house the Ministry of Tourism, Trade and Industry, commercial retail outlets and office space.  Oh, and two floors will be allocated to a new national museum.

Established in 1908, the Museum is more than one-hundred years old and is thus itself a heritage site. 

This is a classic case of “development” versus “culture”, in much the same way as “development” has often destroyed the natural environment in the name of economic growth and social progress.  For those who advocate “culture as a vector of development”, this particular case presents a major challenge, both philosophically and strategically.

Increasingly, “culture as a vector of development” has come to mean the catalysing and support of the creative industries as economic drivers, as job-creation mechanisms, as generators of the financial resources that will be used to address major social and human development needs in the areas of health, education and the eradication of poverty, all important in the pursuit of the Millennium Development Goals.

This is particularly relevant to Uganda whose per capita income is a mere $460 and which is ranked a lowly 143 on the Human Development Index.

What the Ugandan government is saying is that the Ugandan National Museum – a national heritage site and the primary repository of the nation’s historical artefacts – is not a vector of development in that it is poorly attended by locals and tourists; it does not generate income; it serves no real economic purpose, and, if anything, it consumes limited public resources.  From their point of view then, it is a no-brainer to demolish the museum in favour of a building that will generate substantial income through more commercially viable uses, and which could then very well contribute to economic, social and human development in Uganda.

By the same logic, the Ugandan government can next make a move on the National Theatre.  Why bother to have a National Theatre – even if it is better used than the National Museum – when the economy can benefit more from a shopping mall or prestigious office block or apartment building in its place?

Therein lies the philosophical challenge to the “culture as a vector of development” proponents i.e. by making the case for the arts primarily on the basis of their economic contribution, the corollary is that where cultural institutions or the arts do not make an economic contribution or make an economic contribution that is substantially less than another option, then politicians and bureaucrats feel justified in destroying culture in favour of a better “development” option.

And yet, the proposed 60-storey building does not simply represent the destruction of culture in the form of the possible demolition of the National Museum; in truth, it represents a culture that is different, even foreign to the one represented by the Museum.  The 60-storey building represents a culture of materialism, an elitist culture of ostentation, a globalised culture with a building and the values that it represents that could be in any major city of the world.  The National Museum on the other hand – the one destined for destruction – is about Ugandan identity; unique Ugandan history; values, traditions and worldviews that are peculiar to Uganda, a building and content that celebrates cultural diversity as envisaged by UNESCO’s Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.

Uganda is not a signatory to the Convention.  Not yet anyway.

And herein lies the strategic challenge to proponents of “culture as a vector of development”: to mobilise an international movement to prevent the destruction of the National Ugandan Museum, thus preserving cultural diversity in a globalised world, and contributing to a richer understanding of the relationship between culture and social, human and economic development. 


1. The views expressed in this column are entirely those of the writer and are necessarily representative of any of the organisations in which he is involved. 

2. This column may be forwarded by the recipient to any other interested party, and may be reproduced by any publication or website at no charge, provided that writer is acknowledged.

3. To engage with the content of this column or to provide feedback, go to

Mike van Graan is the Secretary General of Arterial Network, a continent-wide network of artists, activists and creative enterprises active in the African creative sector and its contribution to development, human rights and democracy on the continent.  He is also the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute (AFAI), a South African NGO based in Cape Town that harnesses expertise, resources and markets in the service of Africa’s creative sector.  He is considered to be one of his country’s leading contemporary playwrights.

For further information, see, and


About mikevangraan

Mike van Graan is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. He is a playwright, and most recently served as the Executive Director of the African Arts Institute. He was the founding Secretary General of Arterial Network, a civil society network of artists, activists and creative enterprises engaged in the African creative sector and its contribution to human rights, democracy and development on the continent. Currently, he also serves as a Technical Expert to UNESCO on the 2005 Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Cultural Weapon 30 March 2011

  1. William le Cordeur says:

    Thanks Mike for another great article!

    Development affects the cultural possibilities in our countries the same as it does the economic possibilities. People have been writing for years on how development serves the agenda of the IMF, World Bank and other Western Free Trade economic interests, and more recently on how the Chinese are going about their colonialisation of our continent. But to look at a concrete case study like the National Museum of Uganda is a great analogy of this pattern.

    Next week the French Cultural Centre in Blantyre, the most active cultural venue in Malawi, is closing down. The French Government has given its own economic reasons for closing the venue, which has become a cultural Mecca in Malawi. The venue will be sold to a private bidder, and probably become a restaurant or a conference centre. The Malawi Government has been pestered for years by the different cultural societies to build its own cultural space, and small attempts at this have resulted in white elephants. With no space to perform, exhibit or meet, the artists of Malawi have another wall on their road to a more professional Pan-African and global market.

    Au Revoire FCC Blantyre!

  2. You are right,Mike and MMap,the ugandan governement should choose another site to build its trade center and protect the museum as an outstanding cultural heritage for the people of uganda despite its low attendance and few income generated from that old museum. Théo nganzi /DRCONGO.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s