Historic Preservation in Sub-Saharan Africa
by John H. Stubbs
The overwhelming cultural and architectural diversity of the African continent is united by the shared experience of wholesale exploitation and colonization by outside forces. Though many world regions grapple with the complications of post-colonialism, this problem is especially acute in sub-Saharan Africa, where this legacy pervades all contemporary experiences, including heritage conservation.
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It is the root of three of the greatest challenges faced by heritage conservation professionals in most sub-Saharan countries today, including ineffective governmental institutions, destitute economies, and conflicted senses of ownership and responsibility.
The first two factors have resulted in a lack of funding for heritage conservation, lack of enforcement of heritage protection policies, and lack of trained professionals throughout sub-Saharan Africa, but the third factor is in many ways the most difficult to overcome.
Traditional cultural heritage management systems existed in sub-Saharan Africa even before the establishment of European-modeled structures and polices by colonial powers. Ritual use, taboos, and religious restrictions ensured the survival of sacred sites and complexes for centuries throughout the African continent.
The most important aspect of these traditional systems was their involvement of the entire community in heritage protection, an aspect lost over the course of the past century when Western-style legislation and agencies and Western-trained conservation specialists took over the care of their historic sites.
Though traditional connections to heritage sites have been severed in most of Africa, Botswana's community-trust program offers a positive example of how local groups can maintain a sense of ownership and benefit economically from cultural heritage that could be emulated across the continent.
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This article is excerpted from Time Honored: A Global View of Architectural Conservation by John H. Stubbs, copyright © 2009, with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.
A number of successful architectural conservation projects can be seen in places throughout sub-Saharan Africa. In the Italian colonial city of Asmara, Eritrea, built in the 1930s as a utopian village, a collection of avant-garde designs by some of Italy's leading architects have survived mainly due to a lack of change and the city's relative remoteness.
Photo: © Edward Denison
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A growing interest in the restoration of art removed from sub-Saharan Africa led to the Italian government's return of the Aksum Obelisk to Aksum, Ethiopia, in 2006. Italy had removed the obelisk in 1937 and erected it in Rome as the centerpiece of a traffic circle in front of the Ministry for Italian Africa.
Photo: © ICCROM
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