If you want to learn more about the history and origins of a place or a country, museums always offer enlightening insight through a collection of artefacts and other objects. Africa is home to countless museums that vividly tell the story of the continent – the painful past, the rich history, the powerful art, and the fascinating discoveries. From Mauritius to Senegal and Ethiopia and all the way up to Egypt, we have selected a few museums that will offer you an look into the vast and diverse history and culture of Africa.
House of Slaves – Senegal
The picturesque nature of Gorée Island in Senegal stands in stark contrast to its tragic past. The 900-metre long island used to be home to more than 20 slave houses during the Atlantic slave trade. Only one slave house still stands, and it is today known as the House of Slaves.
Opened to the public in 1962, the House of Slaves is one of the sites where African slaves were held and traded before being shipped away to the Americas. The house remains intact, with iron shackles and cells, where African men, women, and children were kept in appalling conditions. It is said that they would languish in these dingy cells for up to three months before being shipped off. More haunting and heartbreaking than the cells is the famous Door of No Return, through which every captured African walked out of the house to face their inevitable brutal fate.
The site serves as a grim reminder of the horrors of humanity, and has been visited by high profile figures such as Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.
Egyptian Museum – Egypt
With an extraordinary wealth of history and cultural heritage, Egypt is home to some of the richest and most astonishing museums in the world. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is among the country’s national treasures, housing the world’s most extensive collection of pharaonic antiques. A walk around the museum feels like a trip through time, where you’re transported thousands of years back to ancient Egypt.
The museum contains more than 120,000 artefacts and important pieces of ancient Egyptian history. Its halls and galleries are packed with objects dating from prehistoric times through Roman periods. While the collection touches on every aspect of Egyptian history, the main focus is the fascinating era of the pharaohs. This is where you will find the splendid treasures of Tutankhamun and other great pharaohs. Other objects on display include mummies, jewellery, ancient tomb contents, and Fayum portraits.
The original collection was established in the late 19th century before being moved to the current building in Tahrir Square in 1902.
Apartheid Museum – South Africa
Opened in 2001 in Johannesburg, the Apartheid Museum offers a glimpse into the dark chapter of the history of South Africa, educating visitors about the cruelty of apartheid and highlighting the courageous resistance that brought the system to an end.
Apartheid was a system of racial segregation enforced by the white-minority government in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. The anti-apartheid movement developed over the years in the form of non-violent protests and eventually armed resistance. The apartheid system ended with a negotiated transition to a non-racial democracy. Tens of thousands of men, women, and children paid with their lives for freedom.
The Apartheid Museum, which cost approximately R80 million (US$5,8 million) to build, hosts 22 permanent multimedia exhibitions that take visitors on a poignant journey of the country’s struggle for freedom.
Nairobi National Museum – Kenya
The Nairobi National Museum offers incredible insight into the natural and cultural history of Kenya. A visit to the museum will help you discover a lot more about the four pillars of the East African country’s national heritage: nature, culture, history and contemporary art.
The museum houses a great number of ethnographic artefacts that represent several ethnic communities of Kenya and other East African countries. These items include weapons and tools, clothing and ornaments, furniture, and ritual objects, among others.
The museum, which was initiated in 1910, holds exciting permanent and temporary exhibitions, including Cycles of Life Exhibition whose themes are birth, initiation, marriage, recreation, spirituality, healing and death rites amongst Kenyan communities. Cradle of Humankind delves deep into human existence using fossil findings in Kenya, while Birds of East Africa and Hall of Mammals showcase a rich diversity of birds and safari in East Africa respectively.
Blue Penny Museum – Mauritius
The tropical kingdom of Mauritius may be prominently known for its gleaming blue water beaches, but it’s also home to one of the fascinating museums on the continent. The Blue Penny Museum, located in the capital Port Louis, houses an array of precious collections. Most notable among them are the world-famous Blue Penny and Red Penny stamps, some of the rarest and most sought after stamps ever printed. Originally issued in 1847, the stamps are central to the history and culture of Mauritius and are considered a national treasure.
The museum’s collection also includes old marine maps, engravings, paintings, sculptures, and old documents that contain the history of the island nation.
National Museum of Ethiopia – Ethiopia
Located in the capital Addis Ababa, the National Museum of Ethiopia boasts an intriguing collection of wonders such as archaeological artefacts showing the history of Ethiopia from prehistoric times to modern day. Here you’ll find fossils of extinct creatures like the Homotherium, also known as the scimitar cat, which went extinct approximately 10,000 years ago. There’s also a display of the Notochoerus, which were among the largest pigs that ever existed. The crowd puller, however, is the 3.2 million-year old skeleton of “Lucy,” one of the oldest hominids ever discovered.
Some of the historical treasures housed in the museum include pieces of the ancient Kingdom of Aksum and the Solomonic dynasty. There’s also a vivid display of Ethiopian arts and crafts, including traditional weapons, musical instruments, utensils, clothing and jewellery.
Red Castle Museum – Libya
Named after the historic building in which it is located, the Red Castle Museum is a treasure trove of Libya’s history. Its collections span 5,000 years from prehistory to the era of the country’s independence in 1953.
The museum was established in 1919 when a section of the castle, which was used as an ammunition storehouse, was converted into a centre for housing some of the country’s archaeological pieces. As the number of artefacts grew, the museum expanded to occupy the entire castle in 1948.
The museum’s different wings and floors are dedicated to its various collections on prehistory, ancient Libyan tribes (Berber Garamantes, Tuareg, and others), Islamic Architecture, Libyan-Punic-Greco-Roman-Byzantine traditions, 20th century Libyan heritage, and the natural history of the country.
Benin City National Museum – Nigeria
The museum houses a stunning collection of artefacts of the Benin Empire, the ancient capital of pre-colonial Nigeria dating back to the 11th century. The medieval city was one of the most developed in West Africa, enclosed by walls that are believed to have been longer than the Great Wall of China at one point.
The Benin City National Museum, which officially opened to the public in 1973, preserves the history of this great ancient kingdom and its people, who were known for their innate expertise in bronze sculpture. Some of the artefacts found here include extraordinarily crafted bronze pieces, cast iron samples, and fired clay known as terracotta.
Museum Of Modern Art Of Algiers – Algeria
It’s easy to get lost in the stunning beauty of the exterior of this museum before you even step inside to see more wonders. After all it was originally used as a high end department store in 1909 before being redesigned in a Neo-Moorish style and officially opening in 2007.
As one of the country’s notable cultural achievements, the museum plays a major role in the promotion and development of Algeria’s contemporary art. It contains a collection of modern art both by Algerian and foreign artists but with emphasis on the former. Works by Algerian artists often tell the harrowing tale of the past struggles of Algerians, letting the viewer in to the history that shaped the country. The museum continues to attract large numbers of local and international visitors, establishing itself as one of the go-to places for contemporary art exhibitions in Algeria.
Iziko Museums – South Africa
Iziko Museums are a collection of museums located near the Cape Town city centre. These include the South African Museum, Bo-Kaap Museum, Slave Lodge, Groot Constantia Manor House, Koopmans-De Wet House, Maritime Centre, Michaelis Collection at The Old Town House, the Planetarium, Rust en Vreugd, SAS Somerset, Social History Centre, South African National Gallery, Bertram House, and The William Fehr Collection at The Castle of Good Hope.
All these museums are bound together by their aim to celebrate the culture of Cape Town and educate visitors about the diverse history of South Africa. Apart from exhibitions, the museums offer education and schooling programmes.