For black people across the diaspora, coming to Africa can be much more than a vacation. Many see it as a pilgrimage, one of returning to the home of their ancestors, so the normal trappings of the average holiday may not be enough for their journey. Visitors to the African continent are frequently there to experience the arts, letters, and history in a way that may not be required of other vacations.
Museums of all stripes act as collectors and aggregators of heritage, and on the African continent, they are as numerous and diverse as the many cultures therein. For those looking to infuse their trip to Africa with a bit more culture than your average vacation, here are eight fine examples of significant museums that black travelers especially will appreciate.
1. Le Musée Fondation Zinsou, Ouidah, Benin
The Zinsou Foundation was created in 2005 to promote African art in Benin. Though its headquarters are in Cotonou where it maintains a modest exhibition space, the museum in Ouidah is a much more ambitious undertaking. Housed in a refurbished mansion, it holds the foundation’s permanent collection of contemporary African art.
Since the museum opened in 2013, it has made great strides in its mission to preserve the artistic heritage of Africa. Though the collection began with what the Zinsou family themselves donated from their own personal collections, its holdings have since grown considerably and feature work in many different mediums. Visitors to the museum will find the normal trappings of personal collections like photography, painting, and drawing, as well as 3D work like sculpture and installation. You’ll also find more ephemeral media as the focal point of events and exhibitions.
The foundation is the brainchild of Marie-Cécile Zinsou, the French-Beninese daughter of former Prime Minister of Benin, Lionel Zinsou, and the grand-niece of Émile Derlin Zinsou who was briefly the president of independent Dahomey following a military coup in 1967. For Marie-Cécile, being a part of a political family was a huge influence in her decision to create the organization, saying, “I guess I have a sense of duty; I think that’s a feeling you have when you come from a political family. You have a duty towards your country. After having an experience of working with children in an orphanage for two years, I felt that I had to do something and thought my part could be related to education. That’s how we started the museum and the libraries.”
As part of Marie-Cécile’s vision for the museum and the greater foundation to serve as the backbone for comprehensive arts education programs, admission to the museum, exhibition space, and attendance to any of their classes or events is always completely free.
2. The National Museum of Ethiopia, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
Though it houses many different important collections, the museum is most famously known as being the home of Lucy, a fossilized example of Australopithecus Afarensis, a species of early hominid that lived between 3.9 and 2.9 million years ago. Discovered in the late 1970s, she was named after the song played most frequently at the dig site where she was found, The Beatles’ “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” though she also has an Amharic name, Dinkinesh, meaning “you are marvelous.”
Lucy became famous around the world, largely due to the book Lucy: The Beginnings of Humankind, written by paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, who led the team that originally discovered Lucy in Ethiopia. Johanson himself assembled Lucy at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, and after a multi-year tour of the United States organized by the Houston Museum of Natural Science, she was returned to Addis Ababa.
Lucy is undoubtedly a huge draw, but the museum has a lot more to offer. Begun as a project of the Institute of Archeology as a way to display its findings, the museum has grown into a full-fledged collector and preserver of the paleo-archeological findings and history of the country. It currently operates four main exhibitions, with only the basement dedicated to African paleontology and archeology.
On the first floor, you’ll find pieces relating to the history of the Ethiopian Empire, including those known to have been owned and used by Haile Selassie, the former emperor. The second floor shows the chronological history of the arts in Ethiopia, beginning with traditional handcrafts, jewelry, and utensils and ending with contemporary fine art. The final exhibition attempts to convey the greatness of the history of the country in a comprehensive ethnographic display.
3. L’Aventure du Sucre, Pamplemousses, Mauritius
Though sugar is now cheap and plentiful, it was once a commodity so sought after that its value in trade was akin to gold or silk. In Mauritius, sugar has long been a lucrative crop and is still cultivated there to this day, using some 85 percent of the country’s arable land. The Dutch were the first colonizers to capitalize on the sugar cane industry in Mauritius as early as the 17th century, but it was the French who transformed this production into a worldwide affair. By investing in infrastructure by producing the nation’s first modern sugar mills, they succeeded in legitimizing the Mauritian sugar trade on a global scale.
L’Aventure du Sucre is a museum dedicated to the complicated colonial history of Mauritius’s sugar industry, built in a former sugar refining facility. Located within the Beau Plan Sugar Estate, the museum is set at the end of a long boulevard flanked with coconut palms and bougainvillea to which the factory is juxtaposed. The vast and industrial interior is softened somewhat by the attractions therein: the lights and screens of the multimedia exhibits that are the backbone of a comprehensive tour.
The museum is also very near to the Pamplemousses Botanical Gardens, a 300-year-old attraction featuring some incredible flora and fauna. Visitors can see tortoises and java deer, as well as the always spectacular giant pads of the victoria water lilies that grow in its many ponds. Since it’s in the area, be sure to pay the gardens a visit as well.
4. Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town, South Africa
Operating as a public nonprofit, this museum is, in a lot of ways, the backbone of contemporary art on the African continent. Built in the refurbished Grain Silo Complex at the V&A Waterfront, Zeitz MOCAA has accomplished a great deal in its short history. Opened in 2017, it is the largest museum dedicated to African art of any kind in the entire world, and though it focuses on promoting both established and emerging artists, its laser-pointed focus is almost exclusively on works from the 21st century.
More than just a museum, Zeitz MOCAA acts as a platform for African and African diasporic artists, as well as a mediator and purveyor of arts education and discourse. Also headquartered on its premises are The Center for Art Education and The Center for the Moving Image, both dedicated to promoting their respective disciplines via instruction and display. It is currently curated by the world-renowned Cameroonian born Koyo Kouoh, the former artistic director of RAW Materials in Dakar, Senegal. She took over the curatorial helm of Zeitz MOCAA in 2018, and much of the museum’s continued success and viability in the world art zeitgeist is directly credited to her leadership.
5. Kigali Genocide Memorial, Kigali, Rwanda
This memorial was built specifically to honor the victims of the 1994 Tutsi genocide in Rwanda. As their capital Kigali is nearly in the exact center of the country, it’s in an ideal location to serve as a place to reflect on the future of the country and for survivors to remember and pay respects to their loved ones.
The exhibitions are threefold, beginning with the largest, the one that thoroughly documents the atrocities of the 1994 Tutsi genocide. Starting with the pre-colonial history of what is now known as Rwanda, it takes viewers through the premeditated nature of the Rwandan genocide and extolls upon the successes of the opposition. Venture further into the museum to find the Children’s Room, which is dedicated to the memory and the scant remaining stories of the infants and children that lost their lives during this untenable period of Rwandan history.
A huge reason the memorial was conceptualized and constructed was to offer a respectable burial site for the people who were murdered. During and immediately after the genocide, the resultant human remains were either callously thrown into mass graves or left in the open to deteriorate, but a massive effort was launched to collect and reinter these people’s desecrated remains as a part of the memorial. An enormous portion of the memorial’s function today is to act as a dignified burial space for the people whose bodies were desecrated after their death and thereby offering visitors a reputable place to pay their respects.
A tremendous part of the mission of the memorial is to educate visitors about the pressures that led to the Rwandan Genocide as well as the consequences of it. By also including corollaries to other similar acts in history — like the Cambodian Killing Fields or the Holocaust — they aim to prevent future generations from repeating these atrocities in the future.
Though it’s not a huge memorial, leave more time than you would think you’d need for your visit. Upon their first visit, many find they need extra time to reflect on exactly what happened back in 1994, as few outside of Rwanda has actually been privy to this history in such a holistic way.
6. The Museum of Contemporary African Art Al Maaden, Marrakech, Morocco
Delicately navigating its unique position to highlight both Middle Eastern/North African art and Sub-Saharan African art, the Museum of Contemporary African Art Al Maaden (MACAAL) in Marrakech houses both a permanent collection and rotating exhibitions that aid in exploring this confluence. Housed in a historic neo-Moorish building, this museum is brand new, having opened only in 2018.
Its exhibitions belie particular respect for work across many disciplines, as it’s equally likely to show a painting as it is a work of experimental digital media. The offerings also seem to reveal a drive to display work across a wide range and different types of experience, as you are likely to see work from both someone classically trained and somebody self-taught. Overall, the experience more closely captures both the experience of the layperson to the arts in Africa and the African artist relationship to the sometimes disjointed African art market.
In addition to the exhibition space, MACAAL has particularly dedicated itself to arts education evidenced by their offerings as far as instruction and residence. Most ambitiously, it offered a four-day boot camp for emerging African talent within the arts sphere. Created in conjunction with A Million Dots, 20 young professionals were invited to MACAAL campus in January of 2020 to participate in training and workshops taught by some of the greats in African fine art, like the aforementioned Marie-Cécile Zinsou, founder of the Zinsou Foundation in Ouidah, and Koyo Kouoh, director and chief curator at the Zeitz MOCAA in Cape Town.
7. Maison des Esclaves, Dakar, Senegal
Though there is some debate as to the site’s actual role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, La Maison des Esclaves — or the House of Slaves — nonetheless remains one of the premier memorials to the atrocities of chattel slavery in the entire world. Located on Gorée Island, about three kilometers from the coast of Dakar, it is home to the Door of No Return — the door through which kidnapped African people were marched through to board the boats that would take them to the Americas to be enslaved.
It is so named because, though escape from the house of slaves was radically uncommon, it was impossible after passing through the door and was the last time any of the Africans who were marched through it would see their homeland for the rest of their lives. And after the Door of No Return, only death would save them from their fate across the Atlantic.
Whether or not this Gorée Island installation was a major player in the trans-Atlantic slave trade or not, it is undisputed that it was, at some point, an active holding center for Africans awaiting their journey across the ocean. To most Africans, and especially to those from the African diaspora returning from the Americas, the distinction seems nominal or even completely unimportant — the gravity of the lessons to be learned at the museum remains just as salient.
The House of Slaves has, over the years, attracted its fair share of world leaders. Among its famous visitors are Pope John Paul II, Barack Obama, and Nelson Mandela, who reportedly stepped away from the tour to sit alone for a time in one of the basement cells. Though many have speculated on what exactly he was ruminating on so silently for those few minutes, he never saw fit to share it.
8. Grand Egyptian Museum, Giza, Egypt
The cornerstone of the new master plan for the Giza plateau, the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM) will be the largest museum devoted to archeology in the world. But hold off on your travel plans — it hasn’t yet opened, though after years of delays it is scheduled to start accepting its first visitors in 2020. A massive project, the museum has been in development for nearly 20 years, beginning with a worldwide contest to choose a design for the building. The winner, company Heneghan Peng from Dublin, Ireland, proposed an ambitious design: Shaped like a triangle, the north and south walls line up precisely with the Great Pyramid of Khufu and the Pyramid of Menkaure respectively, the front facade made from translucent alabaster.
Former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak laid the foundation stone in 2002, thus ceremonially signifying the beginning of construction, though the bulk of the build did not begin until 2008 when the completion date was set in 2013. Unfortunately, there have been many delays in GEM’s construction, caused in large part by the Egyptian Revolution which led to Mubarak’s long-awaited resignation. Nonetheless, construction was eventually completed, and works are currently being moved from disparate museums, universities, and various other holdings across Egypt to their final home within GEM’s carefully designed walls.
The sheer number of items the museum will house will rival the collections of museums of any type worldwide. Not only will it become the home of the entire Tutankhamun collection, of which many items are making their public display debut, but it will house a total of over 50,000 items of Egyptian antiquity. No laypeople have been allowed to tour the museum yet, but a handful of journalists have entered in the final stages of construction and assembly, many of whom note that visitors to Egypt after the opening should allow at least one full day to explore the museum alone, as it will be far too vast to see in conjunction with the pyramid plateau. In the meantime, the world waits with bated breath.