A museum a non-profit, permanent institution in the service of society and its development acquires, conserves, researches, communicates and exhibits for purposes of study, education and enjoyment the material evidence of people and their environment.
Such broad conventional definition as adopted by the 16th general assembly of the International Council of Museums in 1989 has prompted many museums to fit into this description. The conception of a museum in Eritrea, as a matter of fact, is not based on a different premise. In an attempt to explore the role of a museum in the Eritrean society, an account is provided to outline the experiences of the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum in this article.
The Northern Red Sea Regional Museum was opened in 2000 on the 10th anniversary of the Fenkil Operation to exhibit natural resources of the Northern Red Sea, its cultural diversity as well as its archaeological and historical bounties. The activities of the Regional Museum eventually evolved to accommodate out-reach programs and research pursuits that culminated in public support and engagement. Of the numerous activities assumed by the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum, a sketch of different perspectives is provided to highlight the experiences of the museum to the public.
As far as the relationship between museums and society is concerned, it is expected that museums create relationships by welcoming people as active participants. Networks with the society are forged as outreach programs are constantly replicated. The Northern Red Sea Regional Museum has pursued multiple initiatives aimed at enlightening the general public from the remote areas of the northern extremes of the region to the formidable and inaccessible islands and inlets across the Red Sea Coast of Eritrea. The museum has drawn much of its collection acquisition procedures on the arrangement of ventures of active public engagement.
A remarkable public support of enhancing the collections of the Regional Museum has been witnessed from these ventures explained in terms of donations of cultural materials by people from many corners of the Northern Red Sea Region. The knowledge, skill and experience of the local population have also equally contributed to the enhancement of representations of various cultural materials from different ethnic groups inhabiting the region.
The knowledge and understanding of societies are expected to be shaped by museums by taking into account the political, cultural, legal, ethical and economic significance. In this respect, the mission of museums should reflect the realities of societies and countries. Of a particular importance in the Eritrean reality is the role of museums in the country in the nation building process. In Eritrea where national identity fosters mutual respect and tolerance, museums are expected to contribute towards an authentic representation of the prehistory, history and culture of the nation. Accordingly, the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum has over the years exerted efforts to engage people, particularly the youth, and the army, in awareness raising programs. Such efforts have enabled the museum to reach important segments of the society in as much as instigating the appreciation of heritage values as well as their role in safeguarding elements of cultural heritage in the region.
Another intriguing feature of engaging the public with the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum involves the participation of the local population in several research projects pursued in the region. The involvement of the local populations of Afta and Zula in the Adulis project as well as of the Buia environs in the Buia Paleo-anthropological and archaeological ventures has not only allowed the local population to appreciate the values of cultural heritage in their respective localities but also enabled them to be involved in various aspects of the project that in turn led to the building of strong networks with the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum. Local population involvement in scientific ventures equally benefitted the museum and the public in as much as the educative platforms created by permanent exhibitions can offer.
The safeguarding and preservation of elements of cultural heritage is further assumed as a role by museums across the globe. The interaction of museums with different stakeholders therefore becomes paramount. The Northern Red Sea Regional Museum has identified a number of stakeholders in these pursuits. Two important instances are mentioned here to indicate stakeholders’ involvement. The Integrated Management of Resources Scheme has for example allowed the regional museum to be engaged with the ministries of Agriculture, Marine Resources, Tourism and Land, Water and Enivironment to realize the safeguarding of heritage resources. Similarly, the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum has also been engaged on different occasions with custom duty authorities to prevent the probable illicit transfer and export of cultural heritage properties. These activities mainly featured organizing seminars to custom duty officers to raise their awareness on the values of heritage and build concerted efforts to curtail probable incidences of illicit export of heritage objects.
While outreach programs and stakeholders involvement in the pursuits of the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum created a stimulation of public consciousness, the creation of permanent display and exhibition venues has equally instigated a growing visitor culture from all walks of life over the years. The Northern Red Sea Regional Museum has worked to develop an exhibition encompassing materials from all segments of human history as well as specimens representing the natural resources of the region. The location of the regional museum in the port city of Massawa has enabled frequentation of different sections of the Eritrean society and the Diaspora in as much as the organized visitations by groups of tourists from different corners of the world. In this respect, the regional museum over the years has worked to stimulate public learning process and enjoyment coupled by the constant evolution of the exhibition platform and its interpretive schemes.
A different perspective to explore the relationship of the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum with the society concerns the observation of the International Museum Day. The Regional Museum has taken this event as a major platform to actively engage segments of the society in order to build fruitful networks with it. The event has been commemorated under several themes across the years to emphasize harmony in societies, celebration of traditional performances and oral histories as well as development and prosperity in societies. The promotion of these universal practices of heritage preservation and its contextualization with local realities has enabled the regional museum to address these themes with the wider society.
In concluding remarks, it should be noted here that the instances mentioned in the article have been highlighted to indicate how a scheme of this nature could be consistently simulated to bring about desired outputs as far as the relationship between museums and society is concerned. The achievements of the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum are quite commendable given the nascent nature of the museum. The constant replication of these series of activities is required to attain the stimulation of a museum culture both in the region and across the country. The experiences of the Northern Red Sea Regional Museum were drawn here to arouse similar pursuits as the role of museums in society is often shaped by time and extent of space. The writer expresses his gratitude to the Director of Cultural Heritage and the Regional Museum in the region Mr Yohannes Gebreyesus for allowing him utilize the available resources to explore the experiences of the regional museum and its relationship with society.