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National museum's struggle to rebuild is part of Liberia's tumultuous history.
MONROVIA, Liberia — Wooden artifacts sit in piles, labeled with Post-it notes, in what someday will be the Liberia National Museum's gift shop. The only room in the museum with a lock, it houses everything not on display, including several snake skins more than 6 feet long and an old transistor radio missing its antenna.
The museum was not always this ramshackle — it was once home to almost 6,000 pieces for display and had a UNESCO-devised plan to make it one of the best museums in West Africa.
The museum, with its ups and downs, both tells and parallels the history of Liberia, whose story it is devoted to chronicling.
The museum, in the capital city of Monrovia, now gets just three or four visitors a week, as well as occasional visits by school groups. More than three-quarters of those 6,000 pieces were looted or destroyed during Liberia's 14 years of on-again-off-again civil war.
Liberia was once an economic powerhouse and relatively well-developed West African country. Founded by freed American slaves in the mid-1800s, Liberia was never colonized by European powers the way almost every other African country was. In the 1960s, Liberia boasted several five-star hotels, a booming tourism industry and a growing rubber export market.
Twenty-five years ago, a UNESCO consultant wrote a report to the Liberian government commending the museum and recommending that “the whole building should have air-condition and hydro-temperature control” and windows with ultra-violet light protection.
But instability began in 1980 with the assassination of President William Tolbert. Tensions flared between the Americo-Liberians, the freed slaves who founded Liberia, and the indigenous Liberians who had been excluded from the country's power structures. When Samuel Doe took control in 1980 he ended the rule of the Americo-Liberian elite. Doe's rule became increasingly repressive and corrupt.
A full-fledged civil war engulfed Liberia in 1989 and lasted until 1996. One group of rebels was led by Charles Taylor, a warlord now on trial for crimes against humanity he allegedly committed in neighboring Sierra Leone. War broke out again in 1997 and lasted until 2003. Now Liberia is rebuilding, under the leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Africa's first elected female head of state.
The last war hit the museum — and Liberia — the hardest, according to the museum’s acting director, Albert Markeh. He said the bulk of the looting happened in 2003 after a grenade destroyed an entire wall of the building.
“They [the looters] sold stolen objects between the second and third war so they knew their value,” said Markeh. “I myself fled for my life.”
Today, the museum, with no electricity, is far from being a regional stalwart, and it’s hard to imagine a time when Liberia might have needed a UNESCO museum consultant. Today consultants abound in post-conflict Liberia, but they make recommendations about how to provide basic health care, infrastructure, and education — things not currently available to ordinary Liberians.