Review of Sierra Leone’s heritage legislation

23 April 2015

Ruins of the slave fort on Bunce Island in the Sierra Leone River, one of Sierra Leone’s most celebrated heritage sites, declared a national monument under the Monuments and Relics Act in 1948. Photo: Paul Basu.

Paul Basu has been commissioned by the Government of Sierra Leone to undertake a review of its heritage legislation.

The existing law, the Monuments and Relics Act, was originally passed in 1947 and has long been regarded as ineffective and unfit for purpose. As a consequence, Sierra Leone’s heritage has been woefully neglected for generations, and has come very low in national priorities.

In an historic development the Sierra Leonean government has now acknowledged the need for reform, and Paul will be working alongside colleagues at the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, Monuments and Relics Commission and Fourah Bay College to develop recommendations for new legislation that will better safeguard and promote the country’s heritage.

In a statement delivered at the signing of the consultancy contract in Freetown, Paul explained that this was a unique opportunity for the Government of Sierra Leone not only to bring the country’s heritage laws in line with international standards, but to go beyond them and develop new models, particularly in community-based approaches to heritage stewardship.

Paul Basu working with communities in rural Sierra Leone to map their ‘vernacular’ heritage landscapes. Photo: Nick Gestrich.

Having spent over 10 years researching aspects of Sierra Leone’s cultural heritage, Paul noted that while there was still a common misconception that heritage only equates with ‘monuments and relics’, people throughout the country value their cultural traditions and their histories; places and practices that connect their present and past. It was important, he argued, to explore new ways to support communities define and take care of their own heritage, and to develop national heritage legislation that is not merely imported from elsewhere, but that is responsive and appropriate to the particular context in Sierra Leone.

In an article entitled A museum for Sierra Leone? Amateur enthusiasms and colonial museum policy in British West Africa, Paul has discussed the colonial origins of heritage legislation in the region. Sierra Leone’s 1947 law was passed in response to a Colonial Office edict and was never taken seriously by the local legislature. With no provision for developing or sustaining expertise in heritage conservation or management, and no resources attached to it, the protection it offered even the few sites that were declared as national monuments was only ever nominal.

Over the coming months, alongside a local counterpart, Paul will engage in a wide range of consultations to broaden the scope of the legislation to include both tangible and intangible heritage, and to transcend the false dichotomy between cultural and natural heritage. Most challenging, however, will be to address long-term, sustainable funding and capacity issues for the heritage sector, particularly as the country anticipates a post-ebola crisis recovery, where there will again be many competing demands on resources.

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