Saving Uganda’s modernist museum

Friday January 03 2020

An exhibition hall at the Uganda National Museum in Kampala. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NMG


Sixty-five years after the iconic Uganda National Museum was built, its future is assured following a $135,000 grant from the US-based Getty Foundation “Keeping It Modern Initiative” project for restoration.

Over the years, real estate development pressures and the lack of national heritage protection laws exposed the museum and other historic buildings to physical threats, and the museum has has cracked and affected by moisture infiltration due to seepage of ground water.

The modernist building in Kampala was built by Ernst May, a famous German-born pioneer of urban planning who worked in Africa for two decades after being forced into exile when the Nazis seized power. He developed the design as part of a larger expansion plan for the fast-growing capital city of Kampala.

Construction began in 1952 and completed in 1954. As the first modern building in Uganda and one of the earliest cast-in-place concrete structures in Kampala, the museum influenced the design of other government and institutional buildings throughout the country.

While May included elements of international style modernism for the museum such as flat roofing sections, horizontal rows of windows, a cantilevered entry canopy, and polished concrete floors, he also demonstrated a sensitivity to the local environment by adding perforated partitions for cooling airflow and angled walls that produce diffuse interior lighting.


A view of the Uganda Museum. PHOTO | MORGAN MBABAZI | NMG


To address these and other issues, Getty-funded experts will prepare a conservation management plan that includes investigations into the original construction materials, the current structural safety of the building, and to guide future interventions, conservation, and maintenance.

The experts will also assess and study the building in order to: Train the museum staff on how to monitor the environment both inside and outside the museum to protect its valuable collections; raising awareness about the significance of the building; investigate the materials on the building and conduct analysis and testing; assess the major elements of the museum site including the gardens, artefacts, original furniture and fittings, among others; conduct a condition assessment and assess the models of failure on the museum building; investigate the concrete building techniques, materials used and advise on the best forms of concrete ratios and qualities; evaluate the remaining life span of the concrete within the building; and undertake some repairs.

This project will follow the International Council on Monuments and Sites Charter on principles for the analysis, conservation, and structural restoration of architectural heritage (2003).

According to one of the conservation architects for the Uganda National Museum project, Doreen Adengo, the experts are going to spend 18 months creating guidelines for preserving the building.

“It’s important to understand that this is not a construction project. Instead, our aim is to fully understand what is unique to this building and how best to preserve it. This step will allow future construction interventions to be much more targeted and effective.”

“This will be the first Conservation Management Plan on a modernist building in Uganda. It is my hope that this is only the beginning of a national movement to preserve our many modernist gems,” Adengo added.

In January 2020, a two-week training programme for stakeholders, engineers and architects will be held at the museum where they will explore the problems and develop preliminary solutions.