17 October 2013

Zimbabwe: Tighten Security At Archeological Sites, Museums

Zimbabwe needs to develop a well-funded comprehensive plan for securing museums, galleries and archeological sites across the country to prevent the theft of the country's priceless heritage by international art criminals. This follows the return of the country's priceless cultural artefacts which were stolen eight years ago at the National Art Gallery.

A total of six artefacts were stolen in 2006 under circumstances which embarrassed the country.

The artefacts which were returned last week included four traditional Shona headrests or mutsago artefacts and two masks from Tanzania acquired by the gallery in 1964.

The missing artefacts were recovered after a "sting" operation in Poland by FBI and CIA law enforcement agents.

Zimbabwe prides itself in having one of the best national security systems in Africa and to avoid national embarrassment, the country needs to adopt a battery of measures to tighten security for its national heritage.

Many people were thrilled at the news of the recovery of the national treasures, but this can be shortlived if nothing is done to review our security systems at national museums and archeological sites dotted around the country.

Zimbabweans must not forget that a forensic audit which was conducted in 2006 after the disappearance of the six artefacts showed that close to 1 500 artefacts and objects had disappeared from the Museum of Human Sciences in Harare.

The magnitude of plunder of the country's priceless heritage shocked Zimbabweans and the international community.

It was sad and disturbing to hear such a loss of huge proportions for the unique artefacts that embody the country's collective memory.

The country needs to continuously audit its cultural artefacts to monitor and prevent the reckless plunder of the precious artefacts by international art criminals who rack millions of dollars from the loot.

Those entrusted with the management of museums, art galleries and archaeological monuments need to tighten security and install more surveillance cameras to protect national treasures.

Surveillance equipment often breaks down and in some cases is outdated. In such cases, officials need to elicit the support of the treasury and the private sector to speed up the installation of new camera surveillance systems and the maintenance of existing systems.

Plans also need to be put in place to install intruder-resistant windows in all exhibition rooms at museums, galleries and archeological sites.

The comprehensive security plan should aim not only to tighten security, but also to remove all negative encroachments on Zimbabwe's museums and archaeological sites due to the sophisticated nature of international art crimes.

Apart from this, a comprehensive training programme for guards and security personnel at all sites needs to be organised as a matter of urgency to ensure that Zimbabwe provides better trained and armed security guards at all archaeological sites and museums.

Tourism and antiquities police need constant training to firmly understand new trends and developments in security equipment and systems.

In addition, managers of the public treasures must mobilise aggressive campaigns to raise cultural awareness of the value of Zimbabwe's antiquities which is a vital component for efforts to revive the country's tourism industry.

The return of the priceless objects should help the country to accelerate attempts to improve the security level in museums, art galleries and archaeological monuments to take several actions, including the technological upgrade of security devices, staff education and the installation of better equipment.

To show its determination to end theft of its cultural property, the country must not hesitate to invest in the installation of "smart" camera systems and electronic security systems which are in use in major galleries and museums worldwide.

The theft of cultural artefacts is not unique to Zimbabwe alone, even galleries and museums in China, Turkey, US and other countries are also battling to stop the plunder of their national heritage.

But what is different, is their level of resolve and determination to put an end to this crime which threatens the survival of their heritage sites.

Zimbabwe needs to create a special professional security unit to prevent the theft and pilferage of valuable cultural artefacts which is on the rise across the world.

This professional security unit must be able to authenticate the cultural and historical wealth inventory list done by other specialists.

Cross-checking the items on the inventory list with the actual pieces on display can help minimise losses and secure the assets.

To secure museums holding an abundance of the country's rich historical artifacts, there is also need to organise seminars for legislators, Zimbabwe Revenue Authority personnel, police and other key stakeholders which have crucial roles in preventing cultural property smuggling.

Education and ironing out bottlenecks can also enhance the country's security mechanisms for cultural assets.

In 2003, Zimbabwe celebrated the return of the plinth of one of the Zimbabwe birds looted from Great Zimbabwe around 1890.

It was President Mugabe who received the lower half of one of the priceless collection of the Zimbabwe stone bird from then German Ambassador Dr Peter Schmidt that year.

The return of the bird was cause for celebration as this fitted well with the country's thrust of national identity and restoration.

Zimbabwe birds were stolen and taken to South Africa and Germany and five of them were returned in 1981 while the lower portion of one of the birds looted around 1890 was returned in 2003.

Only one Zimbabwe bird never left the country out of the original collection of eight.

The Zimbabwe birds are full of symbolic and emotional value for the people and this latest return is a call to action and the need to secure adequate resources for museums, galleries and archaeological sites security as well as putting stringent mechanism to curb thefts.

And there is no doubt that the return of the country's prized possessions stolen in 2006 is as the gallery's executive director, Mrs Doreen

Sibanda, put it: "A victory for small museums in Africa who have long been the victims of plunder of our heritage and material culture.

"By celebrating their return we are increasing the awareness to our local audience to their importance to the nation."

By tightening security for our public treasures, we are also protecting the fragile pieces that make up our collective memory.

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