Yale IPCH fellowship supports preservation of cultural heritage in Africa

Yale IPCH fellowship supports preservation of cultural heritage in Africa

Sixteen leaders of cultural institutions from across Africa have embarked on a ground-breaking initiative with Yale’s Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) to develop museums, libraries, and other organizations that preserve material collections and tell the stories of the continent’s diverse civilizations and cultures.

The individuals, hailing from 11 countries — and representing museums, cultural centers, libraries, archives, and heritage sites — compose the inaugural cohort of IPCH’s Yale Directors Forum, a first-of-its-kind fellowship program for global leaders in the cultural sector. The 18-month program will help the fellows enhance their executive leadership skills, expand their professional networks, and strengthen their institutions’ capacity to preserve and care for their respective collections ranging from visual art to rare books.

Their journey kicked off last month with a four-day symposium in Johannesburg, South Africa, which brought together more than 35 experts and fellow practitioners in the cultural heritage space to learn, connect, and develop strategies to support cultural heritage preservation on the African continent.

The Yale Directors Forum embodies the principle that locally led institutions are the cornerstone of thriving communities and a vibrant cultural ecosystem,” said Charlotte Ashamu, director of international programs at IPCH. “We aim to create a unique platform to foster learning, creativity, and innovation within the cultural sector.”

The inaugural group of fellows includes Wanjiru Koinange, an award-winning Kenyan writer and co-founder of the Book Bunk Trust, a non-profit organization the seeks to revive Nairobi’s libraries; Ghana’s Kwame Akoto-Bamfo, a multidisciplinary artist, cultural activist, and founder and director of Nkyinkyim Museum in Ada Foah; and Makhosi Mahlangu, a chef, food entrepreneur, and founder of Sivalo Food Museum in Zimbabwe.

The program is unique in that it relies on a network of global expertise that extends beyond Yale’s campus to include practitioners from across the globe. It’s a new model of global engagement in which much of the programming occurs overseas and within the communities where the fellows live and work,” said Susan Gibbons, Yale vice provost for collections & scholarly communication. “Its goals align with those of the Yale Africa Initiative, which President Peter Salovey established in 2013 in part to strengthen relationships between Yale and African institutions.”

Africa’s cultural institutions face daunting challenges, including a lack of funding for operations, critical staffing and infrastructure needs, and limited opportunities for professional exchange among peers on the continent. Overcoming these obstacles, Ashamu said, requires a collaborative, multifaceted effort that draws on diverse partners and expertise in the humanities, heritage conservation, and business, among other fields.

The four-day symposium, held Feb. 6-9 in Johannesburg, embodied this approach. Its educational component focused on three topics that the fellows identified as priorities: collections care and management, fundraising and resource mobilization, and board leadership and governance.

The fellows connected with Yale faculty and staff, including Mae-ling Lokko, assistant professor at the Yale School of Architecture; Nontsikelelo Mutiti, director of graduate studies for graphic design at the Yale School of Art; Mark Aronson, deputy director and chief conservator at the Yale Center for British Art; and Jennifer Newman, associate artistic director at the Yale Schwarzman Center.

The symposium also enabled the fellows to interact with and learn from experts from India, Cote d’Ivoire, the United Arab Emirates, and the United States.

This program is going to have an enormous impact on the African continent, ensuring that future generations will be able to learn from and be inspired by the region’s museums, heritage sites, and other cultural institutions,” said Brent Leggs, executive director of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and senior vice president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “I’m looking forward to continuing to share ideas and best practices with leaders across the continent so we can center a future where heritage values thrive.”

The symposium also featured talks and visits with leading cultural entrepreneurs and figures in South Africa. For instance, award-winning fashion designer Laduma Ngxokolo explained how researching collections of Xhosa beadwork for his college thesis project inspired him to found MaXhosa Africa, a global fashion and lifestyle brand.

He helped us see the importance of making museum collections accessible, particularly to young people to inspire, educate, and generate ideas about using those collections in a contemporary way,” Ashamu said.

For fellow Silenkosi Moyo, regional director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, the symposium provided valuable insights. But it also inspired her to value the networks and relationships she has begun to develop.

The symposium illuminated the importance of leveraging this social capital for the greater good of the community I serve,” Moyo said. “The Yale Directors Forum served as a catalyst, igniting a renewed sense of purpose within me to make meaningful and impactful use of my social connections in order to create positive change in my community.” 

Over the course of the fellowship, the fellows will examine their leadership skills and their institution’s top organizational challenges with the assistance of an executive coach. IPCH’s international programs team will visit each fellow’s institution and begin an assessment of the collections. They will work with the fellows to develop ways to effectively manage the respective collection through preventative conservation, stronger planning, and systems.

And at the conclusion of the fellowship, the 16 fellows will convene again to share insights with each other and the broader Yale community.

For Koinange, co-founder of the Book Bunk Trust, the program is off to a strong start. 

The recent symposium was truly a legacy building experience, as is the fellowship as a whole,” she said. “The curation was nuanced; the speakers were thorough and thoughtful about their presentations; and the time spent with other fellows was a reminder that while the work we’re doing is challenging, it’s also precious, timely and urgent.”

Read more about Yale and Africa  |  Read more about the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage

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