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Cameroon museums: The language of symbols for cosmo-architecture

The Route des Chefferies is a program in Cameroon that focuses on safeguarding and promoting heritage for over twenty years. It aims to restore and create spaces that promote the heritage of populations, chiefdoms, and the region as a whole. The program has led to the nomination of several traditional buildings to the World Heritage list with UNESCO. The contemporary architecture of the museums and heritage huts is inspired by the traditional aspects of the Grassfields, contributing to the scenographic development of the territory. The Museum of Civilizations is an interpretation center of Cameroonian civilizations, open to the public since 2010. It features a nautical base, beach volleyball court, playground, craft center, and a Garden of Civilizations. The Royal Museum of Foumban combines tradition and modernity, featuring the coat of arms of the Bamoun Sultanate. The Bamendjinda community museum highlights the specificities of the Bamendjinda chiefdom under the theme "Arts-Tradition and Slavery."

The Route des Chefferies is a program of safeguarding and promotion of heritage in Cameroon, which, for about twenty years. It works in the restoration and creation of spaces aimed at promoting the heritage of the populations, the chiefdoms, and the region as a whole. This program, innovative in Africa, integrates a large pole dedicated to the development of the territory, to architecture, and to the design of heritage. 

This pole works on the cultural and tourist development of the territory by proposing buildings and places imbued with an «African» scenography that allows for the reinforcement of a rural cultural centrality. The urbanity here is specific because it navigates in a world where the living rub shoulders with the world of the ancestors, the invisible world. It also contributes to the rehabilitation of traditional buildings in danger, and participates in their safeguard in the case of various programs. 

Thus, since 2018, the restoration work carried out by several chieftaincies has led to the nomination of several traditional buildings (traditional palaces of Bandjoun, Bapa, Batoufam, Mankon, Bafut ...) to the list of World Heritage with UNESCO. 

The contemporary architecture of the museums and heritage huts (14 heritage huts have been built to date) is fundamentally inspired by the traditional aspects of the Grassfields, which will be recalled in the first part of this article, in order to contribute to the scenographic development of the territory, notably through the creation of cultural buildings detailed in the second part, all within the framework of work in communion with local craftsmen and artists, but also with the elements offered by nature in the Grassfields.

The Museum of Civilization

The Museum of Civilizations is an interpretation center of the civilizations of Cameroon open to the public since November 20, 2010. This building, located on the shores of Lake Dschang, has become an authentic place of leisure and culture thanks to its nautical base (2005), its beach volleyball court, its playground (2006), its craft center (2010) and very soon a Garden of Civilizations. After an introductory presentation of Cameroon over the centuries, the visitor is invited to discover the Cameroonian people in its identity both plural and fusional: the peoples of the forest with their totemic expression, the peoples of the sea with the revival of the Ngondo cultural festival, the Sudanese-Sahelian peoples with their lamidats, chieftaincies, sultanates and the peoples of Grassfield with their mysterious chieftaincies. 

It is an interpretation center that promotes an integrated approach to cultural heritage that allows visitors, especially local communities, to reconnect with their roots while learning about the cultures of other regions. This approach is part of cultural tolerance, an important vector of cultural diversity.

The contemporary African architecture, signed by the architect Sylvain Djache Nzefa, founder of La Route des Chefferies, is characterized by the symphony of symbols: spider, buffalo, elephant woman, Abbia jettons, and local languages. The Museum of Civilization, with its multiple functions, is endowed with history, knowledge, and intelligence. 

In the world of the living, in the Bamileke cosmogony, men and animals dialogue, and this dialogue is also done in representation. Among the living, the one who possesses the sum of all experiences is the old man. Everywhere in Black Africa, the old man «was» considered to be the wise man, the connoisseur, the one who «held» the truth, through his multiple experiences. It is his knowledge that is symbolized through the spider. 

According to Pierre Harter: The spider-mygale, symbol of knowledge, often takes the form of a small single or double circle, with four crossed legs and not eight, which makes it possible to compose on certain mask headdresses or certain engravings of libation horns, a sort of diamond or square mesh net. The spider thus appears as the central element of the architecture of the Museum of Civilization: it is taken here as an architectural element that gives rhythm to the façade.

The façade is treated as a mask through blue moldings. There is a desire to hide what is behind. Let us not forget that in the Negro-African, the masks speak; the wearer is possessed by his mask. Here, the wearer is the museum. The mask representing the spider expresses the contents of this building, that is, knowledge. The buffalo and elephant masks symbolize strength, power, grandeur, and wealth. 

Another façade of the museum is covered with alphabets and the word «welcome» written in several languages and dialects spoken in Cameroon. The eye is busy here capturing the multitude of information, codes, landmarks, which are symbols representing the objectives, the roles of the building namely: educate, preserve, transmit, innovate... 

Through these symbols, a man approaches what is knowledge, intelligence, society, cosmology, and cosmogony. The motifs used for the moldings on the facades are stylized forms of masks, motifs such as the spider, the buffalo, the woman, and the elephant. 

The act of building or conceptualizing objects and habitats is seen as a support for knowledge and understanding of the other. It leads to a review of all that is at stake in the constitution and foundations of the different civilizations of Cameroon. The visitor is thus led to question his cultural identity by a better knowledge of himself, which facilitates in principle the dialogue between civilizations. 

The Museum of Civilization is developing an African museographic experience that aims to put the public at the heart of the process through didactic support and contextual settings that allow visitors to immerse themselves in the heart of Cameroonian cultures. It is not so much a matter of showing as of creating an experience of a visit by provoking sensations and emotions. 

Realized by a Franco-Cameroonian team, the content of the exhibition is based on a scientific and interdisciplinary approach (history, archaeology, ethnography, sociology, architecture, and heritage...). Dynamic and educational. The exhibition has been conceived, in space and time, in such a way as to integrate current events. 

With more than 500 objects, 1500 illustrations, video spaces, the museography integrates in an important way the traditional African materials worked in a contemporary approach by the local craftsmen (varnished or burned bamboo, banana bark, obom bark, cowries, beads, raffia, earth, coconuts...) This is the first time that we discover how traditional skills can be highlighted in contemporary scenography. 

The Museum of Civilizations does not find its justification in the existence of a collection of objects of its own; the pieces presented illustrate the discourse chosen by the designers and come mostly from loans and deposits of the chieftaincies. 

Royal Museum of Foumban 

The Bamoun Sultanate is located in the Western Region of the Republic of Cameroon in Central Africa. The Sultanate is at an altitude of 1200 meters and covers an area of 7,625 Km². The current Sultan, Ibrahim MBOUOMBOUO NJOYA, 19th of this dynasty, animated by the immeasurable concern to safeguard this rich multi secular heritage bequeathed by his ancestors, has undertaken for nearly two years, the construction of a new museum adapted to the museum rules and spacious enough to contain all the objects of the collection. 

The architect Issofa MBOUOMBOUO has thought of a symbolic architecture that combines tradition and modernity and which, in itself, is enough to be a museum. This symbolic architecture is a set composed of the coat of arms of the Kingdom such as: 

1 - Double bell: Symbol of patriotism. It is an instrument used by the King to stimulate and galvanize his troops at the front.


2 - The spider: Symbol of work. The King wants his people to be as hardworking as the spider who spends all his time weaving webs.


3 - Snake with two heads : Symbol of the simultaneous victory of the Bamoun people on two fronts. It symbolizes the power of the Kingdom. The result of this masterpiece is the first vector of communication of this museum, through its cosmogonic architecture, following the example of the Museum of Civilization in Dschang.

Heritage hut, community museum of the Bamendjinda chiefdom: art, tradition and slavery

Its permanent exhibition, unique in the region and in Cameroon, highlights all the specificities of Bamendjinda under the theme «ARTS-TRADITION AND SLAVERY». The Bamendjinda chieftaincy has been marked by slavery, whether it be slave trade or customary slavery. 

Some cultures still commemorate this past. Its historical and social consequences are perceptible in its plastic production, in its cultural expressions, in the organization and functioning of its chieftaincy. SM TANEFO, the current chief of the Bamendjinda, actively participates in the work of memory on this part of the history of Cameroon. 

The Bamendjinda community museum plays a role in the collective memory at the social, cultural, educational, and economic levels. Through objects, illustrations, paintings, videos, and a library, this museum is accessible to the general public. It is playful, complete, and enhances the cultural heritage of the chiefdom. 

The visitor, through the decorations, is led to discover not only Bamendjinda from its origins to today, but also the history that has marked the social organization of the chieftaincies of the West and of Cameroon.

The architect Sylvain DJACHE NZEFA once again highlights on the main façade of the museum a mask called «Katso mask» or «Batcham mask». This mask is generally used in secret societies and its presence on the façade is a sign of celebration of this object. Slavery is a historical phenomenon common not only to the Bamendjinda people, but to Cameroonians, Africans, and many others. It is our past, our history, our heritage, our future. This museum is the embodiment of the memory and cultural vitality of the Bamendjinda people.

Heritage case of the Bapa chiefdom, rock village

The permanent exhibition of this museum has 7 spaces related to the central theme: «MAN, NATURE AND BELIEFS». The spaces defined by the Bapa traditional chief, SM David SIMEU, are the following: 

Discovering: which presents the history and relations between Bapa and the neighboring villages, and the organization of the chieftaincy and the place of the secret societies; 

Soak up: presents the nature and physical geography of Bapa; 

Create and build, presents the different poles of activity found in Bapa, as well as the evolution of architecture, from bamboo constructions with interpretations of weavings, to earthen brick construction and spouted earth; 

Savor, highlights the gastronomy of the 4 cultural areas of Cameroon, the methods of conservation of traditional foods and the food prohibitions of the past and present; 

Warrior, presents the power to heal as well as the place of totemic animals in the Bapa culture; 

To think, invites us to reflect on the protection of the environment with a nod to CIPCRE, and also unveils the modified model of the Bapa chiefdom; 

Blending in, displays nature, the medicinal and edible plants that nature offers us, with a miniature map of the Bapa village, and the tchui waterfall.

This museum is marked by its picturesque architecture, which values the conical roofs of the West, the stabilized earth brick and especially its entrance in the shape of a cave which calls upon the various caves and rocks found in the locality and its surroundings. The scenography here highlights the local know-how in a process of transformation of vegetable waste. 

Thus, the work carried out by the architects of the DRC with the craftsman Banana Fashon led to the innovation of wall coverings from: dried banana leaves, peanut shells, dried corn leaves, colored woven straws...These decorations extend the understanding of the theme of the exhibition which is to bring man closer to nature. 

In addition to the need to highlight the know-how and beauty of the Bapa culture, to perpetuate it for the education and edification of future generations are the main motivations of the chief. Drawing inspiration from traditional architecture in order to create the architecture of tomorrow is a guarantee of safeguarding and promoting traditional know-how. 

The Route des Chefferies, through a creative scenography of the territory, proposes a reinterpretation of the great architectural principles without denigrating them. It uses symbols, materials, and traditional elements to give a new vision of the territory. The Route des chefferies is currently working on new concepts within the framework of the Route des Seigneurs de la forêt, Route de l’eau and Route du sahel programs.

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