The national museum
As part of the re-visioning of Namibia’s history and construction of post-independence identity, the country’s national museum collections, which until recently were predominantly housed in the Alte Feste – Old Fort, an unequivocal symbol of the German colonial era – are now dispersed across several sites.
The rather musty but worthwhile Owela Museum, which takes its name from the Oshiwambo for the popular wooden board-and-bean game you see played under trees across Africa, is primarily concerned with ecology and the ethnography of Namibia’s indigenous populations. The traditional life of the Nama, Damara, Herero, Himba, Kavango and San are depicted through dioramas, artefacts and photos, giving insights into their varied cultural practices – from methods of hunting and agriculture to music and puberty rituals – some of which exist in mutated form even today. Highlights include Nama cosmetic powder boxes made of tortoiseshell and embellished with beads, and an oryx-horn trumpet used by the Himba to herd cattle. While the majority of displays adhere to the “pickled-in-aspic” approach to cultural traditions, a more recent display on the San shows greater critical engagement with the complexities of culture undergoing modernization.
The smaller ecology section inevitably involves overdosing on taxidermy, though there are attempts to bring the hapless animals to life by locating them in dioramas of their natural habitat, some in striking action poses: vultures tuck into a zebra carcass, while a caracol snatches at a fleeing guineafowl.
Independence Memorial Museum
The gleaming gold spaceship that dwarfs the Christuskirche and the Alte Feste on either side is the new Independence Memorial Museum, whose aim is to pay homage to those that fought for the establishment of the Namibian state – so don’t expect any critical commentary. Fronted by a larger-than-life statue of Sam Nujoma brandishing the constitution, this predominantly photographic documentation of the struggle for independence is currently suffering major teething problems; in particular, the video material designed to contextualise the wall displays has not been operational for some time.
The narrative sets off at a gallop on the first floor with a brief idealized portrayal of pre-colonial life as “peaceful co-existence” before speeding through the Scramble for Africa, early resistance against colonialism, Namibia under Apartheid and the formation of the People’s Liberation Army of Namibia (PLAN), primarily told through labelled photographs but also including some graphic slavery-themed friezes. The second floor documents guerrilla operations from neighbouring states with more photos supplemented with a couple of tanks and some weaponry, while the final floor illustrates some of SWAPO’s activities in exile, and celebrates the resettlement and repatriation of exiles and the final achievement of independence.
The Alte Feste
Resembling a toytown fort with its gleaming white exterior, corner turrets and neat crenellations, the Alte Feste (Old Fort) is Windhoek’s oldest surviving building. Designed as a headquarters for the Schutztruppen, its cornerstone was laid in 1890, though it wasn’t completed in its present design until some 25 years later. Since then, the fort has had a varied history: as well as housing German, and later South African Union troops, it has also been a hostel for the adjacent Windhoek High School and up until 2014, it played host to most of the national museum collection. However, beyond a few historical ox-carts by the entrance, and the new independence struggle monument by its steps, there’s now little to see inside while the government debates how best to utilize the space. Even so, it’s worth having a peek at the grassy courtyard to get a sense of the place. At the time of writing, this was temporary home to the controversial Reiterdenkmal, a bronze equestrian monument erected to commemorate some of the German soldiers and civilians that died during the colonial era.