Lee Adair Lawrence

Malawi's lone conservation officer seeks to save his country's heritage

Moses Mkumpha heads home after a fellowship in New York with the skills to protect his country's endangered patrimony

Moses Mkumpha was teaching high school biology in Malawi’s capital of Lilongwe when he spotted an announcement in the newspaper. The Ministry of Tourism, Wildlife and Culture’s antiquities department was looking for a conservator. To this young Malawian, two years out of college and eager to make a difference, it sounded like an ideal job. “It combined science and history,” he says, and spoke to “the love of my heritage, to be proud of who I am and my background.” 

Malawi is a sliver of a country, nestled between Zambia to the west, Tanzania to the north and Mozambique to the east and south. The son of a postmaster, Mkumpha, along with his six siblings, had moved every few years, giving him a firsthand sense of the richness and diversity of Malawi’s patrimony.

When he accepted the post of conservation officer in 2010, he discovered it was also in grave danger. For almost 20 years, the country had had no trained conservator overseeing preservation, conservation and restoration. Stepping into this vacuum, Mkumpha suddenly found himself responsible for a mind-boggling range of objects and sites — baskets, drums, wood carvings, masks, dinosaur bones, ceramics, Iron Age tools, 19th-century forts used during the slave trade and the richest concentration of rock art in Central Africa.  

“I didn’t know where to start,” he says. The department had no inventory of its holdings. There was virtually no funding for the restoration of buildings. And some of the country’s most important cultural and tourist destinations — granite hills painted with images of animals centuries ago — were being damaged. Meanwhile, Mkumpha realized he lacked the necessary training to make confident, sound decisions. That said, he had the necessary foundation in chemistry and biology — not to mention the perseverance — to learn. 

A 31-year-old man with a warm smile and quiet demeanor, Mkumpha is now in the final stretch of a nine-month program put together by the Conservation Center of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts and funded by the Leon Levy Foundation. Each year since 2009, the foundation has invited one conservator from a country that, as  Conservation Center Chairman Michele Marincola explains, “has an emerging sense of cultural patrimony but not the infrastructure to support education at a high level.”   

Your biggest bang for the buck is doing preventive conservation, and preventing the damage from happening in the first place.

Michele Marincola

New York University's Institute of Fine Arts

Moses Mkumpha in the ethnographic conservation lab of the American Natural History Museum
Lee Adair Lawrence

At the Conservation Center, Mkumpha has been immersed in classes. He has studied such things as the properties of different materials — what molecular forces hold, say, earthenware or metal together, and what forces pull them apart. He has also wrestled with the value judgments involved in whether and how to repair a piece. In tailoring Mkumpha’s program, Marincola also included hands-on training at the American Museum of Natural History, whose neo-Romanesque buildings sit on the other side of Central Park from the Conservation Center.

Mkumpha’s program focused on giving him the tools to take preemptive action to ensure the survival of the objects in his care. “Your biggest bang for the buck is doing preventive conservation,” Marincola says, “and preventing the damage from happening in the first place.” 

Mkumpha had already come to the same conclusion. Since starting as Malawi’s conservator, he’d focused on protecting the Chongoni Rock-Art Area, one of Malawi’s most renowned sites. In a cluster of granite hills some 37 miles south of Lilongwe, paintings of snakes, elephants, giraffes and other animals appear on boulders, outcrops and inside natural shelters.

Malawi’s oldest rock art dates back to hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area some 2,000 years ago; more recent ones are the work of a farming people who, some scholars believe, began to settle in the area in the eighth century, launching a painting tradition that lived on into the 20th century. Although men are typically associated with rock art, in the case of Chongoni, women created some of the paintings as a way of transmitting knowledge and social mores to girls coming of age.  

But campfires set by villagers were covering the paintings in soot, and kids were marking their presence with graffiti. This threatened both a source of tourism revenue and a valuable heritage. Mkumpha and colleagues launched educational campaigns, reaching out to village elders and schools, explaining to them the importance and fragility of their country’s rock art, and the need to refrain from damaging practices.  

But for some sites, it was already too late. In 2012, a project co-sponsored by the Department of Antiquities and the Nairobi-based Trust for African Rock Art cleared graffiti from a site about 40 meters long. It required hiring U.S.-based conservator Claire Dean, who figured out what locally available materials would erase the graffiti without damaging the rock and paintings. She then oversaw a team of about 10 people who worked for two weeks straight. One of many hands on deck, Mkumpha realized how much less time-consuming, expensive and risky it is to take preventive action.  

'We need replicas'

While delving into science and theory at the Institute of Fine Arts, Mkumpha spent the first six months also learning to make casts of bones and clean fossils in the paleontology division of the American Museum of Natural History. He also trained in collections management — how to label objects without harming them, set up and keep records and safely store objects using materials that will not emit harmful gases or acids.

To Louis Jacobs, president of the Institute for the Study of Earth and Man at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Mkumpha’s training bodes well not just for Malawi, but for the world. On an excavation in northern Malawi in 1984, Jacobs uncovered a long-necked dinosaur that roamed the Earth some 112 to 125 million years ago, when Africa and South America formed a single continent. One of the students participating in the excavation, Elizabeth Gomani, Malawi’s current director of culture, helped link this Malawisaurus to 65 million-year-old fossils found in North America. This established a sequence: When the continents split apart, some dinosaurs found themselves in South America and, over the following millennia, their descendants and relatives migrated north. Such discoveries “give you an overview of the globe,” says Jacobs, adding that Malawi’s section of the Eastern Rift Valley is particularly rich.

After studying the fossil of Malawisaurus, Jacobs’ team returned them to Malawi, keeping only casts they made of the bones. But that doesn’t always happen. Mkumpha cites a German team’s highly publicized discovery in 1993 of a 2.5 million-year-old hominid jawbone on the shores of Lake Malawi. It told scientists a lot about early humanoid development but, when visitors come to Malawi’s Cultural & Museum Center Karonga, Mkumpha laments, they can only read a label. The bone is in Germany. “We need replicas,” says Mkumpha, who now has the skills to make them.

Knowing where to start

A basket from Botswana, similar to some in Malawi.
Lee Adair Lawrence

For the final phase of his fellowship, Mkumpha shifted from the American Museum of Natural History’s paleontology division to its ethnographic conservation lab. His task here is to preserve two baskets from Botswana.

Mkumpha is well suited to the job. He moves with deliberation, never giving the impression of being hurried or tempted to multi-task. With undivided attention, he gently brushes loose dirt from a basket. When a fragment of wicker breaks off, he pauses, picks it up with tweezers and carefully sets it aside. Later he will bag it and label it.

The other basket, its side collapsed, is sitting in a humidifying chamber that Mkumpha helped construct. Once humidity has sufficiently relaxed the fibers, Judith Levinson, director of the ethnographic conservation lab, will teach him how to gradually return the basket as much as possible to its original shape. This is not only an aesthetic decision, she explains. Restoring the basket to its original structure will prevent further breakage and deterioration. For now, however, Mkumpha keeps checking the humidity level on the hygrometer and weighing whether or not he should add this instrument to his list. 

The list in question is one he is compiling with Marincola, who hopes to send him home with a suitcase filled with reading material and basic conservation equipment Mkumpha cannot find in Malawi: a polarizing microscope, an adhesive called Paraloid B-72, a laptop or two, a rugged Go Camera (which Mkumpha has learned how to attach to a kite to document rock art), a collapsible tripod, photo-editing and filing systems software, Ziploc baggies, safe foams and plastics, a digital hygrometer, moisture-absorbing silica gel and perhaps even India ink for labeling.

When Mkumpha returns to Malawi on June 1, he will take these objects to the southern commercial center of Blantyre. It is here, in the 1980s, that the antiquities department converted a seven-room bungalow into a storage and conservation facility. On previous visits, Mkumpha has found it daunting. Since the early 1990s, no one has directly overseen the care of objects and sites. The laboratory fell into disrepair. Inventories ceased. But the flow of objects into the department’s storage continued.

The objects most certainly include findings from Malawi’s rich fossil field and archaeological sites, as well as donations from families and village elders. Mkumpha cannot even begin to estimate what, and how many, pieces there are. But he returns primed to find out. He plans to train two assistants and start hauling down the boxes to inventory, photograph and document their contents.

Then comes the challenging part: creating for each object an environment that will protect it from future deterioration. Excavated metal implements, for example, need to be kept dry, baskets packed separately in non-acidic materials, and bones protected from dust and sudden changes in temperature. “I am excited because what I have learned is enough to do some good work,” he says. “But there is more I need to learn to do my job better.” Mkumpha is all too aware that future scholars will lose sources of knowledge if the objects in his care deteriorate. While this may feel unsettling, he is going home knowing that, now, he knows where to start.  

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