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Conserving Traditional Asante Buildings in Ghana

The decorated traditional Asante buildings of Ghana are among the most famous immovable cultural heritage in West Africa. In August of this year Emily Williamson of Community Consortium and I traveled to Ghana to initiate emergency conservation work on these buildings, of which only a handful remain, around Kumasi. This work is part of a WMF initiative for the structures that were included on the 2012 World Monuments Watch. WMF received a grant from the Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation for this project. Due to their historical importance, beauty, and uniqueness, they were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 1980.
Although World Heritage status signifies their great importance, preserving them remains a major challenge for Dr. Zagba Narh Oyortey, Executive Director of the Ghana Museum and Monuments Board (GMMB), the national institution in charge of heritage conservation. These buildings are fragile by nature and the climate can be extremely aggressive around Kumasi, with strong wind and rain storms. Traditional maintenance of mud walls is no longer a common practice in the villages because industrial materials have replaced traditional ones, and, as a result, the vernacular expertise needed to repair such buildings has vanished.

Keeping these buildings in use is also a challenge. The buildings are shrines disseminated in different villages. They played a very important social role in their communities, but they have unfortunately lost value as lifestyles and belief systems change. Most shrines are no longer in use, and the fetish priests who once inhabited these spaces are few.

Thus, the threats to the integrity of these buildings is both tangible and intangible.

Over the last fifteen years the GMMB has organized several restoration campaigns attempting to revitalize the art of mural decorations particular to the traditional buildings. To call attention to the state of the shrines, GMMB and CRAterre nominated the collection of Asante traditional buildings to the 2012 World Monuments Watch.

World Monuments Fund is working with CRAterre and Community Consortium to develop a comprehensive response to tackle the conservation problems. A first mission was organized in January 2014 to carry out a complete condition surveys of the known sites by representatives from GMMB, Community Consortium, and CRAterre under the auspices of WMF. The team produced a detailed diagnosis and proposed a list of emergency actions to be undertaken to avoid irremediable losses. The August mission implemented some of the proposed actions. The GMMB followed with additional repairs in September under the supervision of Simon Lawer, the Regional Director.

The August and September campaigns helped implement essential work for the preservation of the buildings and also helped trains the GMMB team responsible for this heritage. The campaigns focused on five sites: Besease, Adarko Jachie, Saaman, Asenemanso, and Patakro. At each site, the implementation team demonstrated treatment techniques while the regional GMMB staff executed the conservation. This hands-on, "train-the-trainers" approach to teaching was successful with all members of the GMMB technical team actively engaged in site work. This approach to open participation and communication enhanced the conservation process.

The interventions addressed humidity-related pathologies. Selected slopes were re-graded to eliminate water stagnation and reduce infiltrations at the base of the earthen walls. The similar strategy was applied to courtyards in order to divert water flow away from the wall bases. Several repairs were made to leaking roofs to prevent erosion of the mural decorations.