In his work and travels in Ghana, Raymond Silverman, professor of art history and Afroamerican and African studies, encountered many cultural villages--tourist destinations that attract visitors by offering a standard representation of “Ghanaian” indigenous culture. “People were doing the same thing over and over again,” he said, posing the question “How does one represent the culture of a nation comprised of over twenty ethnic groups, each with its own culture?”
So when a group of chiefs from Techiman—the community in which Silverman lived in 1979-80 while he conducted research for his PhD dissertation—approached him several years ago for assistance creating a similar cultural village, he feared it would only offer tourists the same kind of experience they could encounter at other, more accessible locations in Ghana. He was also aware, having spoken with these leaders who serve the community as custodians of tradition, that they are concerned about the loss of local customs and beliefs in the face of globalization. Silverman suggested an alternative: Rather than create yet another cultural village whose primary audience was outsiders and tourists, why not create a cultural center that would serve, first and foremost, the people of Techiman?
The chiefs immediately embraced the idea. This type of cultural center would strengthen ties between the culturally diverse people of Techiman (Ghanaians from all over the country live there because it is home to the country’s largest agricultural market) by offering a space where all the different cultures could express their traditions. It could also, by being a site where a variety of unique local cultural practices are performed, become a major tourist attraction.
This summer, Silverman will return to Ghana, as he has several times since 2005, accompanied by four graduate students to continue working with the people of Techiman on the Techiman Cultural Center. If all goes as planned, the center, when finished, will include a museum, art gallery, archives, library, artisan workshops, auditorium, restaurant, and more. It will be a social and cultural space where artisans and artists work, where annual festivals as well as weddings and funerals are performed, where local history is preserved, and where Techiman’s diverse communities come together to share their experiences with each another.
Although Silverman has been an instrumental advisor, the project is a thoroughly collaborative endeavor, and one in which the process is seen to be as important as the outcome. In Techiman, the chiefs are learning to concede part of their decision making authority to promote involvement from the community at large. Here in Ann Arbor, in 2006, Architecture and Urban Planning professor Jim Chaffers dedicated a design studio class to developing plans for the center. Some of his students traveled to Ghana with Silverman and Chaffers, where they met with a group of Ghanaian students who had done the same thing. They all worked together and presented their designs to the Techiman community, which selected one for the cultural center.
Although this type of collaboration poses challenges, the extra time and effort is part of an important process that Silverman hopes will result in the community and organizers learning new skills—a process that ultimately will strengthen civil society in Techiman.
These challenges also bring opportunity. Although this type of public scholarship is often not recognized as being legitimate academic work, a project like the Techiman Cultural Center gives Silverman the opportunity to explore an emerging paradigm that emphasizes the importance of engaging and collaborating with local communities in the production of knowledge. As Silverman explained, “We’re pushing the envelope with regards to how universities connect with communities, with the rest of society.”