The origins of the Sierra Leone National Museum can be traced to the passing of a 1946 ordinance 'to provide for the preservation of Ancient, Historical, and Natural Monuments, Relics, and other objects of Archaeological, Ethnographical, Historical or other Scientific Interest'. Although the Monuments and Relics Commission, which was set up under this ordinance, was not explicitly charged with establishing a museum, this was identified as one of the priorities of the organisation in its first annual report. Under the chairmanship of Dr M. C. F. Easmon, a retired Krio physician and amateur historian, a collection of artefacts was gradually assembled and a temporary display set up in the library of the British Council. This collection was envisaged as the nucleus of a future museum.
Despite the hard work of Easmon and other members of the Monuments and Relics Commission, it was the personal enthusiasm of Sir Robert Hall, Governor of Sierra Leone between 1952 and 1956, that these plans for a museum began to materialise. In 1953, Hall promoted the establishment of the Sierra Leone Society, the stated aim of which was to encourage the advancement of knowledge about what was then the Colony and Protectorate of Sierra Leone. In his address to the inaugural meeting of the Society in 1954, Hall lamented the decline in Sierra Leone’s traditional arts and crafts, and challenged the membership to establish a museum, which he argued could ‘contribute towards the growth of national pride in what is past and what is traditional, by collecting and preserving objects and making them available for contemplation and study’. A Museum Committee was duly set up within the Sierra Leone Society to take the agenda forward. As well as Easmon, a number of other prominent Sierra Leoneans were actively involved, including Ernest Jenner Wright (a distinguished medical doctor), Christopher Okoro Cole (a senior lawyer who became Chief Justice and later Acting Governor-General of Sierra Leone), Arthur Porter (a historian who later became Vice Chancellor of the University of Sierra Leone), and Wilmot Dillsworth (a town clerk on Freetown City Council who succeeded Easmon as chair of the Monuments and Relics Commission).
In 1955 Hall offered to lease the old Cotton Tree Telephone Exchange (previously Cotton Tree Railway Station) to the Society for a nominal annual sum as temporary accommodation for the museum. The Society accepted the Governor’s offer and the minutes of its meetings record that the museum was to be named ‘THE SIERRA LEONE MUSEUM’, with the hope expressed ‘that this will in due course develop into a true National Museum of Sierra Leone’. Through 1956 and 1957 the disused telephone exchange was gradually refurbished, the collections assembled by the Monuments and Relics Commission were donated, and the new museum’s displays were organised. Easmon’s adept facilitation at this time was crucial and his ability to co-ordinate input across the Monuments and Relics Commission, the Sierra Leone Society, and the Sierra Leone Society’s Museum Committee was aided by the fact that he was then serving as chairman to all three entities simultaneously. Indeed, to these roles he would also add that of Curator, since the Museum Committee’s attempts to raise sponsorship funds to employ a trained curator for the museum were not successful and the task inevitably fell on his shoulders.
The Sierra Leone Museum was officially opened on 10th December 1957 by Sierra Leone’s Chief Minister (soon to become Prime Minister), Sir Milton Margai. This was the same year that national museums were opened in Ghana and Nigeria. According to the Monuments and Relics Commission report for 1957, a staggering 10,000 people visited the museum in its first week of opening, and subsequent museum reports show that annual attendance figures in excess of 250,000 were sustained into the mid-1970s.
In 1967, the Sierra Leone Society’s ambitions for the museum came to fruition and the Sierra Leone Museum finally became Sierra Leone’s national museum. The Sierra Leone Society had gone into decline after independence and had become defunct by 1964, its academic activities being superseded the same year by the establishment of a new Institute of Africa Studies at Fourah Bay College. Through an amendment of the Monuments and Relics Act in 1967, Sierra Leone’s Monuments and Relics Commission was given authority to ‘acquire, maintain and administer the Sierra Leone Museum founded by the Sierra Leone Society’. At that time, the Commission itself fell under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education, but was transferred, in 1973, to the Ministry of Tourism and Cultural Affairs following a reorganisation of government departments.