Museums in South Africa Laboratories of Social Transformation

South African National Gallery
South African National Gallery | Photo (detail): ImageBROKER © picture alliance

Which transformations were necessary to free museums from the shackles of colonialism? Ciraj Rassool highlights the developments in South African museums since the mid-nineties.

By Ciraj Rassool

From the dawn of democracy in South Africa in the mid-1990s, the museum sector became a laboratory of social transformation, as old museums and collections were set upon a path of transformation and new museums were created as part of the establishment of a new nation, with new concepts of citizenship. During the 1990s, a White Paper on Arts and Culture was published by the new government and an Arts and Culture Task Group (ACTAG) was set up to devise a framework for the transformation of the arts, museums and heritage sector. Outside the domain of the state, new independent museums also began to emerge to tell the story of apartheid and democracy at the local level. In general, museums needed to transform themselves from being part of the regulatory and governmental structures of a racial order, to being forums for building a democratic society.

Wrong approach at first

Initially, municipal and provincial museums sought to change themselves merely by adding black history on to old, established museum exhibitions. Some museums also sought change by telling a longer history (or prehistory) of human origins and indigenous patterns of migration in order to convey a sense of ancestry in a past now acknowledged as marked by human presence, in which the land had not been empty. At the same time, old national museums had become sites of debate and contestation, in which new exhibitions posed questions about museum classification, and sought to recover indigenous histories. At the South African National Gallery (SANG), artefacts and artworks of indigenous material culture, such as beadwork and golden sculptures were presented as displays of aesthetic and social ingenuity, challenging static ethnographic frames.
In the mid-1990s, the SANG was also the site of a landmark exhibition, ‘Miscast: Negotiating the Presence of the Bushmen’, which sought to recover an authentic San/Bushman voice, and contrast this with the violence of the gun and the museum. This authentic voice was seen to reside in folklore recorded by Lucy Lloyd and Wilhelm Bleek in Cape Town in 1870s and 1880s from Karoo /Xam-speakers, who had been imprisoned for acts of resistance against colonial encroachment. Marked by an uncritical framework of the rescue and recovery of authenticity, ‘Miscast’ was severely criticised for perpetuating the very colonial visual economy it sought to question, and for being unable to address the cultural politics of Khoesan identities, which were building up in South Africa.

Questioning the norm

The South African Museum (SAM), which had become the main site for the conjoining of collections and displays of natural history and ethnography was emerging as an important venue for questioning the ethnographic, especially in the depictions of indigeneity as tribal in its African Cultures Gallery. The main focus of critique and debate was the Bushman diorama, which presented a habitat display of an invented scene of Bushman culture, based upon a colonial artwork by Samuel Daniell, and which had been on show since 1960. This display had incorporated body casts made from farmworkers and shepherds in the northern Cape, as part of an early 20th Century project of racial science that sought to document the physical features of a supposedly ‘disappearing race’.
Following the recommendations of the ACTAG report, overarching national museum flagship institutions were created in the north and the south of the country, with the southern flagship named as Iziko Museums of South Africa (with Iziko meaning ‘hearth’ in Nguni languages), comprising inter alia the collections of the previously separate SANG, SAM and the South African Cultural History Museum (SACHM). During apartheid rule, the SACHM had become the venue for the representation of the narrative of European cultural history, which was deemed to have culminated in Cape Town. Its main venue was one of Cape Town’s oldest buildings, once the site of the Supreme Court, but which had its origins in being the location for the incarceration of slaves owned by the Dutch East India Company (VOC). One of the important steps taken by Iziko Museums was to rename the site of the SACHM as the Slave Lodge.

  A slave certificate on display at the Slave Lodge Museum in Cape Town – part of the Iziko Museums of South Africa, July 12, 2019 A slave certificate on display at the Slave Lodge Museum in Cape Town – part of the Iziko Museums of South Africa, July 12, 2019 | Photo (Detail): © picture alliance/REUTERS The creation of Iziko Museums of South Africa in Cape Town and of Ditsong Museums in Gauteng as overarching national museum collections provided an institutional framework for the amalgamation and integration of collections that had been previously segregated. Perhaps more importantly, Iziko’s creation also made it possible for the colonial classificatory order that had marked the modern museum in South Africa to be challenged in the everyday practices of collections management and exhibition making. This classificatory division between cultural history and ethnography has been a feature of the modern museum everywhere since its inception, and has persisted in differing forms in different societies marked by colonialism. One of the most important steps in museum transformation internationally occurred at Iziko when this division was put to rest through the inauguration of social history as a new united collections division, representing a new postcolonial category and an epistemological rupture.

At Iziko Museums, one of the most significant matters of dispute and contestation concerned the future of the Bushman diorama, questioned as an unethical exhibit that presented a colonial image of essentialised hunter-gatherers, and perpetuated racist conceptions of South African people. Moreover, it contained body casts, as artefacts of physical anthropology, collected for the purposes of racial science. More generally, the ethics and politics of holding a collection of racialised body casts became a matter of intense debate. Soon however, these contestations were overtaken by an even more pressing challenge, namely how the collection of human remains that had been inherited by Iziko Museums from the racial research of the SAM should be addressed.

Far from being the remains of long dead people that had been excavated by archaeologists, significant numbers of human remains that had entered the SAM collection at the beginning of the 20th century were those of people who had died shortly before and whose remains had been purchased from grave robbers. The then SAM director, Louis Peringuéy and the museum modeller James Drury had sought the remains of people deemed to be authentic bushmen at the same time as they conducted the project of making life casts. The SAM acquired these stolen human remains at the moment that South Africa was becoming a nation in 1910, at a moment of the South Africanisation of science, which was also when South African museums competed with their European counterparts for the skeletons of racial science. Because of these ethical dilemmas, Iziko Museums devised a human remains policy that recommended that all its remains that had been stolen from their graves or collected for the purposes of racial research be regarded as having been unethically collected, and set aside for restitution. The work of deaccessioning unethical collections of human remains and preparing them for return to their places of origin was spurred on by the return of the remains of Klaas and Trooi Pienaar from Vienna in 2012 to be buried at Kuruman near the site from which their corpses had been stolen and illegally exported. It is envisaged that the restitution of human remains and associated cultural materials to the site of their origin will inaugurate a new future for the postethnographic museum, a museum of process of restitution, social recovery and community building.

While old museum collections were being revised and reconceptualised, the ACTAG report also led to the inauguration of a Legacy Projects Programme of installing new museums and heritage projects of the new nation. The first new national museum created by the post-apartheid state was the Robben Island Museum (RIM), where the site of incarceration of black political leaders of liberation movements and other political activists by the apartheid state was turned into a museum showcasing the triumph of the human spirit over adversity. Robben Island had been a location of isolation, incarceration and banishment for apartheid’s political prisoners since the 1960s and for people with leprosy or seemed insane before that. In choosing to emphasise stories of survival and resilience in the face of apartheid’s repression, the Robben Island Museum chose to place its interpretive work within the framework of reconciliation that had emerged as the predominant discourse for remaking the democratic nation.

It is envisaged that the restitution of human remains and associated cultural materials to the site of their origin will inaugurate a new future for the post-ethnographic museum, a museum of process of restitution, social recovery and community building.

A new beginning

This first museum of the new nation was a history museum, with history being the discipline of making a new nation. In its first ten years, RIM recognised the dangers of focusing only on the prison experiences of resistance leaders, and also set about conducting life history research and documentation with rank and file political prisoners who had also been incarcerated on the island. This was an exciting time in the life of a historic site museum that based its work of site interpretation on the narratives of ex-political prisoners. And yet as a declared World Heritage Site, this work of museum interpretation also became constrained with the logics of international tourism and world heritage conservation. The outcome was an emphasis on the biography of Nelson Mandela and his imprisonment in Cell Number five in B Section that came to dominate visits to Robben Island. Other new national museums that were created through the Legacy Projects Programme, such as the Nelson Mandela Museum in the Eastern Cape and the Albert Luthuli Museum in KwaZulu Natal served to confirm the biographic order as the predominant framework for South African national heritage after apartheid. And Mandela’s biography framed as the ‘long walk to freedom’ came to stand for the story of the new nation.
A replica of Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island Prison Cell A replica of Nelson Mandela’s Robben Island Prison Cell | Photo (detail): © picture alliance/dpa

Outside the comforting national frames of the heroes and biography, local history museums, like District Six Museum in Cape Town, sought to present major reinterpretations of South African society and its history through focussing on the pasts of District Six of successive phases of dislocation and forced removals. Amidst displays about Cape Town’s first forced removals of African people from District Six and elsewhere in the city centre to the farm Uitvlugt, the making of District Six lives, the removals of the 1970s and 1980s and the process of land restitution, was a powerful presentation about the artificiality of race. But the main significance of the District Six Museum’s work is methodological of being a museum of inscription, participation and annunciation, and of being a museum about the restoration of dignity through the power of representation. As the work of restitution and the return of land claimants to District Six continues, the museum’s work of inscription has been extended to inscription on the land itself. It is this participatory methodology that holds the promise of bringing deeper democratisation of the museum sector in South Africa.

A contribution by Ciraj Rassool in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut, published in Politik & Kultur (09/2019).