Participatory museology The District Six Museum

The District Six Museum in Cape Town, which documents the history of the District Six district. The museum is housed in a former Methodist church that was a meeting place for apartheid opponents in the 1980s.
Museum of Participation | Photo (detail): Andreas Gebert © dpa-Report

How can museums work together with local communities to redefine and reshape their role in those communities? Mandy Sanger, the Head of Education at the District Six Museum in Cape Town, sheds light on a participatory pedagogical approach.

By Mandy Sanger

The relationship between a museum and local communities is a complex one that cannot be sustained meaningfully just through the traditional outreach approach which puts emphasis on strong marketing and public relations capacity but which, sadly, also reduces the relationship to an instrumentalist one designed for a coldly defined, often essentialised, community. Almost inevitably, museum professionals view the local community as an entity to go to when they deem it necessary - a very one-sided simplistic relationship reinforced by a market-driven evaluation culture. On the other hand, ministries of heritage and culture as well as professionals from larger museums often consider community museums to be of lower rank and status, assessing their relevance merely by their ability to work as outreach departments for national projects with bigger objectives. In this sense, District Six represents the apartheid-era forced displacements in the same way that Soweto represents the 1976 student uprising – a stripped-down, easily and uncritically consumed narrative manufactured for the tourist gaze, often leading to the erasure, from public discourse, of multiple developments in the recent past.

The community and the museum as active partners

District Six Museum is celebrated for being a community museum, but the team working there has always lived in creative tension with this concept. Researchers, journalists, and filmmakers seeking content for their projects all go to the museum in search of ‘authentic’ stories from displaced members of the District Six community. Additionally, former residents of the area regularly demand to have priority access to museum spaces and insist on their co-ownership of narratives by occupying the frontline encounters with local, national and international visitors. Since the formation of the District Six Museum Foundation and the subsequent production of a temporary exhibition in 1994, Streets: Retracing District, in an underutilised Methodist Church (now home to our ‘permanent’ exhibition: Digging Deeper), the museum has become a space for mediation on contested issues such as: Who has the right to tell the District Six story? What constitutes this story? Where, to whom and, how should this telling and retelling manifest itself? From the outset, community participation in the Museum was born out of a local anti-apartheid mass movement in support of the Hands-off District Six campaign that aimed to confront the reframing of District Six as a ‘whites only’ place in a racially segregated city.

The museum became rooted in a politically charged notion of community as a group of people united in a common struggle for a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa through local civic, youth, religious, sport and cultural organisations. Members of the displaced District Six community, who aligned themselves with the racist ideology of apartheid, either excluded themselves from activities of the fledgling District Six Museum or were intentionally excluded because of their actions as apartheid government collaborators, while others chose to move on with their lives, disinterested for reasons not clearly understood by everyone.

The engagement of the District Six Museum with the community is not an event or an add-on but a constantly evolving relationship – sometimes contentious, but always generative.

New era, new challenges

Today, 25 years later, disputes related to the identity of the District Six community have emerged more publicly as the ‘high stakes’ of privatised restitution possibilities become more visible. In addition, collaboration and inclusivity tend to be sacrificed in the scramble for the few opportunities presented by the production of films, publications, exhibitions, expressive art, tourism events, and other entrepreneurial pursuits that have been encouraged by powerful forces in the making of the New South Africa. Over the last few years, it has become clear how toxic the struggle for land and dignity can become when history, heritage, and personal memory are the main criteria for an exclusive form of restitution. At a time when the focus should be to move away from the racialised identities held in place by segregated spatial planning, political and popular community leaders continue to invoke race as a trump card for apartheid-defined communities to get ahead. In a city that is still dominated by deep inequalities engineered along racial lines, where social movements are weakly organised, the longing of displaced communities to return home easily morphs into expressions of racism, tribalism, xenophobia, and toxic masculinity amongst oppressed groups in the competition for desperately needed resources.

The museum shows the way

As a counter-narrative, the anti-apartheid solidarity movement remains the foundation for the ongoing development of a District Six Museum community that sees history, heritage and memory as tools for imagining a more egalitarian future. The museum has formed strong working relationships with social justice movements such as Reclaim the City and the District Six Civic Association to deal with real fears and anxiety arising from previous apartheid-motivated displacements and new displacements through gentrification. By engaging with people with different life experiences, the museum mobilises the community to confront persistent post-apartheid forms of prejudice, discrimination and systemic oppression.

A symbiotic partnership

Community participation is a central catalyst of the growth of the Museum. The team at the museum is constantly creating, imagining and remaking spaces and surfaces for members of the community to occupy. The engagement of the District Six Museum with the community is not an event or an add-on but a constantly evolving relationship – sometimes contentious, but always generative. Individual members or groups from the community are invited to participate in a wide range of activities such as sharing their stories with the youth, participating in oral history projects to excavate hidden fragments of memory and retracing and marking sites in a contested landscape to offer an interpretation of the symbols, images and politics associated with District Six. This interdependent relationship usually shapes the collection, research, curatorial and education practice of the museum and it is reflected in many of its exhibitions and public programmes.

Interview with Mandy Sanger during the "Museum Conversations" 2019 in Namibia: