In addition to the projects I’ve been given for the Education department (writing content for brochures and manuals) my mentor asked me to tour the Slave Lodge on my own time and write up an opinion article to be sent out in an e-newsletter for staff members, including the directors (yikes). I wasn’t given much direction; just that I should includes my thoughts on what I liked and didn’t like, for the purpose of getting an opinion and suggestions from an American perspective. She– and others I’ve talked to– have strong opinions on the Slave Lodge and some of the stuff that’s represented in the upper area, which you’ll see me mention. I was nervous at the idea of writing a critical article because the last thing I want to do is come off as someone who comes to a foreign country and thinks things should be changed to the “American way” because it’s better…because that’s not true. So I tried to craft this essay in a way that wasn’t too criticizing, but that brought up real concerns, balanced with praise as well. Anyways, here’s what I ended up writing (which will probably be edited/shortened after it’s looked over and ready to be sent off):
Thoughts on the Slave Lodge, by Dana Steiner (EPP Intern)
In the short time that I’ve been here, I’ve learned a lot about the role that museums play in South African society today, especially for a nation that’s just coming out of a long and complex period of struggle. In addition to setting the bar high for museums in South Africa, I’ve found that Iziko is also gaining attention on an international level as an exemplary organization of museums. Taking the issue of foreign perspectives into account, I was asked to share my thoughts as an American visitor to the Slave Lodge.
Right from the start of the main exhibition, the video is a great introduction to the history of slavery in South Africa. Since some people don’t have the patience or ability to read through entire walls of text, I feel like it’s a good thing to include multimedia in exhibitions whenever possible, as well as physical objects. I found the installation re-creating the slave ship experience to be very effective, especially when supplemented by the poetic Slave Dream voice-over. It gives the visitor something they can’t get in a textbook or documentary, which is what I believe a museum should always try to do. Another example of this is the Column of Memory which cleverly commemorates the names of slaves in a way that resembles tree rings, alluding to the stories of slaves being sold under a tree.
In Cultural Echoes, the aim is to show objects that reveal the rich diversity of the cultural backgrounds of slaves, and it did just that. The panels of photos and the collection of objects showed me the wide variety of people that were brought in as slaves. The quote on the wall from Patric Tariq Mellet stuck with me, as it rings true for myself as an American visitor: “Every day we experience the cultural echoes of the cultures of Asia and Africa that have far too long been blotted out by the over-amplified colonial narrative.” This statement also brings me to the next topic: the showcases of colonial objects in the upper area and what they represent.
I could see how this part of the museum would be problematic to some people—how does it fit into the Slave Lodge’s vision of remembering and healing from slavery? The artifacts are obviously precious historical objects, but by having them standing alone without any noticeable mention of slavery makes me wonder what purpose they serve in commemorating the cultural heritage of slaves and acknowledging the colonialism forced upon them. From reading the vision statement, I understand the Slave Lodge is in the process of transforming itself into a site that “commemorates the abolition of slavery and seeks to build a culture of human rights in the present”; so updating this portion of the museum might be beneficial—even if it means updating the labels and including additional text that explains the objects’ significance in the context of slavery. Otherwise, from a visitor’s point of view, it’s a collection that lacks an emotional connection and coherence with the rest of the museum.
In the Isishweshwe exhibition, I was fascinated to see how the history of the blue print in South Africa evolved from its European colonialism roots in the 1800s to its current presence in the fashion world—and how many women have proudly claimed the print as African tradition while some reject is because of its oppressive connotations. A specialized exhibit like this was beneficial for me, as a foreigner, to learn about a unique tradition in South African heritage. I also felt it successfully merged and explained different perspectives by acknowledging the European cultural oppression of South Africa.
Overall, I think the Slave Lodge is an excellent place for people of all backgrounds to learn about slavery and to remember the countless number of people who have suffered because of it. I must also mention that the experience of the visitor is greatly impacted by the presence of a tour guide—for example, while the main slavery exhibit might seem to have too much text for younger children to sit through at first, I got to observe a school tour where the educator managed to successfully capture the attention of a huge group of learners by sharing interesting facts and stories. I believe this interactive way of learning undoubtedly helps them process the idea of slavery better than a textbook could. What I have witnessed so far in my observation of tours has shown a true testament to the spirit and passion of those that work in the education department here at Iziko Museums.