Paul Tichmann, Curator of Iziko Slave Lodge
How did you come to work at the Iziko Museums?
Well I did a BA in economic history as one of my majors and I went on to get an honors and a master’s degree in economic history. From there I worked at a university research institute for two years, I worked in adult education as a course writer and an educator, running workshops, teaching organizational skills, basic skills training, mostly economic courses to members of trade unions and community organizations. From there I got a research post at a museum, the Durban Local History Museum, so I started as a museum researcher and then moved from a researcher to a curator position, which inevitably landed me here at Iziko.
What would you say are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced working in museums?
Well I think one of the biggest challenges is the whole issue of transformation in South Africa where under apartheid the museums were generally aimed at serving only one section of the population. If you went to virtually any of the museums during that time you would find that they were portraying the history of the white population and that in many cases when the histories or exhibits on the indigenous peoples were dealt with insensitively. For example information about the San people would be displayed alongside the natural science exhibitions. And in fact for most of the people that were classified as coloured there was actually very little that was relevant to them in the museums. I think that was the biggest challenge and still I see it as an ongoing problem. I think if you go to many of the little museums around the Western Cape you still find that the exhibits dealing with indigenous peoples haven’t really transformed and for me this shows a distance between communities and museums. It’s a slow process. The other challenge of course is just the budgetary challenges; museums are always the first to suffer when there are budget cuts. I used to work in the Municipal Museums and when the municipality had financial problems the museum was the first to feel it and that is generally the case with all museums. Especially with our government when there are shortages of funds the museums will always sort of be at the bottom of the rung.
How do you think that these issues could be overcome?
Well for issues of transformation, I think there needs to be a lot more discussion, a lot more debate. I think that the national museums need to come together and talk about what’s happening on a national basis. Right now we are all working in isolation and we’re not really learning from each other, we’re not really comparing. So I think there needs to be a process where there is open discussion about some of the inadequacies because as of right now we aren’t talking about it so we can’t come to grips with whether or not what we’re doing is the right way or not. For example, awhile back Iziko got a consultant who was going to look at a thematic program around exhibitions and a sort of bringing together of the different components of the Iziko Museums, to sort of break down the silos. But the personal consultant when he spoke to people outside Iziko, I mean some of the comments were quite harsh and I think we need to take note of that. There needs to be more discussion with the various community groups in South Africa, also with academics, etc. Overall, I think museums need to involve community more in the work that they are doing and there needs to be more feedback from the community as well. And then in regard to the budgets I suppose that we should be doing a lot more in terms of raising our own funds. However here advocacy is not a big thing and I suppose we need to learn more about it but I think it goes back to what I said about how museums work mostly in isolation from one another, because there probably could be a pretty powerful lobbying group if there was more collaboration.
What are some of the biggest successes you’ve experienced in museum work throughout your career?
Well I think there have been some really good exhibitions that have brought in new communities. One example that really stands out for me was there was an exhibition we did that focused on the problem of gangsterism in a particular coloured township. And what we did was to look at why there was the problem and what had given rise to it but we also looked at community initiatives and what role the community had played in it. You know like women’s groups, churches, etc. who were trying to put a stop to it and we ended the exhibition with a message of hope, saying that the community won’t be set back because of this issue. And it actually got people to the museum, people maybe had never even set foot there because they didn’t find anything there that was relevant to them and now suddenly they were all going because they wanted to see that particular exhibition. For me also oral history has played a very important role in the museums, I worked on an oral history project which the information that came out of there was actually used to set up a heritage trail and some people actually got employment out of it. So it was very good to see something concrete come out of a project that we did here at the museums. It wasn’t something that was going to be forgotten. Then of course dealing with school groups and seeing how young people really get to engage with issues because of the museums. It’s a different form of education and you can make it very exciting for them, and very meaningful.
What is some advice you would give to someone entering the museum workforce?
I would say just be open to talking to people and learning from people. You need to be able to find a balance between you know the traditional research and other forms of research, like oral history for example. And also to always try and look for relevance from the past to the present to the future because I think for me what makes the museum work. Because then the museum is not just for entertainment, it’s also educational and forces people to think. That way you can raise important questions and hopefully get people to look at the world in a different way and to focus on values that can make a difference.
What did I learn from this interview:
My interview with Paul was very different than the conversation I had with Andrea because instead of her thoughts on improving the museum from in the inside out, Paul seemed to believe the opposite in that to be able to improve the quality and attractiveness of the South African Museums we need to first go out into the communities and see what the people want. I find this debate very complex because both seem to have a good strategy, but which is better? One thing I strongly agree with in Paul’s argument is that the museums need to start working together and learning from one another because whether or not someone thinks their way is the best there is always room for improvement.