The first day of our internship was probably the strangest first day of work I have ever had. We started the day meeting with Wandile, the education and public programs coordinator at Iziko, but our conversation lasted until lunchtime and wasn’t strictly business.
Wandile is currently has “about three masters” and is working on his PhD in museum studies, so everything he had to say was really interesting, passionate, and insightful. One of the biggest things that I think he wanted to convey to us is the importance that museums play 21st century society, not only in South Africa, but democratic societies across the world.
After hearing from Wandile, I think that in places like South Africa and America where people are free to do what they choose, we have an immense power and responsibility to stand up for what we believe in and fight for the change we want to see in the world. It is easy to say that both nations have problems that need to be fixed. However, sometimes people don’t feel that they have a safe place in their community where they can express their opinions and beliefs, which is why museums today really need to take on that role.
I think that it can be easily stated that, as future museum professionals in democratic nations, all of us want museums to become places where people can learn about themselves, their histories, and think critically about their futures, instead of perpetuating the colonial ideals that early museums were associated with. We don’t want to perpetuate the stereotypes, half-truths, and racist ideas found in museums of the past, but to create a better world through dialogue and engagement. It is interesting to me that so many museums in South Africa are so focused on stepping up to play this role.
Forums are a great way that museums can work to engage the public. When we met with Steven Hobbes, he told us about a time when he attended a forum about art where the people came, took the mic, and only discussed the social issues they had in their community because they had no other outlet to express their frustrations. Sometimes, that’s all people need. Although forums tend to have specific topics, the beauty in them lies in the fact that they can turn into anything by the end. In just the past five weeks, Constitution Hill, the Apartheid Museum, and the South Africa Museum have hosted forums for citizens to come together and talk about current events as well as learn from each other’s differing perspectives on the nation.
As we ended our conversation with Wandile on that first day of work and transitioned to meeting our supervisors at our internships, he left us with the question we all need to ask ourselves, “What kind of museum would you like to produce in the future?”. I think my entire experience in South Africa is helping me answer that question.