As we begin our internships at the Iziko museums, these past few weeks in Cape Town and Johannesburg in which we’ve experienced a variety of different styles and atmospheres of museums have encouraged us to think about how museums support the success of a democratic society, especially in post-1994 South Africa. A democratic society must allow for open discussion, support, and criticism of events, ideas, and objects, and museums can position themselves as place for these conversations to begin, to be organized, and to actually be held.
The content of museums are, by default, conversation-starters. It’s impossible to visit one with another person without discussing which exhibits were impressive and which ones were disappointing. As such, museums can both consciously and unconsciously stimulate conversations about what society sees as acceptable and where the line between appropriate and too far falls. Take for example the “Fuck White People” piece in the South African National Gallery. Everyone who sees it will have an opinion about it, and it will begin both smaller and larger conversations about race. A democratic society must allow for its people to freely express their opinions and debate with each other, and museums and their content provide the content and physical space for the very beginnings of these conversations that can critically alter society’s interpretation of a particular topic.
As we saw with Museum Teen Summit Africa and the youth panel at the Hector Pieterson Museum on Youth Day, museums can also contribute to the success of a democratic society by actively organizing and supporting discussions and debates, including ones that have been started by the museum itself and those created by an outside force. Dedicating time and physical space to these discussions not only allows them to occur in the first place, but also encourages them to continue now that the participants know that they have a safe space to interact with others regarding the particular issue. By supporting democratic debates and discussions that are a crucial part of democracy through initiating the conversations and being a place where people can freely talk about these topics, museums can help create a society that is much more open to talking about its issues and actively trying to solve them.