Throughout my studies as a history major, my professors have always encouraged their students to constantly seek out new perspectives and methods of displaying and narrating history and to critically analyze the way the practices affect the way we learn and understand the past. A museum is a unique place where both of these must happen in order for the institution to be a success, and my time at Iziko has showed me how crucial these steps are not only in writing a research paper, but also for helping post-1994 South Africa understand its own past and mold its own future. At the same time, my time here has also taught me about the difficulties that politics can play in the everyday workings of museums and the importance of recognizing the social and cultural importance of these institutions.
For the past four weeks, I have been interning at the Social History Centre under the supervision of Tessa Davids, one of the collections managers. I have had the chance to see the countless objects in the storage rooms, ranging from grandfather clocks and pipes to bowls and chairs, and learned a bit about each piece thanks to my time working with Paul, a valuator working with the Social History Centre. While it has been absolutely phenomenal to see all the objects I have, I have found it hard to agree with the reasoning for the government-required valuations. To me, there is no plausible way to put a price on a piece of a culture, and the South African government should be able to recognize the cultural, social, and educational value of the Iziko Museums (or any museum, for that matter) without having a number attached to it. For a country with a history that is so essential to its present condition, it is aggravating to see political elites question the value of their own past and turn in into a commodity.
While I have certainly been questioning the government’s role in museums over this past month, it has been amazing to see the dedication of the staffers at the Social History Centre to making the process of valuation easier and to the upkeep of the institution. Rather than outright refusing to do the valuation, they have found a way to see it as something that will help them better understand their collections because of how thorough they need to be, and the improved familiarity with their objects will help them better curate exhibitions and collections. The staff at the Social History Centre has truly helped me see how museums continue to affect the histories that are told to its audiences and have further encouraged me to appreciate all cultures and perspectives, regardless of their popularity or monetary value, and for that I am forever grateful.