Started off the best way possible, with a wine tasting at Groot Constantia which was just what I needed. Later in the week we has a planetarium show about the probability of life on other planets, narrated by none other than Harrison Ford, and toured the Parliament Building. We got placed with our supervisors officially, and introduced ourselves many times over all week.
My favorite part of this time, other than the wine, was the expectation of saying good morning to everyone you pass even if you don’t know them. It creates such a positive environment for everyone and starts the day off right.
We also discovered the joy that is Bread, Milk, and Honey. This is a cafe right across from the building that my group (Grace, Ayo, Lauren, and I) works in. Tea is often taken in this cafe and is known for its excellent baked goods and coffee.
Lots of excitement for the rest of our time here,
The day after visiting the Parliament and our wine tasting at Groot Constantia we were introduced to our mentors. Liz and I discovered that we were to be working in an office in the National Gallery (super cool). It’s an ugly little office with very bad wifi connection, but it’s right next to the kitchen where free tea and coffee is provided all day long. Angela the conservationist works in the office next door and is a wonderful human being. She provides us with any materials we need (scissors, tape, whatever) and answers all our questions.
It was funny to realize that Liz and I would be working on the Ancient Egypt exhibition in the Slave Lodge, because I remember thinking how old and out of place it was in the museum when we visited the first time. It’s going to be exciting to see before and after photos and I think it will be a great thing for us to have on our resumes. But for now, we have a lot of work to do.
Our trip to Robben Island today was full of emotionally impacting moments, but one experience stood out for me. On our tour we had the chance to enter the prison’s visitation room. Here, we sat on the visitors’ bench facing the glass behind which the visitor would have seen their incarcerated loved one. We learned that visits were allowed once every six months for only thirty minutes, and many conversation topics, especially political ones, were forbidden. We also learned that warders would sometimes deliberately deceive prisoners by telling them that they had a visitor and then leaving them to wait on the bench all day before informing them that the visitor did not show up — which the warders has known all along. Our guide described this as a form of psychological torture. Being present in the physical space that these people occupied in such recent history brought the realities of apartheid to light and made them tangible. Robben Island revealed not only the cruelty of an establishment that would lock people in cages for their beliefs, but the resilience of individuals who refused to relinquish their ideals even in the face of such inhumane treatment. In addition, the visitors’ room demonstrated that the impact of political imprisonment reverberated beyond those incarcerated to their families and friends and society at large. Spending time at Robben Island provoked important reflection on the role of incarceration in a free society, and sitting in the visitation room made this question feel especially pressing and salient.
Even though Robert Sobukwe was released from prison, he was never able to live as a free man. The government thought he was too dangerous to leave the island, so they forced him to live a restricted and mostly solitary life here.
The island used to be a leprosy colony before it became a prison. These are some of their graves.
A view from inside the prison.
A letter in response to someone asking to visit a family member imprisoned on Robben Island. Family members of the imprisoned were not well informed on the whereabouts of the prisoners or what was happening to them on Robben Island. This made it extremely difficult for them to arrange visiting times.
Standing at the back of the boat on our way to Robben Island. Our lovely boat ride was in complete contrast to what the prisoners would have ridden in on their way to Robben Island. Prisoners were treated more like cargo than people and kept in the lower level of the boat where water would often leak in.
We saw seals!
Even though it was once a traumatic and oppressive place for many, the environment was so beautiful and the weather was so nice that I couldn’t help but enjoy my experience on Robben Island. It is refreshing to know that it will never be an active prison again.
To begin our time in Cape Town today, we visited two museums: the Slave Lodge and District Six. The Slave Lodge, like so many of the structures and buildings that we have encountered so far on our trip, has changed dramatically in purpose and meaning since its creation in 1679. Initially a place of confinement for enslaved persons from the Dutch East India Company, then a government building which served a number of functions, then a museum, the space is a prime example of accretion. Today, the museum not only preserves the brutal past of the building and of the country, but with incisive and educational rotating exhibitions it explores modern issues of social justice. I felt that the evolving meaning of the physical building lent additional power to each of its exhibits. For example, the temporary exhibitions during our visit focused on gender-based violence, sex work, and masculinity. Each of these issues gained additional significance from their place in a building that preserved the country’s history of slavery and colonization. For example, the proximity of the exhibit about masculinity to the history of slavery caused me to reflect on the relationship between patriarchy and colonization — to use gender as a category of analysis when looking at the circumstances of slavery in a way that might not have been evident if the exhibition were not placed in the same building.
After we discussed our observations about the museum over lunch, we headed to the District Six Museum. When we arrived, Noor Ebrahim, a former resident of District Six, gave us a tour of the space while interweaving his own personal narrative. I found part of the power of the museum to be that although the museum dealt with a large and heavy topic — structural violence — it directed its focus on a single idea: removal from one’s home. The handmade embroidery art that ran the height of the building; the drawn map on the floor on which former residents had lovingly scrawled the address of their former home, their favorite restaurant, their school; and the personal photos that adorned every wall each contributed to a feeling of nostalgia that allowed the viewer to access the pain of being forced to leave
Not only were the contents of both of the museums we visited today powerful, but the structure and curation of both places made these striking and memorable experiences. It is exciting to be learning so much about the ways in which museums can complement powerful stories with thoughtful structure and meaningful space.
As we walked through the streets of Cape Town towards the Slave Lodge I braced myself for the same kind of traumatic experience as when I see photos of lynchings or other violent atrocities. I felt a knot in my stomach as I imagined being bombarded by the “realistic” portrayal of slavery in Cape Town and I kept reminding myself that I am here to observe and discuss museums and this was, in fact, a museum. The Slave Lodge was very different than I expected.
Our first stop was, of course, the orientation video. I was left wondering:
- Who is the intended audience of this museum?
- What is the intended message of the video?
- How is the terminology that is being used (ex: slaves vs the enslaved) impacting the viewer’s connection to the overall outcome of the exhibit?
- Why did the video say that not all who were enslaved in South Africa were African but did not reflect as such in the visuals?
The permanent exhibit, which acknowledged ‘Slavery’ in Cape Town, was not as jarring as I had anticipated and there were several additional exhibits which, also, reflected oppression and labor experiences which were not “slavery”.
The other exhibits, which ranged from traditional to contemporary, also seemed to share themes of agency in identity, oppression, resistance, power, and freedom. From the perspectives of curation and exhibit design, there was a refreshing authenticity, straightforwardness, and challenge presented through the exhibits of this museum. They reflected a variety of curatorial and presentation styles which made for an interesting post-visit conversation.
My favorite exhibits were I Am What I Am: Places, Faces, and Spaces and Still Figuring Out What It Means to be a Man. Each carried a powerful narrative of vulnerability, ownership, and truth. As temporary exhibits, both were small in size but packed a powerful punch in intellectual, emotional, and psychological perspective I wondered what it would take for exhibits like these to happen in the US.
Our second museum visit of the day was to the District 6 Museum. I love that this museum was founded by former residents of the District Six community who were displaced by Forced Removal policies during Apartheid and that it stands on land in the community which it represents. District Six Museum is both a memorial and a monument which captures stories of trauma, resilience, and connectivity of a community. Also, it is a beautiful example of what can happen when people tell their own stores rather than being filtered through the perspective of a professional storyteller.
Our tour was led by Noor Ebrahim, lifelong District 6 resident, and District Six museum co-founder. His storytelling painted a picture of the community and enlivened the objects on display. He shared with us stories of his family and of the many other families who lived in the area. He spoke of unity, respect, resilience, healing, and forgiveness. He showed us creativity and transparency. He even spoke of the areas in which the people of District Six still are dissatisfied and still seeking action (being relocated back to District six in new homes that have been scheduled to be built for quite some time.)
What I really enjoy about both Museums is the re-use of buildings to redirect the narrative which they represent. The Slave Lodge is a space to express varying ideas of oppression and to challenge the museum goer to think beyond ourselves, our perceptions, and experiences. District 6 Museum is used to reclaim both land and identity and to tell first-hand stories of District 6. It is an opportunity that only experience affords.
We must remember that space, whether physical, emotional, psychological or beyond, is a major contributor to our perception. Space can also reflect connection. It is important to constantly remind ourselves of that.
After spending an entire day in the van looking for animals in Kruger National Park I was happy to spend the next day in the cabin doing as little as possible. While in Johannesburg and in Kruger Town I had done so much wonderful sight seeing and walking around and I was just exhausted. I was lucky enough to get the entire master bedroom in our cabin all to myself (which was really easy because nobody else seemed to want it for some reason) and I probably slept until one in the afternoon. Then, I mustered up enough energy to move out onto the balcony and take a nap out there. It was a beautiful day and the sun was shining.
To end our trip in Kruger National Park, we went to a Boma dinner. None of us had any idea what to expect but we were all excited because we were told there would be free food and dancing. I was a bit nervous because I didn’t know what traditional South African food consisted of generally and I was worried that I would not like it, but the appetizers were the best things I’ve ever tasted and the main course was pretty similar to a normal pot roast. A lot of us were invited to get up and dance. Unfortunately, I was one of those people. I also ate a bug which was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. It was just very chewy.
Up bright and early (4:30) for the second day in a row was rough. All I wanted to do was go back to sleep but the animals would be up soon so I was too.
Only three of us would be going back into the park with Marit and Nate today so there was a lot of tiptoeing around while trying to get ready.
The line to get into the park was a bit longer than when we had seen the day prior (probably because it was a little later in the morning) but we got in not that long after sunrise.
After such an amazing animal day yesterday I had no idea what to expect but we got lucky and saw some amazing animals. Definitely worth the early morning.