Documentation Project – Haley Jones

What is the social role of the museum? This question can provoke many responses, but the most essential answer is that museums transmit knowledge to the public. Whether it be through works of art, natural specimens, or historical artifacts, museums serve to not only showcase the inherent knowledge bound to such objects, but to interpret their significance to the viewer. Wall texts, labels, audio and in-person guides, and display techniques culminate to augment the communicative potential of the object itself. The power of the museum lies in its position to provide this interpretive apparatus.

Questions about the role of museums drew me to come to South Africa. How do museums present information about a difficult past to a public that has so recently emerged from apartheid? Which narratives are given a voice and which are silenced? Do South African museums construct spaces that confront controversy or spaces that avoid it?

Applying the scientific method to as unstructured a humanistic endeavor as mine would be misguided. However, I did approach South African museums with a kind of hypothesis: where there is more controversy, there will be less emphasis. Issues such as apartheid, past and present racism, and state-sanctioned violence are uncomfortable, and I imagined that this very human discomfort would manifest in museum curatorial strategies. I hoped to locate these instances of discomfort and analyze them to showcase the role of the museum in shaping public perception of various topics.

This is a story of how my hypothesis was proven wrong.

Based on the wide variety of museums I visited in Johannesburg and Cape Town, South African museums showed an incredible willingness to confront controversial topics. Not only did these institutions show fearlessness toward such issues, but they actually made them a core part of their message at every opportunity while promoting themselves as spaces for dialogue, reflection, and healing. I will now offer remarks and images of selected museums’ strategies in presenting challenging subjects to the public.

Johannesburg

The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg was the first museum I visited in Africa, and perhaps the one that most impressed me. This enormous space was constructed to lead the public through the timeline of apartheid, starting from its colonial roots and ending with its aftermath seen through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). As apartheid begins to take hold, the architecture of the space becomes more and more maze like, utilizing dark lighting and cage-like structures to impart a feeling of oppression upon the visitor. These spaces were saturated with information. Extensive labels and wall texts formed an encyclopedic narrative; photographs and objects and art installations illustrated this story while videos and sounds added additional context and sensory stimulation.

The Apartheid Museum was as informative as it was emotionally devastating and physically exhausting. The horrors of apartheid were approached unflinchingly. A room discussing the execution of political prisoners had dozens of nooses hanging ominously from the ceiling; the adjoining room had reproduced solitary confinement cells that visitors could enter. A long film documented the clashes between protesters and the police in the 1980s in explicit detail, and an even longer film showed footage from TRC hearings in which victims and perpetrators described heinous acts of violence. Yet the museum retained an academic voice throughout the exhibitions and sought to examine all players in apartheid history: Afrikaners (from impoverished farmers to right-wing nationalists), white South Africans who resisted apartheid, minority groups such as disabled and LGBTQ+ people, and even the government leaders who devised and enforced apartheid laws. In spite of its frankness in presenting apartheid to the public, the museum was careful in promoting a message of unity and reconciliation, rather than division and hatred.

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The Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum in Soweto was another example of directness and transparency regarding the events of apartheid. This institution used the death of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson at the hands of police as a microcosm through which to explore the Soweto Uprisings of 1976. Here, however, the curatorial voice was minimized in favor of community voices. Much of the museum’s text came in the form of quotations from people connected to the Soweto Uprisings: a patchwork of individual stories to form a cohesive whole. This museum made space made for the construction of collective memory, opposed to a model of top-down knowledge transmission from a dispassionate authority.

Antoinette Sithole, Hector Pieterson’s sister, actually works at the museum, proof of just how close this institution aims to be to those stories it tells. Yet intention does not always translate to reality. After our visit, we became aware that few locals are interested in the museum, and instead it acts as a magnet for foreign visitors seeking to learn about South African history. This shows a disconnect between the Hector Pieterson Museum’s professed social role as a place of community memory and its actual role as a tourist destination.

 

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A journalist interviewing Antoinette Sithole while standing in front of a photograph by Sam Nzima taken on the day her brother was killed (June 16, 1976). 

 

Cape Town

As we transitioned from the museums of Johannesburg to Cape Town, I found the theme of collective memory to be brought to its pinnacle in the District Six museum. While the Hector Pieterson Museum was devoted to a particular moment in a community’s history, the District Six Museum aimed to reconstruct a community that had been lost through a forced removal campaign in the 1970s. The museum felt like a shared family photo album, containing countless firsthand descriptions not only of the injustices of apartheid, but of everyday life during District Six’s heyday. Education officer Noor Ibrahim, a former resident of District Six, revealed to us his hope that community members would move past the potential anxiety that this museum may bring and use it as an opportunity to heal.

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The Iziko Slave Lodge, much like the Apartheid Museum, fearlessly tackled an entire segment of South African history. The Slave Lodge operated somewhat as a museo di se stesso (museum of itself) because the building was constructed by the Dutch East India company in 1679 to house enslaved people. But unlike a house museum, it served a dual purpose of educating the public about South Africa’s history of slavery as well as exploring contemporary issues of oppression through exhibitions on domestic violence, gender, and sex work. In spite of the forcefulness with which the museum communicated (for instance, an introductory video shows re-enactments of enslaved people being whipped and sentenced to death), it ultimately posited slavery as the unjust vehicle through which much of South Africa’s present-day diversity came to be.

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Themes of utilizing community input, confronting troubled history directly, and being transparent about the history of the institution continued unexpectedly even in the Iziko South African Museum (SAM). As a natural history museum, it was shielded from the obligation to humanistic topics that form the basis of social history and art museums. Nonetheless, it included an entire exhibition (with a second under construction at the time of our internships) devoted to Nelson Mandela. The most surprising part of this exhibition was its placement in a room which once lead to an exhibit on the indigenous peoples of South Africa, a dehumanizing type of display that the SAM no longer promotes. Rather than simply hiding this troubling history, a Mandela quote beside an inaccessible doorway alludes to the problem with exhibiting cultures in this manner. Inaccessible to the public, the figures that once populated these racist exhibits are locked away in storage and covered in ghostly shrouds.

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The examples I have discussed show that South African Museums generally approach controversial subjects and traumatic events with frankness, transparency, and input from those affected. The social role that these institutions take on is not only to bring awareness to the most difficult aspects of South African history, but also to offer a message of positive change moving forward. I expected to find moments in which museums distanced themselves from uncomfortable truths. Instead, each museum held in common a sense of responsibility to promote social justice for past, present, and future generations. As little as 25 years ago, the progressive attitude that South African museums now embody would have been taboo or even illegal under the apartheid government. With this perspective in mind, South African museums should serve as a model for museums worldwide as we work to ethically learn from the past.

 

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Week 5

If I’ve learned anything over the past 5 weeks, it’s to embrace the continuous challenge of perceptions and ideas and that being open minded will afford you much more opportunity than making decisions with limited info. I can’t believe it’s time to go already.  Our last week was as eventful, if not more, than the others.   The difference is it carries the weight of finality. From meetings and presentations to marches and adventure, we’ve done it all. I loved living, working and learning in South Africa. Cheers! Until next time Zed-A

Internship Week 5 – The Outro

One of the things I have been interested in learning about is the role of music in this part of the world. I leave it that open because I am literally trying to collect as many possibilities as possible. It is hard to consolidate all of my findings into a single sentence in order to try to come up with a main idea. Some of my findings, the ones which I was the most skeptical about have actually been validated and that feels wonderful. In a way those have unanswered random questions I had, have been similarly answered in a way that connects them all, how exactly they are connected and why is what I am still trying to understand and I hope my documentation project will help me see. I visited the record store when I could, and that physical manifestation of music, rather than a screen tap on my phone has realigned something within me. I understand something but I don’t know how to explain it.

The Final Week…

It’s hard to believe that the final week in South Africa is coming to an end! I can’t overstate what a meaningful and memorable experience this summer has been. I know that I will miss everything from the beauty of Table Mountain to the kindness of our colleagues at Iziko to the hours of thought-provoking conversation we have had. In a bittersweet end to our work at the Social History centre, we had tea with two of our supervisors on Thursday at our favorite cafe and gave some parting thank-you gifts. I think we are all extremely grateful for our summer here and will hold onto the things we have learned in whatever we do. Tomorrow we present our joint project to some members of the Iziko team, and then it is time to fly home!

Internship Week 5

This last non-travel weekend in Cape Town I had a dilemma.  I had run out of things that I wanted to do while in the City.  On a suggestion from Grace (thanks Grace!) I looked into World of Birds on the other side of the mountain.  I was a little apprehensive since I am not a huge fan of birds in general.  However, it was something to do, and I love zoos, so I decided to go with Lauren.

Turns out it was maybe the most fun I have had in Cape Town.  Definitely the best way to end the trip to South Africa.  There were more than just birds at World of Birds and it was amazing.  There were monkeys, guinea pigs, porcupines, turtles, cats, and even more penguins!!  There was a walk through with little monkeys that was so fun because they would climb over us and try to look in pockets.  All the birds were in open aviaries and there were over 100 to walk through!

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Internship 5: Board Meeting

Liz and I have been having so much fun working on the update for this ancient Egyptian exhibition and it is finally coming together. It was an exciting opportunity to be able to meet with members of The Egyptian Society of South Africa (TESSA) as well as some other members of the museum who will be playing a part in making this exhibition come to life.

The three of us (Amy, Liz, and myself) had prepared our documents, notes, and labels to show in order to decide the best way to move forward with this project. We first met in the Slave Lodge to show exactly what would be moving where, and get a chance to see a 5th grade class walk through and interact with the space that we would be updating. This was significant because the 5th graders take field trips out to see this exhibition all the time so they are our target audience.

The talk was great and since we walked over to talk in the social history building we got to see a glimpse of our roomies working hard!

These are just some of the pics we’ve taken to document our process:

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Working title for the updated exhibition!

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How the exhibition looks at this moment.

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Our wall

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Terracotta Soul House: If an ancient Egyptian could not afford a burial with the appropriate sacrifices and preparations, loved ones might prepare a soul house. It’s a place that the soul might go to live and get the sustenance it needs to have a good afterlife. It might have a courtyard with carvings of running water and food.

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Mummified hawk: So cool! Ancient Egyptians sacrificed and mummified millions of animals!

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Murals that show a story about King Tut, and the weighing of the heart from the Book of the Dead. These will be removed and replaced by a wallpaper with a digital image of the weighing of the heart from the Book of the Dead: an important part of the 5th grade curriculum on ancient Egypt.

The updated exhibition is scheduled to open in November! Make sure to stop by the Slave Lodge and see it on your next trip to Cape Town!

The final week

It’s the last week of this internship and trip and I can’t help but to feel deeply sad to leave. I know that I need to go back to my family and friends at home and that I will likely return to this country and continue to be in contact with some of those that I’ve met but I am keenly aware that this experience is ending. I have had to say goodbyes to some I know I will never again encounter that brought unexpected experiences to this trip. 

There is still so much to do. This week consists of continuing to unpack, evaluate and clean part of the collection at the Social History Center all the while finalizing an evaluation on the accessibility of certain Iziko museums as well as gathering information and text for an upcoming exhibition. Wednesday is also the #Total Shutdown: Intersectional Women’s March Against Gender Based Violence and Friday is our presentation at EPP.

Internship Week Four

In addition to hard work in Iziko’s Social History Collections and some exhibition research, this week left plenty of time for exploring Cape Town! Highlights included:

 

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A weekend trip to the waterfront (pictured here is some green tea ice cream and a beautiful day!). The other highlight of the waterfront — the Snake Park, which offered an opportunity to see and learn about many different snake species — did not allow photos)

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A visit to the Simon’s Town Museum

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A walk around colorful and historic Bo-Kaap

Internship Week 4 – The setting of the sun.

I’m just going to go straight to the point and say that the sunsets here have been the most beautiful I have seen in my life. It has been truly an honor to run in the afternoons with the warm glow as my lighting guiding my runs.

The way the pink haziness kisses the rocks on the side of Lion’s Head, the coolness felt as soon as the sun hides behind the horizon, and the visualization of time passing in those fast minutes the sun completely disappears, it reminds me I am alive. The landscapes and the earth here have made me respect and appreciate the perfect balance of nature in a new way. A way they have helped me adjust how I view life is to not be scared of time. Intimidated of time might be more accurate, I have experienced day and night in ways that make me at peace with time. From taking a bus ride to the Camp’s Bay with just enough time to get off the bus, walk to a cafe with a view of the sun and order a drink before Happy Hour ends, but just timed well enough that it arrives minutes before the sun starts to put on the grand finale. A schedule to the minute could have not accomplished how well timed all of that was.

People say things are late when they are not when they are scheduled to happen, but what if they are perfectly timed for your life in that moment? Sometimes you just have to throw the schedule out the window because the sun waits for no one, but everyone waits for the sun. To tell you when to rise and shine an when to rest. The eclipse was also another reminder of the need to be at peace with time, because I wanted it to stop so I could take a nap but not miss the show, but there was no pause button. I took a nap outside during the eclipse, but just because my eyes were not open to see it happened, it doesn’t mean that I didn’t experience it. Time is always a mystery.

On a less intense note, I climbed up Lions Head on Sunday, the time that was the most breathtaking was not going up or down, but at the top.

As I was running to go home, I got on one of the main roads and I suddenly hear my name being yelled, I panic and run faster. Panicked but with curiosity, I glance back to see that it was some of my new friends I have made during my time here. They were on their way to have a picnic on the side of the hill to see the sunset, they had called my phone but I didn’t answer because I was hiking and by pure coincidence we ran into each other. It was meant to be, I got in the car and we ate pizza and watched the sunset, they were going back to Angola for a month and that was actually their last day there.

If I would have climbed down too early or too late I would have missed them completely. The timing was perfect.

Internship Week 4

Reality is setting in the soon we will be heading home. 😦

This week had a lot of independent work coupled with a few workshops on museums, collections, decolonization, and conservation. (flier) A lot right?! I thought so too. But with our limited time, it seems impossible to miss. I came to South Africa to challenge myself and to develop as a professional. These seminars, are without a doubt, one of the greatest set of “professional development” trainings I’ve experienced. Museums are complicated spaces for a looot of reasons. It was really great to be present for conversations which push professionals to continue to think of ways to better serve our communities and the public. The schedule below outlines the sessions but the conversations that were generated as a result of these topics… that is where the magic happened.

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