Thinking of the Cape

Since coming home from South Africa I have found myself constantly missing the beauty of the city. My home town of Saint Clair Shores easily fits the picture of an American suburb with its cookie cutter houses and slow paced lifestyle. It certainly doesn’t compare to walking to work with Table Mountain in the background. Being starved for the natural beauty of Cape Town has me reminiscing of my visit around the Cape Peninsula with Hamish on my last day of work.


Part of our trip around the peninsula took us to Cape Point, preserved as part of the Table Mountain National Park system. What used to be covered with a few family farms could have been developed andmade into a metropolis and tourist destination. Thankfully, South Africa saved this unique portion of the fynbos. Meaning “fine bush” in English, this environment draws its name from the low lying brush that decorate the landscape. As the smallest and most dense floral kingdom of the world, the fynbos of the peninsula alone contains over 1,100 of native plants, some of which can only be found in this region. In fact, some of these plants have such specialized habitats that even within the protected fynbos they remain rare. For example, the flower in this picture (I wish I could remember its name) grows strictly in coastal fynbos with the perfect amount of moisture available.

Aside from the incredible flora of the fynbos, amazing animals also inhabit the area. While they may ruin a nice picnic in the park, the baboons of Cape Point are unique in their diet. Unlike Grysbokmost other baboons, the ones here have adapted their diet to include shellfish. Our trip to Cape Point did include a baboon troupe sighting, but the highlight really was spotting a cape grysbok. Although Hamish had seen this elusive antelope before, this was his closest encounter yet. A small forager, the cape grysbok (shown in the photo) feeds solitary in thick brush making it an exciting find.

Traveling around the Cape Peninsula, and in particular visiting Cape Point, made for the perfect ending to my internship. I had the opportunity to experience the best of the fynbos and learn why conserving this floral kingdom matters. And of course I have wonderful photos to appease my longing for the Cape region now that I have returned to suburbia.

Observations in Education


While interning with the education department I’ve observed many school group tours that come through the various Iziko museums. I’ve learned many things, including how much work goes into education programming in museums in general, but what stuck out to me were the obstacles that prove to be challenging in a South African museum especially. Namely, barriers in language and education levels– because of the vast array of different cultural groups and the varying quality of schools in certain areas.

For example, a huge group from Limpopo came through. Since English wasn’t their first language, Nadjwa had to gauge their level of basic vocabulary in order to make it a tour they could actually understand by asking questions like, “Now, what is a dinosaur?” and “What is this? You would call it a (blank)” and explaining when they didn’t know. She noted that many schools bring groups to the museum for this reason– learning English vocabulary– which certainly puts extra pressure on her as an educator. With a similar tour at the Slave Lodge, Lungile asked the kids, “what is a slave?” With so many cultures, and therefore languages (Xhosa, Afrikaans, etc.), making up the South African population, there are inevitable challenges in education programs in regards to this. The educator must adjust their wording based on their audience. Even among the English speaking groups, there are divisions of education levels that also must be gauged so the educator knows which wording to use.

These are a couple prominent things I noticed during my observations of school tours. All I can say is…with my placement in the education department I have gained such an appreciation for teachers and educators both here and in South Africa.

The Conservation Team’s Farewell

Yesterday was bittersweet. It was Molly and my last day at the Social History Centre, and boy are we going to miss it.


On the eve of this final day, Molly and I began preparing our tokens of appreciation for our supervisors, Bradley, Janene and Alta, and for the rest of the Iziko staff. We spent our evening crafting homemade thank you cards, wrapping presents we had brought along from the States and a few we had purchased here, and making a cheese spread (made with cream cheese, gorgonzola, bacon, green onions and apricot preserves — delicious and unhealthy, as the best dishes are) for the farewell gathering we had been promised. We are so thankful for those that we’ve met and all that we’ve learned in our time at Iziko, and we wanted to be sure to show our appreciation for all our supervisors had done for us.


We arrived at the Social History Centre that last day excited to share our gifts and to spend time with those who had made our internship so great. But what we didn’t expect was an “official” party attended by many members of the Social History Centre staff who we had gotten to know. Held in the Centre’s tea room, this party was the real deal, complete with an assortment of beverages, chips, chocolate cake, donuts, and our cheese spread and crackers, of course. There were even some short speeches given in which we were thanked for our hard work and wished the best for our futures. Pictures were snapped and laughs were had. It was so great.


The highlight of the day, however, came when Janene and Alta gave us their gift: small shoulder-strap purses designed by Janene and sewed by Alta. It was obvious they had put a lot of consideration into this present — Molly’s bag is colorful, while mine is more neutral, reflecting the outfits we had worn each day during our internship. On the front of both purses are calendar patches of the months of July and August to represent the month we worked at Iziko and the month we finished our internship. They are perfect. We will cherish this gift always.

We knew the goodbyes would be tough, but after realizing we mean as much to Bradley, Janene and Alta as they mean to us, we can’t imagine leaving. The conservation team – and the rest of Iziko — stole our hearts!

Cape Weavers at Fossil Park!

The six of us were taken on a field trip to Fossil Park today by Iziko staff members Wandile and Stambele. While there we visited an incredible archeological site, but one of the most enchanting aspects of the park was the flock of Cape Weavers living in the parking lot!


Object Story: Ndebele Paintings on Exterior of National Gallery

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Ndebele Painting to Right of Main Entrance
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Ndebele Painting to Left of Main Entrance

These two traditional Ndebele paintings adorn the exterior of the National Gallery. They were painted by Ndebele women just after 1990 in an attempt to make the National Gallery (which was built in 1930 in Dutch Style architecture) into a structure that more accurately represented South Africa. The two paintings were done using the Ndebele house painting technique that was developed in the late 1800’s. What I found interesting about the paintings was how difficult it was to find information on those specific pieces-it was easy to find information on Ndebele house painting in general, but not on any individual work. The paintings feel like a somewhat haphazard apology for the lack of African artwork.

The Ndebele were once fierce warriors that owned a lot of land, but in 1883 they lost a war to the neighboring Boer farmers. In this war they were forced to give up most of their land, and had to endure many other harsh punishments. Traditional Ndebele house painting was one of the creative outcomes of the trauma and suffering caused by said war. Ndebele house painting imitates the patterns used in Ndebele beadwork. The paintings were originally made with fingers, but in the 1960’s people began using chicken feathers as brushes. The two paintings outside the gallery were done using said avian tools.

Object Story: “Keiskamma Guernica”

“Keiskamma Guernica,” Kieskamma Art Project, 2010.

The “Keiskamma Guernica” is an artwork I am particularly partial to, for several reasons. First I must point out that this artwork is not officially in Iziko’s collection, nor have I ever seen it in person. The tapestry will be shown at an exhibition called “The Difference Loom,” which opens on August 21st. As you already know, I have been working on publicity for this exhibition. I adore the curator, Winnie Sze, and have been in close contact with her over the past few weeks. My experience working with Winnie on “The Difference Loom” is probably what initially drew me to this piece, but it also tied into my work on the collections and exhibitions policy because it is featured in several of the new CAPS primary school text books.

However, the reason the “Keiskamma Guernica” is such a meaningful and engaging piece for general audiences lies within its history. The tapestry was made by fifty women from the Eastern Cape out of blankets used by patients who had died of HIV/AIDS, the skirts of traditional Xhosa women, and handmade felt. The tapestry was based on Picasso’s “Guernica,” pictured below.Image

Picasso’s work was made to show the damages a bombing had done to a small village in Spain. Spanish nationalist  government requested Germany drop the bombs, which landed on market day when the town was filled with mothers and small children. Through a change in materiality, the fifty women who made this tapestry show the way that HIV/AIDS has devastated their rural villages. It illustrates the lives of the women and children who suffer as innocent victims of the disease. The tapestry also is said to suggest injustices in the health care system, perhaps blaming said institution for some of the damage made by HIV/AIDS.

The “Keiskamma Guernica” was exhibited at the Venice Biennale and is one of the most highly publicized works made by the Keiskamma Art and Health Project. The organization had been working with those affected by HIV/AIDS in the Eastern Cape for seven years before this tapestry was first shown. The Keiskamma Project’s website can be found here:

More Details on Policy Research

Marit seemed interested in hearing more about my research on Iziko’s Collection and Exhibition policies, so I decided to make another post focussing on what I have learned. I cannot share my official report on the blog, as it contains direct quotes some private Iziko documents. However I can give you an overview of what the report was about and the key issues I focused on. 

During the past month, I have learnt of Iziko’s mission  “To manage and promote Iziko’s unique combination of South Africa’s heritage collections, sites and services for the benefit of present and future generations,” and I have noticed several areas in which administrative efforts could be made to further adhere to this statement. The purpose of this document is to strengthen Iziko’s awareness of the new CAPS curriculum of South African primary and secondary schools, so that when students visit they can make tangible connections between Iziko exhibitions and their coursework. In order for Iziko to provide students all of its relevant resources, the curatorial and collection staff should work hand in hand with the education staff when making acquisitions and designing exhibitions. Though the following report focuses on the Art department, it contains suggestions pertaining to the Social History and Natural History Collections and Exhibition policies; as well as a description of the research and experience that went into making these suggestions. Under objective seven, you will find a list of the documents I have read during my research on Collection and Exhibition Policy. 

Over the past month, I learnt of Iziko’s mission  “To manage and promote Iziko’s unique combination of South Africa’s heritage collections, sites and services for the benefit of present and future generations,” and I noticed several areas in which administrative efforts could be made to further adhere to that statement. The purpose of my report was to strengthen Iziko’s awareness of the newly passed CAPS curriculum used by South African primary and secondary schools; so that when students visited, educators could design programs with tangible connections between Iziko’s exhibitions and the coursework. In order for Iziko to provide visiting students with all of its relevant resources, I suggested that the curatorial and collection staff work hand in hand with the education staff when making accessions and deaccessions to the collection and while designing exhibitions. Though my report focused on the Art department, it also contained suggestions that pertained to the Social History and Natural History Collections and Exhibition policies; as well as a description of the research and experience that went into making those suggestions. 

During the month of July I led a series of meetings with Nadjwa Damon (substitute head of Natural History Education) and Lindixwa Mahlasela (head of Social History Education) in order to establish what the education department needed from the collection policy. Our first meeting brought purpose to my research, and addressed the fundamental challenges of the education staff; including the lack of multilingual education programs, interactive education spaces, and interdepartmental communication amongst museum staff; but especially the need to incorporate the input of educators in collection and exhibition decisions. A follow-up to this meeting occurred a week later; during which Lindixwa, Annette, Nadjwa and I created lists of subjects covered by the caps curriculum that the collections did not have material relevant to, in hopes that these objects would be prioritized by the acquisition committee. I then went on to discuss potential changes in the collection and exhibition policies with Andrea Lewis, Riason Naidoo, and other members of Iziko staff. Those conversations were perhaps the most helpful in developing my report because they gave me a realistic perspective of the way Iziko administration functions. All of the suggestions I made in my report were intended to which are intended to hone exhibitions and collections procedures so that in the future they could be made more relevant and engaging to students, who make up the majority of museum visitors. 

Some of the actions I proposed at first seemed elementary to me, but while at the National Gallery I became very aware of issues of under-funding and under-staffing. The National Gallery currently has a twelve person staff that functions on a budget that is 20% of what  it was in 2011, and there is little transparency amongst SANG employees, as well as Iziko as a whole.

I hope that answers your questions Marit, let me know if you’d like to know more!

Grocery Shopping in South Africa

After all the grocery shopping I’ve done here, there have been a few little things that I’ve noticed about the stores that I really like. These things may not be exclusive to South Africa, but they are nice nonetheless. The first thing would be that grocery stores charge for their plastic bags. I think that’s great because it gives people an even bigger incentive to use reusable bags (which are also available at every register, usually in multiple colors and designs).  I know that using plastic bags is bad for the environment and I have a bunch of reusable bags back home, but I barely ever use them. Here, I find that I remember to bring my reusable bag more often because I don’t want to pay for plastic bags when I already paid for a reusable one. It makes me less lazy, and I’m guessing, or hoping, that it makes other people less lazy/forgetful too.

Another thing is that all prices already have tax included, not just grocery stores, but everywhere. It makes it so much easier to be aware of what you’re spending, which is very nice when you’re on a budget.  If you don’t want to spend more than 200 Rand at the grocery store, you don’t have to figure out about how much each food item will be after tax, you can just add it up in your head and know how much the total will actually be and not be surprised when you get to the register.

Finally, while it may be rather annoying sometimes, the food expires quicker. At first this really bugged me until it was pointed out to me that it means the food has fewer preservatives in it. So that is really nice. It also has made me reconsider my priorities. Now I’d rather buy food with fewer preservatives and go to the store more often than buying bulk food that lasts forever.

Object Report: Mbulu Ngulu

The object I chose was the Mbulu Ngulu reliquary figure at the National Gallery. This object first caught my attention because I recognized it from an art history class that I took last year, but I could not remember what it was called. When I looked for the label to find its name, I couldn’t find one anywhere.  So I got curious.

Mbulu Ngulu means “image of the spirit of the dead.” It is a reliquary figure, which means it is a human (or human-like) figure that is attached to a reliquary holding human remains. Mbulu Ngulu were made by the Kota tribe in Gabon, a country on the west coast of Central Africa. These figures were attached to reliquary baskets called bwete. The bwete would hold the skeletal remains of important ancestors of the tribe. The Mbulu Ngulu were believed to protect the relics from witchcraft and any other unruly forces. They were also believed to embody the spirits of the ancestor to which they were attached and members of the community would come to the remains and ask for help in times of trouble, whether it be war or famine or illness. In really difficult times, multiple Kota communities would bring their reliquaries/Mbulu Ngulu together to be able to have enough power from the ancestors to help and protect them.

Mbulu Ngulu are made of wood and are covered in strips of copper or brass. These certain types of metal are chosen because they are rare and therefore prestigious, making it worthy of these important ancestors. Copper or the copper alloy, brass, was also chosen because of the reddish tint to the metal, because in Kota culture, red is the color of power.  The shiny metal also served as a way to deflect any evil forces from the remains. Mbulu Ngulu are usually around 15 to 30 inches tall and always have the concave face and rhombus-shaped body like the one here. The variations between different Mbulu Ngulu usually occur in the elaborate hairstyles around the head or the scarification (strips of metal) on the face.

Mbulu Ngulu were outlawed by French colonizers in 1910, in attempt to stop the religious ceremonies of the Kota so that they could convert them to Christianity. This attempt failed and the ceremonies instead just went underground. Because of this, the Kota started making smaller reliquary figures called Bwiti. This allowed the reliquary bundles to be hidden more easily, as well as transported more secretly.


Created c. 1950, Acquired 2004

Unknown Kota Artist, Gabon

Mbulu Ngulu, Reliquary Figure 

Copper, brass, wood backing, pigments

Iziko Sang Study collection 1/2004

The Difference Loom

” “The Difference Loom” is a visual contemporary art exhibition exploring textiles and technology.  We sense the body in textiles, but not in technology.  We discern the analytical in technology, but not in weavings.  This exhibition is about those perceptions/disconnections, explored in that area where textiles and technology intersect.”

-Curator, Winnie Sze 

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