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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.