Sam North reports on his AHRC Heritage Consortium placement
My AHRC Heritage Consortium placement has been with Iziko Museums of South Africa’s social history division. Iziko is the state museum umbrella, operating eleven sites in the Cape Town area. These range from art galleries to social history museums to small sites holding specialist collections. Iziko – the word meaning ‘hearth’ in isiXhosa – was created in 1998. It brought together several disparate sites so as to better promote them and drive transformation in the aftermath of apartheid. Apartheid was a system of racial segregation existing across South Africa between 1948 and 1994. It privileged the white minority population in all aspects of economic and social life, including in museums. It followed decades of racially discriminatory regulations and its legacies are still keenly felt today. History museums under apartheid tended to portray cultural history through objects such as furniture pieces and aristocratic artefacts which reflected the dominant white elite. Following the country’s first democratic elections in 1994, museums have been forced into processes of transformation. Social history has risen as a category and displays are increasingly developed around memory, rather than material culture. Museums have been linked with ideas of social change, though the extent to which they truly empower South African people is debatable.
Iziko’s rhetoric has always been premised upon the idea of transformation, and my initial thoughts were based around attempting to assess what this means. Many of Iziko’s sites have seen partial reconstruction at best as institutional politics and issues of funding have restricted progress. The organisation is disadvantaged compared with much-heralded new post-apartheid museums such as District Six Museum in Cape Town, or the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. These museums began from afresh, whereas all of Iziko’s sites have required rethinking and adaptation. The Slave Lodge on Adderley Street is a good example of this mixture of old and new. Part of the museum is dedicated to the site’s claimed focus of human rights issues, whereas other sections retain dated displays from the building’s previous guise, the South African Cultural History Museum. As a museum, the Slave Lodge offers as much of an insight into the slow process of transformation as it does into human rights abuses in South Africa.
As time progressed, I was able to gain first hand understanding of transformation in museums. I was given the opportunity to visit and work at several sites and with collections. I heard some of the frustrations expressed by curators, and saw for myself how long it takes to complete even small jobs in such a large organisation. I was tasked with reviewing the current displays at the Slave Lodge and Bo-Kaap Museum. Both are museums which have seen varied degrees of transformation, and my work enabled me to examine how visitors respond to recent displays. Later work on the ‘Viewing Bo-Kaap’ exhibition at Bo-Kaap Museum provoked me to consider questions as to what change means, and how is it to be achieved? This exhibition used oral history and memory to reinterpret objects and attempt to challenge the idea of the local community which the museum broadcast under apartheid. Work on the catalogue for the pre-existing ‘Singing Freedom’ exhibition at the Slave Lodge likewise gave me insights into how memories have been used to confront and come to terms with the past in museums.
I left Iziko with the idea of transformation still in mind. The placement itself was an enriching and thoroughly worthwhile experience. It offered me further experience of working with contested heritage, and I was able to gain an understanding of how staff at the organisation deal with difficult parts of the past. As a state museum umbrella with a diverse range of sites, the idea of transformation is very relevant at Iziko. I found that, at times, the moves towards change have proven to be little more than paying lip service to state directives. Many aspects of Iziko, from multiple displays to certain aspects of its institutional mindset, remain rooted in the apartheid-era past. How this will change as time progresses and South Africa inevitably evolves is an interesting question. By necessity, Iziko’s mixture of partially-redeveloped museums should be central to the answer.
By Sam North