South African Cultural Observatory

SA museums have come long way

BY Sinethemba Vitshima 04.11.19

The main function of museums has traditionally revolved around collecting, preserving, researching and displaying objects. To control a museum means precisely to control the representation of a community and its highest values and truths. It is also the power to define the relative standing of individuals within that community. Museums are more than containers of things; rather, they are complex reflections of the cultures that produced them, including their politics, social structures, and systems of thought. Cultural institutions, like museums, can be powerful in telling the “authorised” version of our histories, in shaping national identity and in building social cohesion, as well as contributing to education and research through their collection, archiving and conservation of artefacts. 

The birth of museums in South Africa could be traced back to the 1800s when the first museum was established in 1825 and was directly linked to British colonial rule and the activities that were taking place there in the scientific and museum communities. However, before the established of an official museum, Dutch settlers had begun gathering the natural sensations of South Africa.

Research done by the South African Cultural Observatory on the supply side of museums suggests that the South African cultural history is divided into three stages: colonial, characterized by British Imperialism and the promotion of English heritage; apartheid, characterized by Afrikaner nationalism; and democratic, where the focus is on a multicultural society and inclusive cultural representation. Collector Joachim Nickolaus von Dessin (1704-61) is credited with collecting the first non-zoological objects (natural sensations that are not animal remains) and the South African Museum acquired the last remains of his collections in 1861 according to MacKenzie.

Collections done by Andrew Smith on the collection of ethnographic and natural history specimens lead to the establishment of the South African Museums as Lord Charles Somerset issued a notice for a museum. The museum was established as a general museum with collections relating to natural history and other miscellaneous collections relating to ‘articles of human manufacture’, however, the museum was only open to scholars and members of the elite.

The National Party’s (NP) victory in 1948 lead to the institutionalisation of Apartheid in South Africa and thus led to museums falling under the Minister of Education, Art and Science (previously under the Minister of Interior). Museums were then under the control of the government and thus all permanent appointments needed government approval. The publishing of “Apartheid Child’s” by Aron Mazel led to the establishment of the South African Cultural History Museum (SACHM) in the 1950s and 1960s. Mazel argues that the creation of SACHM was directly influenced by the policies of the Apartheid government. However, former employees of SACHM feel that it was created as a museum solely dedicated to the history of white, especially Afrikaans, culture.

The emergence of democracy led to the inclusion of other cultural history (black, coloured, Indians and Asians) as part of cultural history represented in museum collections. According to a report done by SACO this came about through the African National Congress policy of Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP, 1994) which put in place the National Legacy Projects. They focused mainly on (i) building new institutions to “reflect the many different strands of South African culture” as well as (ii) re-contextualizing and re-interpreting the colonial and apartheid-era cultural heritage preserved and displayed in existing museums.

Despite the inclusion of other cultures as SA became a rainbow nation, Mdanda (2016) argues that this process of trying to bring about “an inclusive narrative” has been only partly successful. Ngcobo (2018) feels the same way as Mdanda by pointing out that what makes it particularly difficult to represent the cultural heritage of black South Africans is that, in the pre-colonial era, most African societies “relied on oral tradition to pass on history and heritage to different generations”, and it is only recently that these oral histories have been used to tell “histories of the marginalized” in museums.

The South African Cultural Observatory reports that there are currently 327 museums in South Africa with the majority of them being found in the Western Cape (83), followed by the Eastern Cape (60) and KwaZulu Natal (59). The report suggests that the Western Cape and Eastern Cape have more museums than other provinces because (i) the Western Cape has a long colonial-era history, as well as one of the largest metropolitan areas, (ii) the Eastern Cape has been the site of colonial era conflicts (such as the Anglo-Boer War, and frontier wars between English and Afrikaans groups with Xhosa tribes).

The report goes on to mention the source of funding for SA museums. The report suggests that museums are financed at national, provincial and local levels, while others have mixed source of financing, including government and private subsidies, as well as earned income from ticket sales to special exhibitions and earnings from restaurants and gift shops.

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