REFLECTING ON INSTITUTIONS AND INSTITUTIONALISATION

TRACING THE CONTOURS OF A MURAL IN THE MUSEUM INTERIORReflection on INSTITUTIONS and INSTITUTIONALISATION

My reflection relates to a work experience. At District Six Museum are always driven to think of new ways of inclusive memorialisation, ways that involve people and honours their participation.

A new mural had been painted in the Museum and we were thinking of ways to announce its completion as a new addition to the exhibition. The mural contained literal and metaphoric fragments from our archive. It contained references to people’s life stories and other elements of their intangible heritage made visible and tangible in this physical form. In think about press releases, speakers, programme director etc, the artist commented that something more was needed in the programme but she was not sure what it was. A poet was added to the programme to bring another perspective on the work but it still felt as if something was missing.

Tentatively she spoke about a ritual being needed to signify an inauguration and blessing. I noted her awkwardness, and in discussion with her later realised that (1) as a non-religious person she was uncomfortable with the accoutrements of ritual such as water and incense, these being very closely associated with formal religious practices; yet at the same time she felt an affinity with what these symbolised and would add a value to the ceremony that words could not necessarily bring in the same way; (2) being a museum with an activist background, and firmly grounded in a secular history, rituals of this kind were somewhat distant from its memory practice. A false divide, and not articulated as clearly as I am doing now, but the thought of enacting rituals seemed to be misplaced.

Well, once we got over the awkwardness and spoke about the place of ritual and ceremony in people’s lives in general, and the ex-resident community in particular, people were invited to participate in a ritual which involved scooping water from the urban rivers running through the areas from which they had been forced to move under apartheid because they had the wrong skin colour; they were invited to sprinkle the wall with the water scooped in this way; they laid sand and stones from their areas if it had no water; they sang, burnt incense, shed tears and rejoiced – all in a seamless activity which felt completely appropriate and in the right place. It honoured the complex lives of people, it touched on elements within themselves, their families and communities which were completely familiar to them. The difficulty was located in those of us who had become too firmly entrenched in the institutional character of our Museum in which we had begun to practice much more of our ‘forum-like’ identity than our ‘temple-like’ identity.

I doubt whether many people remember this moment in the same way that I do because where we are within our institutional lives is reflected in the ‘here we go again’ thinking referred to in the reading. Maybe it was because I had been in close conversation with the artist and her difficulty; maybe it was because, being a known practising Christian, I am always cautious that my own organisational practice should not influence ways of working and interacting with people and programmes. But of course, reality showed me, showed us all, that that is a very narrow way of looking at life because although some of the rituals of candle-lighting, incense and water are within my own experience associated with my church identity, the application and synergies of these are much more universally known and experienced.

For me that was a moment, one which signalled a green light to ritual in this Museum! It is has become such a part of who we are, and has moved us away from being a place of verbal dialogue only, and moved us closer to an active, practice-based dialogue which calls on the totality of human experiences inherent in the people and communities with whom we work.

DURING FEBRUARY OF THIS YEAR I HAD THE OPPORTUNITY TO ATTEND AS A NON-DEGREE PARTICIPANT, IN A MODULE AT UCT’S GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS: ‘ORGANISATIONAL DEVELOPMENT FOR SOCIAL INNOVATION’. THE ABOVE REFLECTION WAS PREPARED FOR ONE OF THE SEMINARS FORMING PART OF THE COURSE

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