On growing up and being 20

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A good number of years ago my eldest daughter was an avid and active dancer, participating in a number of dance expos and competitions. The group entry of her dance school was always well-choreographed, often taking the top prize. I recall the year when she declared 'we are no longer cute- we have been replaced by the younger ones!' At about 12 or 13 years old, with a few growth spurts under their belts and somewhat gawkily graceful, the realistion seemed to have dawned on them collectively that as they were getting older they were losing the cute factor, and lamented the fact that no-one noticed so much that they were technically good any longer, but only that the smaller you were, the cuter you were and the more accolades you attracted!

We have all been quite reflective about the ongoing role of the Museum as it enters its 20th year of life. The fact that the above conversation came to mind 15 years later in relation to such reflection makes me believe that the analogy is not without a basis and I hope that you might be able to see a connection!

Many people appreciate and enjoy coming to the District Six Museum for many different reasons. Some appreciate its visuality and tactility; others its intimacy. Sometimes it's the sensitive way of dealing with a difficult aspect of history. At other times it may be the impact of the first-person testimonies shared by the community of ex-residents present in the Museum; the youth programmes; the memory methodology workshops; the support for restitution; the commentary on the city, or the work of building an active and engaged citizenry.

I have a feeling that for some people we have lost our 'cuteness' as we grow and mature. Occasionally they may be disappointed that we do not provide enough of the theme-park type of experience which allows them to encounter storytelling ex-residents demonstrating how much they have forgiven and forgotten. That there are no minstrels in costume to give them a touch of the past, or koesister-frying matriarchs to provide the taste of nostalgia. From time to time I am advised by well-intentioned friends that tourists will pay good money for the experience of journeying back into the past in some of the ways described above. And while we do provide these pathways through which to understand the past – through all the sensual modalities, it is always within a context. A context that will continue to be critical of our environment which includes the rampant gentrification which has the impact of disconnecting people from spaces which they hold dear; an environment which continues to obliterate pasts which do not fit into frameworks of convenience. Critical of processes which seek the value and convenience of people's voices without incurring the effort and difficulty of earning such input with all the value and discomfort that it brings. We will continue to be vigilant about balancing the need to provide access to the rich archive which the Museum holds, while protecting the custodial role which we are honoured to play.

In actual fact, we are not too far removed from the Museum's founding mission. The environment in which we live has changed substantially, but ultimately the support for the return to the land of dispossession is still a connecting thread running through all the years of its life, as well as its dedication to protecting the memory and legacy of the displaced community. And it is a legacy which continues to grow.

During this year we will spend time on thinking about the state of memory work 20 years later. There are moments when it feels as if we have finally made the point of why it is important to remember, and can concentrate on the ways of making memory live. During this year we will be asking people to give us feedback; to comment on their experiences as visitors to the Museum and as participants in its programmes; we will be asking you to come up with suggestions, and will also be seeking out new and possibly unusual partners as we think about growing our reach and impact as we think about life in the next 20 years. We will come to you for support and will endeavour to support any efforts through which we can make common cause. Watch this space!

As 2014 starts…

Our programme for the year started, as usual, with a walk of remembrance on 11 February to mark the day that District Six was declared a White Group Area in 1966. This year’s commemoration included a dedication to artist Peter Clarke, with Peggy Delport, James Matthews and Gladys Thomas sharing words in celebration of the visual artist in Peter Clarke. Peter’s 1984 work ‘Homage’ (linocut and water colour) inspired the creation of a steel gate at the entrance to the Homecoming Centre and was an additional focus of the day. Peter included words from Harlem rennaisance poet Langston Hughes in his design, and these words etched into the gate formed an anchor to the day:

‘Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken winged bird
That cannot fly’

The walk was led by a trio of young musicians and ended at the cairn of stones on the vacant site where ex-residents laid down stones to help build the memorial cairn. Twenty white doves symbolising 20 years since District Six Museum started, provided a hopeful if solemn touch to the day. They were definitely not ‘broken winged bird(s) that cannot fly’: their eagerness to reach the sky symbolising the hopeful desire to return which has fuelled the passion of this community and its friends.

And as usual, stories flowed unabated as friends reconnected, and unfamiliar faces quizzed with ‘so where are you from?’ – a question I have come to learn that District Sixers feel entitled to ask.

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