This is the abstract of the presentation that I will make later this morning (Saturday 22 November) at a conference hosted by the Zurich University of the Arts.
The conditions that gave rise to the formation of the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, might be among the reasons that it was spared the worst of the tensions between exhibition-making and education. In some ways it made its own rules because it did not set out to ‘be’ a museum in the way in which museums are generally made. Rather, its founding purpose was to help assert a community’s right to remember its vibrant life before it was destroyed and its material traces obliterated under apartheid; and to support that community’s right to return. Its relationship with its collection and archive is also somewhat different, having emerged from the above impetus. Also, it did not have a prior institutional history of being driven by a traditional curator that it needed to review.
To this day a curatorial team drives the knowledge and design work of the Museum as it did at the beginning. In thinking about the Museum as a site of education – a philosophical perspective that permeates all areas of work – it draws on theories of critical pedagogy, believing that it is not so much what we learn about the past, but what we learn from the past that undergirds the clarion call of ‘never again’.
This presentation will focus on some of the challenges that the District Six Museum continues to encounter in trying to live within this philosophy. Despite a museum world that is animated by a growing sense of dynamism and self-awareness about its relevance, District Six Museum still struggles to shake off perceptions that its work is somehow not ‘real’ museum work because its origins, growth and successes have been achieved with synergistic competencies thought to be outside of core museum competencies. Some struggles within and without will be presented for reflection.