I would like to introduce you to a small Museum located in Cape Town, South Africa.
Although only formally constituted in 1994 as the first post-apartheid museum, it actually has its origins in the 1980s, during the days of the anti-apartheid struggle. A conference called the ‘Hands off District Six’ conference of 1989 is referenced as the point at which a call to create a Museum was made. It was framed as a place to become the keeper of the destroyed community’s memory, to explore with them how such memory could be mobilised to support their land claim, and to assist in the struggle for memory as a right in both the instrumentalist form referred to above, but also as an important constituent part of their bruised humanity. Reconstruction of lives was at the core, and this did not only refer to the material reconstruction of people’s homes important as that was.
District Six was a culturally diverse and vibrant area in the port city of Cape Town, going back to the 1800s. Like other port cities such as New Orleans, Rio de Janeira and Shanghai, it developed a reputation for its vibrancy and rich cultural life, and one which was welcoming to new arrivals on the shores of our country. It thus became home to indigenous people, early immigrants some of whom were fleeing the Jewish pogroms in Europe, the enslaved people of the Cape who were legally freed in 1834 (from Indonesia, Java, India, Angola, Malaysia, Mozambique) as some examples. A community so diverse that it became one of the targets of the apartheid government in the 1960s, which needed people to believe that the co-existence of difference was not desirable or even possible. Here was a visible example that the premise was a lie. It was declared a whites-only area in 1966, its residents were classified into different racial categories and displaced to different areas based on their racial classification, and the homes and streets were bulldozed
Although most of the community was destroyed, the land remained vacant and the apartheid dream of the ‘whites only’ city to be reconstructed in its ruins, never materialised. It has become the site of a contested restitution process and some families have returned.
The decision to make a museum was an interesting choice and one which has been the subject of many debates and discussions. It was made at a time when museums were very much associated with the apartheid past and a version of South Africa’s history which not only told the story of apartheid but also in overt and subtle ways justified its existence; at a time when the indigenous people were represented in a diorama at the Museum of Natural History while the lives of white people were represented at the Cultural History Museum. Museums were not friendly spaces. The choice to create one was completely out of the regular discourse of black people and one which takes some thoughtful reflection to understand.
These are some of the founding conditions that I referred to in my abstract, that gave rise to the formation of the District Six Museum. I referred to it having been spared some of the worst tensions between curating, exhibition-making and education as separate disciplines. 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. The weight of transformation and the attainment of human rights for all was more of the driving impetus in the context of what was happening in our country at the time, than adhering to the rules of a set museum practice. Everything that was done at the time and still now, has to answer to the question of how people’s humanity is being restored and protected. The coalition of people who created the Museum pooled their human resources as artists, activists, academics, religious leaders, researchers, writers – and created a dynamic team which provided a wonderful foundational model which we continue to benefit from, who started out thinking against the grain in an intentional way. A museum space and a museum practice was created.
There was no collection to drive its interpretive work, and the absence of the material traces of peoples’ lives on the destroyed and recontoured landscape became powerful framing metaphors for its methodology. What Mahmoud Darwish refers to as the ‘presence of absence’. The fragments – the bits and pieces of peoples’ lives that I refer to above- is at the core of our collection, and we have had to make sense of the question: ‘bearing in mind the circumstances under which many people left their homes; that the material traces of their lives, their streets, their homes and other points of reference were destroyed; that many left with bulldozers hovering over them and had to leave behind family albums and other memorabilia in favour of saving possessions which they needed, to reconstruct their lives elsewhere, does the absence of things diminish the story that they have to tell the world?
The struggle to claim the right to own the name ‘museum’ continues to be an interesting one. Our relationship with the formal museum world in South Africa has often been tense and I will try to capture them by framing them in a some questions that have occasionally been posed to us:
1. You don’t really have artefacts in your collection so you don’t have to worry about conservation. Our fluid relationship with our collection is sometimes misunderstood. The fact that we have seen the possibility for existing without it, creates the mistaken impression that we do not take our custodial role seriously. Although not strictly governed by conservation rules such as ISO standards, we voluntarily reference these and other guidelines to ensure that as far as possible, we protect the fabric of the collection as best we can. And fragmented as it is, we love our collection and express this through tenderness and care.
2. You’re more of a memory project than a museum, aren’t you? For a while this was a position that I favoured, being very aware of all the connotations of stasis linked to museums in general, and the association of museums with representing a version of the past which was mostly conservative and disengaged from the present. But, having understood the circumstances under which the call for a museum as a keeper of the community’s memory was made in the 1980s, when everything linked to the destroyed community was uncertain, fragile and impermanent, the solidity represented by the Museum made complete sense Having come to that understanding we zealously occupy the museum part of our identity while at the same time challenging the rigid boundaries of what a museum should be. So, we are both memory project and museum.
3. You’re more of an educational resource than a museum, aren’t you? The answer to this is yes, we are, but again this does not detract from our museum identity. Education is at the heart of what we do. We approach this to be more than school programmes, but integrally linked to our work with all generations.
4. You’re more of a community centre than a museum, aren’t you? Community was at the start and continues to be at the heart of our existence. Our approach is one which foregrounds community relations as a strength, not as a dimension which results in a lesser form of being a museum. Our community-ness is one which signals a centre enhanced by dialogue, consultation and debate; which flourishes in the face of the expression of diverse opinions and draws on the expertise of community wisdom without being detracted by the potential foolishness of the masses when driven by self-interest and narrow-mindedness.
5. You’re lucky to have an automatic community that supports you; we have to work so hard to get community to support our work. There is no luck in this – only hard work. Also, the assumed ‘automatic’ and assumed natural constituent community of District Six is somewhat of a fallacy. Anyone who has had some experience of working with communities, knows that this can never be taken for granted but that the relationship always has to be nurtured and attended to and can never be taken for granted. Neglect can lead to loss.
6. The unspoken question: you’re not really museum professionals are you? The number of black people who might have been involved in museum or heritage studies pre-1994 was so small as to be even negligible, so this question for always foregrounds for me how I and others like me, carry on our beings, the imprint of being newcomers to this formal field.
The six points above are based on real questions that I and my colleagues have been faced with at different times. The reading of the sub-texts and pre-texts brought to the contexts, of course are my own. The journey has been a fascinating one: from being treated like people who did not know how ‘real’ museums should behave, being asked about what some of the issue-based programmes that we were involved with, had to do with museums; to now being asked about the formula for success in terms of community engagement because finally scholarship has caught up with the practice of what has been our founding impetus from the start- because now a scholarly language exists which describes this particular way of being in the world- which, in the life of this museum, has always existed in the practice.
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’.
22 November 2014