Iziko Social History – debating our Collections in Heritage Month

  • Posted: Sep 20, 2012


Lalou Meltzer, Director Social History Collections, Iziko Museums

Iziko Museums has 11 museums which range across the disciplinary divides of social history, art and natural history.  They are dotted around the City Centre, the Waterfront, and in Constantia.  Iziko’s earliest component museum, the South African Museum, dating to the first half of the 19thcentury, was the first museum to be established in South Africa. Its most recently-established museum is the Maritime Museum (1990). Also included in Iziko is Koopmans-De Wet House, established in 1914 as South Africa’s first house museum.

Our collections are rich across Social History, Art and Natural History and though we have emerged from Apartheid with discomfort at the strongly colonial and skewed nature of our collections and buildings, in Social History we are beginning to plumb our collections (and documentation) and discover the scope for critical reinterpretation of our old collections and for communicating stories of objects, which are both beautiful and intriguing in instances and inadequate, even offensive, in many other instances.

In archaeology we have collections of maritime archaeology, stories of slave shipwrecks and we are custodians of unique and rich collections of hunter-gatherer rock art as evidence of ancient belief systems; as well as treasures such as the Blombos Cave finds of ochre and related artefacts that point to the emergence of cognitive humans in the south-western Cape some 100 000 years ago.   But we also carry the weight and burden of late 19th and earlier 20th century physical anthropologists’ collections/spoils of human remains, sometimes acquired in contexts of grave pillage and as a result of payments for body parts, all in the name of race-based science.

From across southern African we have collections of fine, hand-made domestic objects from indigenous carved headrests, ceremonial sticks, snuff boxes, ceramics, beadwork and costume, collected in fieldwork and donated, to handmade or factory-made European and Cape/South African silverware, numismatics, paintings and drawings, ceramics, furniture, textiles, costume and scientific instruments.

Yet, there are gaps galore and sometimes when you look expectantly for an emblematic colonial object such as a safari hat you may draw a blank. Or if you look for objects that are iconic of black rural communities undergoing change, urbanization and enforced patterns of migrant labour in the 19th and 20th centuries (and still today as Marikana reminds us), you may not find them. Curators and collectors in the past generally discounted the latter as non-traditional and thus not worthy of collecting. Such items speak to in-betweenness, change and to contact - and not to the separateness of tradition versus history and to (black) rural versus (white) urban lives. In preparation for a forthcoming exhibition on isishweshwe we are continually presented with the historical turns of isishweshwe costume and fabric from colonial into ‘African’ and from ‘African’ into world high fashion. Changes over time in wearers and contexts are fabulously diverse and fascinating.

Gaps like the safari hat and migrant labour artefacts point to past processes of rarified selection (‘the best’ and ‘the special’) and most especially to the classificatory parameters and viewpoints of curators and collectors. The collections often highlight a period of unequal power relations in the context of what was acquired and more particularly how it was acquired by the museum. Such legacies give an indication as to why a new department of Iziko called Social History was formed after 1999 in a bid to address absences and new directions in collections and research.  Social History parameters require an understanding that history is not about important men and women or the privileged classes, but that stories of layers of people and individuals, across class and race, must be recounted.  The Department was formed to break down the historical divide between the South African Museum collections termed ‘ethnographic’, referring to collections from Africa, Australasia and the Americas, and the collections from the former South African Cultural History Museum termed ‘cultural’, referring to Europe and some of Asia.      

But the historical gaps in our collections are often the result of past power relations in society which are impossible to redress, with all the money and resources in the world. Such gaps on a fundamental level reflect the smallness of possessions of the disenfranchised and poor, and their historical marginality. How few items we have to tell the story of slavery and the Afrikaans-speaking white bywoners to name but two instances!  We are conscious of such issues as we plan ahead for new collections.

Yet, one can be overcome today by the sheer quantity and diversity of our material life in a global world, whether the objects are of the everyday or not, whether they be cellphones, miniskirts, trainers, soccer memorabilia, solar screens, computer games, Rastafarian hats, or South African ceramic art, choice beadwork, haute couture or eco-friendly designed furniture.

Social History has begun to develop exhibitions and collections of ‘people’s history’. In 2010 we created the first ever exhibition on Cape Town’s historical Tweede Nuwe Jaar carnival, and in the process developed a Carnival collection. We have acquired examples of mass-produced bright plastic beads from China which have taken over from the older, subtly-coloured beads in rural areas of South Africa, while we continue to acquire fine examples of beadwork from earlier periods. We are collecting older and contemporary shweshwe cloth, both of the everyday and haute couture. Likewise we are building up a collection of wide-ranging contemporary South African ceramics. We have initiated an oral history collection in relation to the Carnival, isishweshwe, freedom songsand to the residents of Bo-Kaap. All of this signifies an ongoing re-evaluation of our collections development aims.

Yet, there is also an increasing realization of the inability of a few objects to take on the burden of interpretation of complex histories, or didactic storyboards to communicate with audiences. Contemporary art, film and performance help visually and sensually in exhibition contexts to make up for gaps in the collections, however personal the encounter is between the artist and that history - to build bridges backwards in time. Breaking down interdisciplinary boundaries between art, history and science is becoming central to dynamic interpretation, as a reflection of how knowledge is being developed and presented more generally.

 Today, it is also impossible for museums not to touch on issues of social justice, gender, the environment, etc. and not to debate and to profile the issues that affect us in a world that is challenging in every aspect, while at the same time utilizing the wealth of our collections and foregrounding them in exhibitions, research and education. It is also paramount that we understand and communicate transparently the histories of our own museums, however unsettling.

Museums in South Africa have extremely limited resources, even national ones like ours, but what Iziko does have, as an enormous strength, is their staff expertise and the skills to use resources and the collections in new and surprising ways.  Iziko Museums must advance its work in the fields of visitor studies, improved language usage in exhibitions, implementation of digital technologies and website. We need to replan old exhibitions and undertake further educational outreach programmes, as well as strengthen the research we do, in the process giving final touches to the kind of museum we want to be.

We know that people crave to experience more of our collections including virtually; and that they wish to be active agents in their understanding and choose what is interesting to them and not to be told what should be interesting.

Museums and galleries seem a luxury in relation to many people’s struggle to survive and the City centre often seems a foreign land. This is a challenge that we in Iziko are engaged in daily. Museums are far from where people live and we have to be a destination worth making a sacrifice for.

There are, therefore, many programmes in which we are involved and are still planning, to enable visitors and potential visitors to understand that our museums are your museums.

Published in the Cape Times on Wednesday, 19 September 2012

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