By Wendy Black and Annelize Kotze
Iziko Museums of South Africa has had a growing and beneficial relationship with several communities across the Northern and Western Cape for many years. More recently, this relationship has expanded to include discussions regarding human remains restitution and repatriation, the potential for community-led exhibitions in Iziko spaces and beyond, and some reflective collections-based work. We hope that these relationships will help find ways to decolonise and reinterpret certain collections.
Face-to-face community engagement came to a halt during the Covid-19 pandemic, but as soon as smaller group meetings could be established, we set out to discuss important issues with important stakeholders. The research we do in Iziko Archaeology and Iziko Social History relates to people, their histories, and their ancestry, and, therefore, cannot be conducted in isolation as was the practice in the past. Having community input on research questions and outcomes instils trust between research (or even public) institutions and communities and more importantly, creates a collaborative space for open and honest dialogue leading to more meaningful research outcomes. With this in mind, Iziko researchers, Annelize Kotze, Tessa Campbell, and Linda Mbeki conducted research-related engagement events at various towns along the West Coast from the Cape to the Karoo. The research team gained valuable insights from community members, much of which has added value to research, highlighted sensitive topics and given new direction to future work. This has been important work not only for individual researchers but also for Iziko Archaeology more broadly.
Meeting in the Kalahari
Iziko was invited to join the Elsie Vaalbooi Development Organisation (EVDO) for a three-day workshop from 10-12 March, 2022 entitled The New Norm of the Southern Kalahari. EVDO comprises a small group of San youth from the southern Kalahari and was formed in January 2018. The N/uu language, historically spoken by the Kalahari San, was thought to be extinct until it was discovered that Elsie Vaalbooi still spoke the language. She has played a prominent role in helping to locate more than 20 other N/uu speakers. When asked what she wanted for her people, she replied: “Sa K//?a: aisi Uisi” [“take my people to a better life”], or as her son, Petrus Vaalbooi added, “Boesman soek n beter lewe”. It is in this spirit that EVDO was born and continues to operate.
Annelize Kotze attended the workshop on behalf of Iziko Museums, alongside 20 youth from the local Kalahari community. Also in attendance were lawyers, government officials, and traditional elders. Presentations and discussions covered a broad range of topics including heritage legislation, human rights, human remains collections and repatriation, indigenous knowledge, and the importance of knowing your indigenous culture. The final day of reflection was spent in a traditional kraal where the community participants, especially the elders, emphasised that younger generations should cherish and be proud of their traditional culture, and continue the work done by their elders. The workshop was meaningful, emotional, and provided a productive space to share and learn for all involved.
Engaging at Iziko
To build on the Kalahari workshop and continue museum-related discussions, a group of community members were invited to the Iziko South African Museum on 14 and 15 March, 2022. The group included two youth leaders who attended the Kalahari workshop (Coleen de Koker and Chanase Pietersen) and two traditional elders (Petrus Vaalbooi and Jan Pietersen). Invited guests also included Ivan Vaalbooi, a founding member of EVDO and Magdelena Lukas, Curator at !Khwa ttu San Culture and Education Centre. They would meet with various Iziko staff members representing the departments of Research & Exhibitions, Collections & Digitisation, and Education. The hope was to discuss the needs of the community and address requests related to museum collections, events, and programmes. The ultimate goal was, however, for the museum staff to listen, learn and get much needed guidance.
The first day of engagement focused on dealing with difficult histories within Iziko’s collections. An emotional visit to Iziko Archaeology’s Human Remains collections and a community-led prayer opened the day’s events. This was followed by lengthy and honest conversations about Human Remains legislation, policy and current practice. While much work remains to be done, this provided a platform for open discussion where suggestions could be considered and included in policy development moving forward. For a change of pace, our guests spent the afternoon at the Iziko Social History Centre where they had the opportunity to view items in the Anthropology Collections with Iziko Collections & Digitisation staff, Tessa Davids, Lailah Hisham, and Thando Ngcangisa. They were amazed by all the objects in the storage area, and it is hoped that a reinterpretation of some objects will be possible soon. The most emotional event of the afternoon was when the group was looking at photographs held in Iziko collections. For them, it was like looking through a previously undiscovered family album where they could identify elders, some of whom they had never seen as youngsters.
The second day of discussions were not nearly as sombre as the first, and largely dealt with Iziko’s goal of transforming current and future exhibitions. Curators need to broaden their collaborations and make sure that our exhibitions reflect South Africa’s diverse populations. This could mean, for example, that we consult on exhibition content, make sure we are inclusive, incorporate indigenous knowledge, or host exhibition and education events that share cultural ideas. In doing so, we hope to ensure communities feel valued and connected to exhibitions, as well as ensure that they are adequately and accurately represented. The day began with a presentation and discussion of potential themes and ideas for the upcoming Humanity exhibition which is currently in development and due to open in September 2023. This was followed by a tour of two existing exhibitions. The first was the newly launched African Savannah exhibition at the Iziko South African Museum where discussions focused on how the museum could better incorporate indigenous knowledge into the exhibition. This was a wonderful experience for the two youngest members of the group who had never been inside a museum or seen an exhibition before.
The day ended with a tour of the |Qe Power of Rock Art Gallery where the team discussed the pending upgrade, as well as how to include ideas of language and community in that display. It was also an essential conversation for the Iziko Education team which is developing new ways of learning and teaching youth in that space. The input received was invaluable and will be incorporated as the team continues to develop the exhibition and its associated education programmes. Iziko Archaeology plans to further engage with this community, and others, with regards to this exhibition and we look forward to the outcome. The upgrade to the |Qe Power of Rock Art Gallery is due for completion by the end of 2022, so make sure to come and have a look!
This process of working collaboratively with communities to address issues affecting all of us is a powerful vehicle for bringing about change. This type of practice can help mobilise resources, improve the well-being of the community through partnerships and interactions, change relationships among museums and the public, and serve as a catalyst to change museum practices and spaces.
We are grateful to our guests for their time, efforts, and tolerance of our broken Afrikaans. We are especially grateful to Annelize Kotze, Glynn Alard, and Jofred Opperman for being our translators at various points over the two days. This productive engagement would not have been possible without you. And thanks to the Iziko Archaeology Unit for their consistent dedication and interest, and to everyone who participated and joined our conversations with respect, open-mindedness and care.