This article first appeared in the 14th edition of the Development Works Newslettter, which we just sent out. What do you think the value of museums are? Please leave your comment below. If you are not yet on our newsletter mailing list, please contact us.
Our heritage is that which has been passed down to us from previous generations. In other words, it is not only our history, but also something that is part of us, even today. It informs our actions, beliefs, utterances and even our diet!
Museums, as institutions that preserve and celebrate our national heritage in South Africa, should therefore not be seen as old-fashioned places, disconnected from our present life. If you can pick up the linkages between that which has gone before and that which we are experiencing today, a trip to a museum can be truly fascinating. Creative Consulting & Development Works visited a few museums to appreciate anew our heritage.
Where it all began…
The Cradle of Humankindnear Johannesburg is a world heritage site, because about 1000 hominid (human-like) fossils have been found there. This is believed to be the birth place of the human race and thus it is of importance to all humankind.
The visitors’ centre at the Cradle of Humankind is called Maropeng, meaning “returning to the place of origin”. You start your tour through history in a little boat that travels down a “river” inside the visitors’ centre. Around you, the elements water, air, fire and earth are depicted.
From there you are thrown into a “black hole”, represented by a swirling tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel you reach a three-dimensional projection that explains how Earth was formed.
In the next room you are met by statues of early hominids. Scientist have determined how these hominids must have looked, by studying their fossils. Real fossils are also on display.
At the Iziko Museum of South Africa the rich cultural heritage of South Africans is celebrated. Actual pieces of rock, decorated with the artwork of the San, considered to be the first inhabitants of our beautiful country, are on display here.
Figures of Xhosa people, wearing imibhaco with beads, in preparation for an initiation ceremony, greet you in one of the rooms. The figures are shown grinding mealies on a bean-shaped rock to prepare traditional food such as like umqa.
Sotho people are portrayed in their traditional dress of a blanket and hat and Zulu people are depicted with the spears and shields, which they use in war and ceremonies.
The role of slaves
People who came from further afield to stay in South Africa have contributed to the national heritage of this country. Colonialists came from Britain, France, Germany and the Netherlands. Many South Africans (black, white and coloured) are also the descendents of slaves from India, Malaysia, Madagascar and Africa.
The Iziko Slave Museum, which today stands where the original slave lodge was built in Cape Town in 1679, reminds us about the wrongs of the past, but also celebrates the eventual victory of human rights.
Many slaves died on the ships on the way to South Africa. In a replica of a slave ship on display at the museum, you can experience the cramped conditions for yourself. When they arrived at the Cape, slaves were controlled with violence and fear. Public whippings took place.
However, there were very few women at the Cape and some men married slave women. Even if you are not a direct descendent of a slave, we all share in the heritage that they brought to this country. At the museum there is an exhibition of dolls, musical instruments and weapons from the various countries that the slaves hailed from. Music, such as the Malay choirs and Cape jazz all have their origin from the slaves’ culture.
Learning from past mistakes
To enter the Apartheid Museum, you need to choose between an entrance for “Whites” or “Non-whites”, which shows the absurdities of racial classification and segregation that existed during apartheid. Inside you follow the long struggle from the beginning of segregation to eventual freedom and an united South Africa.
The Group Areas Act led to the forced removal of people from District Six. Today the District Six Museum serves as a tribute to the racially inclusive society that existed in the area, before people’s homes were bulldozed. A photo showing the demolition covers one wall of the museum. An array of objects that used to be in the inhabitants’ homes are on display.
At the Apartheid Museum a video shows Nelson Mandela, talking at this trial: “I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”
For this ideal Mandela was incarcerated on Robben Island. A tour of the prison, which is now a museum, ends at Mandela’s cell. It is small and cold. A little window lets in some light and a coarse blanket lies rolled up in one corner. In 1991 the last prisoner was set free as South Africa made the transition from apartheid to a democracy and in 1997 Robben Island was declared a world heritage site. On occasions, such as on Mandela’s birthday, ex-prisoners come to the Island to celebrate their release and the advent of democracy.
The importance of museums
Because museums have such an important role to play in preserving our heritage, the Western Cape Department of Cultural Affairs and Sport contracted Creative Consulting & Development Works to conduct an evaluation of museums in this province. Our interest in museums have been re-ignited.
When last did you visit a museum? How was the experience? And what do you think is the value of museums? Leave your comment below. And if you haven’t been to a museum recently, organise an outing and find out more about your own heritage. After all, it is only when we understand the past that we can fully appreciate the present.
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