After Apartheid, a Fresh Look at History ; South African Museums Are Exploring the Once-Forbidden Subject of Black Culture

Article excerpt

For almost 40 years, they stood half naked under glaring lights in a museum of fossils, whale skeletons, and stuffed animal specimens. The exhibit on Southern Africa's first human inhabitants, the "Bushmen," was testimony to the long-held belief that blacks were subhuman, no more advanced that the antelope in the next room.

The removal last April of the controversial "Bushman diorama" from the South Africa Museum in Cape Town signals the transformation of this nation's museums in the seven years since the end of apartheid. Once shrines to white achievements and superiority, museums increasingly reflect the ideals of this diverse and newly democratic nation.

"Most museums are in the process of rewriting their exhibits," says Mauritz Naude, deputy manager of the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria. "The boundaries have moved. And in some respects, there are no boundaries anymore." In this new climate, museums are examining subjects formerly forbidden. African art, history, and culture are finally receiving serious attention. Museum texts are printed in African languages - something unheard of during the apartheid years, when English and Afrikaans were the rule.

These new exhibits are giving South Africans their first uncensored look at themselves, and in the process, rewriting this nation's history. Mr. Naude's museum traded whitewashed apartheid- era exhibits on Southern Africa's first European settlers for displays on the tragic experience of a black community through colonization and white rule. Another exhibit challenges South Africans to take a fresh look at the ancient rock art found throughout the region. It draws comparisons between rock paintings made by Bushmen (also known as San people) thousands of years ago and Leonardo DaVinci's "Last Supper."

"Of course, we get some complaints about that comparison," says Naude. "Some people from the older generation are shocked."

The transformation has been so dramatic it is little wonder ordinary South Africans are astonished. Museums are completely rethinking not only their research, collections, and displays, but also their purpose. "We come from a past where we were told what we should look at and how we should understand it," says Naude. …