The Remembrances of Things Past

Cape Times (South Africa), September 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Remembrances of Things Past


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 19th century, was the first museum to be established in SA.

Its most recently established museum is the Maritime Museum (1990). Also included in Iziko is Koopmans-De Wet House, established in 1914 as SA'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 southwestern Cape some 100 000 years ago.

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 costumes - collected in fieldwork and donated - to handmade or factory-made European and Cape/SA 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, urbanisation 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.

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