Me in the Museum

The author in the Iziko South African National Gallery.

Museo Me is a product of my young lifetime’s engagements with museums at home and abroad. The museum is something associated with school, with history and with being educated. But it can be more than that. I want our museums to amuse and engage us, with reflection but also with fun. In these five memories and one absent memory (since museums are so much about pondering the past), I’ll tell you why.

A Childhood of Museums

Unlike many people I’ve interviewed, I don’t remember the first time I visited a museum. My childhood must have been full of them because my first remembered experiences of Cape Town’s museums have little sticky notes that read, “No, I had visited this museum before.”

I remember school outings, lined up two-by-two, traipsing through the big doors of big buildings. The ferry ride out to Robben Island, choppy in the Cape winds like a rollercoaster. A group of us huddled up in the District Six Museum, snap-happy and touched by the many moving displays.

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The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art.

I went for fun, too. Middle-class Cape Town was breathless at the arrival of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary African Art (MOCAA). An architectural marvel, a German patron, a Waterfront location, a rollcall of internationally celebrated artists. Sleek, modern, lofty.

I spent public holidays at the Iziko museums. These visits, taking up the right to access culture with free entry, feel like a civic duty, too. There used to be public events, with stages and vendors and dancers, in the Company’s Garden, and that led naturally to the Iziko South African Museum. I remember running into family friends in the Tata Madiba exhibition one public holiday.

Is museum-going a hobby for me? An act of active citizenship? An obligation? Of course, it’s not just one thing.

The Betrayal of the Past

Young South Africans know all too well that the remembered past, in colonisers’ statues and memorialised names, is never neutral. We’ve learned that people and concepts we’ve grown up with are not as innocuous as they once seemed.  Museums hold the power to mediate our relationships with the past. My fury at the failure of some to do so justly and consciously makes me determined to engage with them.

Take Queen Victoria, for example. My first encounter with Queen Victoria was probably her surly statue in Adderley Street. My second was The Young Victoria, a touching portrayal of her romance with penniless Prince Albert.

“It appealed that it was an opportunity to play someone who is a contradiction to people’s preconception of what she was like,“ said Emily Blunt, who played the queen, in an interview with Wales Online. “Everyone knows her as the mourning Queen who was wheeled around in black with a hanky on her head and was kind of repressed, but she was just the polar opposite when she was younger. That was exciting to me, that I could change people’s opinion of what Victoria was like.”

The Secret of England’s Greatness in the British National Portrait Gallery.

She succeeded, even here in Victoria’s former colony. So, when I stood in the British National Portrait Gallery before Thomas Barker’s The Secret of England’s Greatness, in which Victoria presents a Bible to a kneeling Black man, Albert by her side, I felt shocked and humiliated. One, that the producers of The Young Victoria had succeeded in making me overlook the queen’s active involvement in British imperialism. Two, that I should be dwarfed by this image, that it should be displayed at all, and so uncritically. Its message rang out loud and clear to me: you are to be civilised by us.

Western tradition holds that the museum is a neutral space: a display of history, of scientific fact. Museums hold the enormous power of framing. What is told, when, how, why, to whom. Visitors can interpret the artefact in many ways but we don’t get to choose the artefact and we don’t get to choose the debate.

But the exploitation of Black pain and the uncritical display of Black humiliation are not things only international institutions are guilty of.

Exploitation and Validation

Tucked beside the Company’s Garden, at the curve of the road, is the Iziko Slave Lodge. A few years ago, it hosted an exhibition called Singing Freedom which I went to see for free on one of the public holidays. It’s a lovely multimedia exhibit (which has been brought back a few times since then) about struggle songs: their origins, their role, their production…To get the full benefit of free admission, I went downstairs, too, to a windowless, stone-hewn room. The exhibition here was Remembering Slavery. Routes, sunken ships, prices, dead Africans, enslaved Africans. In the same room, the slaves had slept, after toiling to build the grand surrounds of Adderley Street. I felt sick.

Iziko has done the right thing in reclaiming the Slave Lodge, in spotlighting this awful history. “From human wrongs to human rights” is their manifesto. But the building itself is haunting. I can never forget that there were people chained there, and that’s only compounded by the breakdown of the slave trade, mapped out and bullet-pointed on the expository boards.

As I critique the museum for capitalising on Black pain, I wonder why I keep going to these institutions. My eyes water often in our history museums and at many monuments and memorials. My family has planned holidays around visiting these sites. You might say I’m a masochist but I’m not so sure. I like feeling but I’m not convinced I like pain.

I mentioned the exploitation of Black pain to my mother and how unsettling it is. But she articulated another function to displaying these painful histories: “Museums legitimise the experience of a Black person, and our role in history, and our historic contribution to the economy, even if it was under duress.”

Statues of indigenous resistance leaders (Cetshwayo, Langalibalele, Sekhukhune and Doman) at the Castle of Good Hope, an attempt to reclaim and rewrite parts of colonial-era history. The four leaders had been imprisoned at the castle.

She’s right. There’s no billboard in the centre of town that says, “White people colonised South Africa” or “Black people lost their homes under Apartheid” or “Africans had knowledge systems, too”. But that’s what’s written in bold, Impact typeface, size 72 in museums like the Slave Lodge or District Six. I love the thrill of finding artefacts and arguments that protest the stereotype of an ahistorical, timeless precolonial Africa. I would love to see the Golden Rhino found at Mapungubwe whose discovery was hushed up under White rule because it proved Black history, and indeed Black excellence, existed before the civilising mission of the colonial powers. I enjoyed admiring the bright blocks of Ndebele beadwork and the smoothed-down curve of a chief’s heavily decorated headrest in the Iziko South African National Gallery. History and beauty from before The White Man arrived.

Artefacts like these, wherever they are, are powerful displays of humanity that really do make you feel connected to unknown people decades or centuries or millennia ago. That’s why I like museums of social history and art, which this blog focuses on. They’re proof of humankind’s resilience and imagination when we’re often so weighed down with the present-day. Museums can be beautiful tributes to humanity that validate its existence even when it’s been denied.

A Space of Closeness and Timelessness

Then there is the allure of the beauty and serenity that comes when history meets architecture: the museum space itself.

We entered the cool museum beside the site. It did not seem big but it was packed with friezes, reliefs and other items. The exhibition builds up to the most famous resident — the Charioteer. It was probably one of my top five artworks [on the trip] and the one that really made me feel something, It is a rather strange-looking thing but I think it lovely. I remember rejoicing in the coolness, spaciousness and modernness of the Greek museums. All museums should be like that. I decided perhaps I should be a curator.

Excerpt from my travel journal, 2014

In Delphi, where the pale yellow ruins of a holy site sit gracefully against the blue mountain, there is an archaeological museum. I remember it as a circular maze. Votive statues and tripods pave the way to The Charioteer. An unadorned room with a bronze statue from the late archaic era. He wears a pleated robe, his arms outstretched for his hand to grasp the remnants of the reins. His expression would be silly if he weren’t a beautiful dedication in a sacred precinct.

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    The Archaeological Museum in Delphi, Greece.

When I came out of the museum, I babbled about the beauty I had seen. Not of the artefacts but of the actual museum. “I would like to put museums together.” Since then, I’ve wanted our museums to evoke that same sense of awe in me. With the exception of the Zeitz MOCAA, they largely don’t. Their exhibitions interest me, but the spaces are generally small and/or stuffy.

In the years between my trip to Greece’s museums and my first year at university, I gave up on museology, archaeology, Classics. In my head, I thought it would be terribly “unfashionable” to go and study Classics. It would have been but the problem was more that it would have been uncomfortable. I learned that Ancient Greece, for all the serene statues it left behind, was the basis of the civilisation that came to colonise us. The truth of the past you’re brought up to learn about, and even believe in, can be a terrible betrayal.

Yet, despite my best efforts to forget the tranquil, climate-controlled museums of Greece, they keep coming back to me. The sensation of timelessness when you’re inside. The way they draw you in close to the ancients. The power of representation, and how it has been weaponised, is just so fascinating.

Representation in Practice

Most of the time, museums leave us to think about representation in abstract terms. But some can also show us and make us physically active participants in the creation of representations. In that process, we can also be immersed in cultural practices, the same ones that get arranged behind glass cases as history hundreds of years later.

Early in the evening in July 2017, I walked through the entrance of the National Portrait Gallery in London. I wandered chronologically from room to room, looking mainly at the Tudor kings and queens I knew of until 18:30. An artist was hosting a weekly event in which participants take inspiration from the surrounding portraits and draw. It was a very novel idea for me. This week, the London Pride Parade would take place, and this was to be our inspiration. We were to “dress up” one of the paintings in the gallery for the parade.

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Drawing Shakespeare from his portrait at the British National Portrait Gallery.

I chose Shakespeare. I remember the instructor came up to me and said, “Yes, I can definitely see that. Look, he’s got an earring already.” My skills weren’t very good but it was a lot of fun: my Shakespeare is dressed in peacock feathers, probably inspired by the necklace I was wearing. I can’t remember who she drew but the woman sitting next to me had her own set of pencils and was a lot more accurate. I thought to myself, “You know what, I could probably draw a lot better if I came here every Friday night and practised with materials provided and guidance offered.”

Later that day, a day in which I visited three museums free of charge, fresh from the exhilaration of the experience, I couldn’t help but compare the museums I knew at home. I had never been to such an event before at home; I would never have thought it a possibility.

And I wanted South Africa’s galleries and museums to be bigger and have more exciting events — I looked such up on the internet, and they’re few and far between. Those people there last night were developing and having opportunities on a scale their ordinary equivalent in South Africa can’t dream of and it infuriates me.

Excerpt from my travel journal, 2017

Today, much of my engagement with South African museums tends to be filled with longing. It’s hard not to compare them to their overseas counterparts. Our museums are under-resourced in comparison, as are many of our institutions, and it’s hard not to link that back to the legacy of colonialism. It’s partly a sense of indignant anger that makes me so determined to visit them, to engage with them. Why should the Global North bathe in their history, and not us? Why should the colonialists have the sole right to public culture?

The New, Digital Museum

Something I have seen in our museums is digitisation and the immersive experience it offers.

The last time I visited a museum physically was in January this year. A friend and I went to the Zeitz MOCAA. We lounged on the fatsaks and posed amidst exhibitions like Home is Where the Art Is. Two months later, the museum hosted an online tour of this gallery and invited a couple of the artists to speak to their works. This medium made the event a much more intense experience; watching something about home from my own home.

Over the past years, our museums have introduced innovative digital technologies to their spaces which enrich the story. In Freedom Park, you can put on headphones and listen to people narrate history. In the Zeitz MOCAA, you’re welcomed by sitting on a bench and watching a film about the museum’s origins and architecture. Multimedia adds value to museum exhibitions. It enlivens history.

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A tour of the Iziko South African National Gallery online.

In the past 501 days of lockdown, multimedia use and digitisation have become crucial. Free of their physical space, museums’ subject matter has felt less charged to me and their role has become more versatile. 

My hope is that the museum’s sabbatical online — divorced from those colonial-era or foreign-funded buildings and mining for an audience online, in competition with Netflix and Spotify and online gym classes — reinvigorates it to reflect on its relevance in daily life. The museum should be creative in its address. That refers to media usage but also to the use of cultural practice to engage with the content.

My Ideal Museum

I know that this blog comes from a position of some privilege. The Black middle-class, however poor and burdened, remains middle-class.  Many of my first critical thoughts about museums were developed on holidays overseas. I’m always startled when I’m asked to pay “just” R30 to enter an Iziko museum. I’ve done university courses in representation and decolonial practice. I know that’s different from the experiences of other South African youth; the inequality saddens and unsettles me.

Almost every youth I interview for this project feels the need to make a disclaimer — “I don’t know much about museums” — but nevertheless enjoys thinking and talking about the subject. Museo Me’s an opportunity for engagement. You do need internet access but there’s no other transport costs and no entry fee to this museum. You can visit in your own time and add your own thoughts to the gallery.

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    Multimedia, such as this gallery of video clips at Freedom Park, enliven museums.

Museums are spaces of identity and imagination. My ideal museum will first and foremost always create a sense of wonder and possibility through thought-provoking exhibitions. If the first gallery shows that we are unequal in a shared land, that’s valid. If the second explains that we have a shared history, one that we can claim identity with, that’s good. The final room, I hope, declares that we can have a shared future, and that museums have a role to play in mediating the encounters which that future requires.

Despite my privilege, this blog isn’t a product of some “insider information”; most of the museum staff I contact simply ignore me — I don’t think they believe that culture and history are public goods (at best, they’re not sure how to practise it or they can’t). Like I said, most of my engagement with South African museums tends to be a longing for them to do better.

I hope that one day I get to attend a drawing class in the South African National Gallery and reimagine the past. I hope our museums evolve to integrate, alongside the validating portrayal of Black pain, more practices of excellence. For remembrance to meet contemporary cultural practice, for the glass cases to meet hands-on interpretation, for history to meet culture…that is the museum I see myself in. In a way, this blog is a tribute to, and a call, for that ideal museum.

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