Youth in the Museum: Meeting the Museum
In the first of a two-part series, young people — often a target demographic of museum policies — talk about how they’ve experienced museums and the social influences that make them visit these spaces. They explain why museums are relevant — and why they don’t often visit them.
Naeemah Davids is a 22-year-old Capetonian. She’s currently in her first year of a Bachelor of Science in Speech and Language Pathology at the University of Cape Town.
Immanuel Nanyaro comes from Tanzania, grew up in Botswana and lives in Cape Town. He is a 23-year old final-year student of Mechatronics Engineering at the University of Cape Town.
Ross Johnson is a 22-year-old Capetonian. Having finished his Bachelor of Arts in Business French and Law, he is now in his intermediate year of an LLB at the University of Cape Town.
Christine Diampovisa is a 25-year-old Capetonian of Angolan origin who’s been living in the city for the past 24 years. She’s studying towards her Masters in Public Relations at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology while doing freelance work.
What’s your first memory of a museum?
I visited the museum in town. I’m not sure what it’s called. I’m not sure if it’s the Iziko South African Museum. It’s the one on the corner, close to the Company’s Garden. I was with my mother in town one day and, just by chance, we ended up at the museum. I remember that it was really cool. I found that so interesting. I could have been about seven or eight years old. They played a little short film or something for us. I don’t remember what they played but I just thought that the way they played something on the projector was so fascinating.
Well, in the part of Botswana where I grew up, there aren’t really museums, if I remember correctly. If there is one, I don’t know because they don’t really push that agenda of there being a museum. So, the Olduvai Gorge Museum in Tanzania is my first ever memory of, like, ‘This is a museum. This is nice.’
I went with my family at the end of 2018. The museum even had the whole human skeleton set up with all the bones that were found there to give you an idea of how these humans looked. It was really nice. We got to see the gorge and see the whole canyon. I hate calling it this, because I’m from Tanzania, but it was a good tourist experience. I felt proud to know that the country I’m from has such discoveries, you know, that put the country on the map — and these are major biological discoveries. Knowing that you’re from a place where one of the first human beings were found, allegedly, that was good. They even had the tools and the type of animal parts that were in the canyon in little exhibits and drawings on the wall. That was amazing.
Sho, it was a long time ago. The first time I remember visiting a museum was when we went on a school outing to the Iziko South African Museum and the Planetarium. I don’t remember a lot about it but it was really cool, especially the Planetarium because I was obsessed with space. I was really interested and then I also distinctly remember that at the Iziko South African Museum there was the ocean exhibit. I remember there being a skeleton of a whale which was just incredible to see, especially as a very, very small kid. That was amazing. There was also a section where you could hear whale noises. That was pretty amazing.
It was in primary school. I think they took us to a railway museum in town. I just remember being so excited because obviously, as a child, my school was five minutes away from my house so we never really took a train unless we were going to town for specific excursions. I always liked history so it was fascinating to hear about the locomotives and the steam trains — the different types of trains — and how they used to be called ‘locomotives’. It was just an exciting trip because of the knowledge you got to learn. The museum tried to explain everything. So, even though I was seven or eight years old, I could understand why the museum was popular and why people went there to see what was happening there.
Describe your last visit to a museum.
Does the museum in the Waterfront count? The Zeitz MOCAA? [Yes.] So, the last time I visited a museum was before COVID at the end of 2019. My sister, who stays overseas, was visiting Cape Town. She saw the museum online and we decided to go because there’s not much to do in Cape Town. She wanted to see the Zeitz MOCAA and I was keen to see it, too, so we had a girls’ day going to the museum.
It was before COVID, obviously. It was in 2019. There’s a museum by the Planetarium, as well, right? [Yes.] I was at the Planetarium with a university society so I went to that museum and checked it out. The Iziko South African Museum. I didn’t go inside completely; I just went here and there, and just saw a bit. The last museum I can really remember was in Tanzania.
I can’t recall going to a museum since the pandemic started. The last time I visited a museum was when I went to the South African Museum and the Planetarium. My experience was very much similar to what I told you about my first visit. It was basically me just reliving my childhood. The museum hadn’t changed a lot, except that the projector that they used to show the stars was very different. Two of my friends had made plans to go because they were very interested and they asked who wanted to join. I hadn’t seen my friends in ages so it was a good reason to catch up. Also, I hadn’t been to the museum since I was a kid so it was a good chance to just relive that.
Does Zeitz MOCAA count? [Yes.] I went to Zeitz MOCAA in 2019, before COVID, with my brother. I went there before because it boasts of being the best African contemporary art museum. I wanted to see if they were actually living up to that title, because the last time I’d gone there, there had been a lot of African artists who are based elsewhere displaying their work so I wanted to see if they had somehow turned that around, but, unfortunately, they still have a lot of African artists who are not based in Africa, so it’s more like they’re bringing international art to Africa rather than the other way around.
How regularly do you visit museums?
I wouldn’t go too often. Not that I don’t want to; it’s just I’ve never really looked much into museums. If it was advertised, I’d be like, “Oh, we can go see this museum” or “Oh, I didn’t know this museum exists.” So, I’m not a very regular goer but I would like to change that, maybe. I’m not sure what exactly I’d expect to see in a museum because, you know, you don’t really know what to expect until you actually go there. I’m also more of an outdoor person so I don’t really look at a lot of indoor events. Museums, things like that, I wouldn’t do. I’d look at it and be like, “Okay, that’s cool” but I wouldn’t go out of my way to go to a museum.
I’m an irregular museum-goer. Museums don’t really push themselves, like, home to us. If I don’t see them, they won’t be in my mind. I won’t really talk about or think about going there. And also, speaking for myself, being foreign, when I go to a museum in South Africa, I’m just learning about somebody else’s heritage or past that does not involve me, anyway. So I think it’ll be nicer for me to see something from an area related to my heritage. It would be nice to actually get an in-depth look at my heritage, or my culture, and where things came from. So I think that’s also another major factor.
I don’t visit museums very regularly at all, definitely not since the pandemic started. It’s generally something I do when I travel; here in Cape Town, it’s a very rare thing for me to visit a museum. I haven’t had many opportunities to travel but when I do, I tend to visit museums when I visit a city for the first time. Museums often offer insights into something that I wouldn’t normally experience here — an insight into, like, a different world. Also, when you visit a place and look up what the attractions are, a museum is usually listed. I’ve never been to Paris but I think everyone there would tell you to go to the Louvre. So, when I went to Washington, D.C., obviously I went to the Smithsonian Institution because that’s one of the things to do. This is with more international travel than local travel for me. If I visit a city like Durban, I wouldn’t necessarily go to a museum because I’ve already been to those museums.
I wouldn’t say that South African museums don’t compare to international museums. It’s more that, you know, I’ve been to museums in Cape Town, and also a lot of the topics that are covered by our museums are all things that I’ve learned in school history, and also through my personal research. Being a South African, I’ve always been surrounded by that information. So, when I do travel, it’s an opportunity for me to see something that I haven’t learned, something new.
Not often enough, so I would say maybe twice or thrice a year.
From Wonder to Disappointment
We can likely all recognise aspects of our own experiences in these youths’ descriptions of their first memories of a museum. The school trip, the train trip, the trip to town, the trip abroad… Museums are most intriguing when they are part of an integrated experience that involves us leaving our comfort zones.
The young people here describe their first museum visits in terms of how the museum seized their imagination and left an emotional imprint on them: “I felt proud”, “I found that so interesting”, “ It was just an exciting trip”, “That was amazing”. These kinds of wonderful expressions tend to be missing from descriptions of subsequent visits as adults. Three of the youths don’t visit museums regularly and when they do, it’s due to a social influence, not some natural allure of the institution itself. What happened between that first awesome encounter and the lacklustre experiences of adulthood? We’ll find out in the next article.