Something new, something old

There was a gloriously old South African moment among all the new South African sentiment at the official opening of MuseumAfrica last Saturday.

The mayor of Johannesburg was hunched over the podium with that indefinable railways look which Johannesburg’s civic dignitaries somehow contrive in their chains of office. This building in which we were standing, he noted, is probably the largest example of three-pin architecture in the southern hemisphere.

The largest! The most advanced! The newest! Another South African first! Actually, what the mayor was celebrating was the fact that the city council had chosen to build the Africana Museum/MuseumAfrica in the middle of an underground lake and therefore, at some cost to ratepayers, was obliged to construct it on flexible stilts. Most builders try to avoid three-pin architecture wherever possible and one wonders if there really is that much international competition in the field.

MuseumAfrica bears many of the hallmarks of its origins within the Johannesburg City Council. Originally budgeted at around R15-million, the development eventually cost (officially) just double that. Originally scheduled to be completed during the 1980s, its doors finally opened nearly halfway through the next decade.

Somewhere in the middle of the refurbishment, money ran out — just as the arteries for the electrical system had been excavated. The result was that, come the rainy season, the place, as well as the adjacent Market Theatre, was flooded out. Oh well, nothing another R5-million added on to the budget can’t take care of …

But this is history. What matters now is what the council and the people who created the museum have come up with, and it is hard not to be enthusiastic. What we have is an attempt to create something that will be serviceable in the new South Africa, to look at history through new eyes and to suggest it through tokens and traces in the spaces of the museum.

Thus in the launch exhibition — entitled Johannesburg Transformations — we have the various components bending over backwards to bring to centre stage those traditionally left on the margins of South African history.

Thus, in the component called What about the Workers?, we have reproduced, among other things, a mine tunnel and a hostel dormitory in pointed contrast with a mine manager’s living and working conditions. The exhibition then moves on to celebrate, in historical snippets and collected posters, the rise of the trade union movement in South Africa.

Thus downstairs, among the bits and pieces that direct the viewers’ attention, a collection of ceremonial cake knives is labelled in such a way as to suggest that though it is the way history has been told in the past, maybe it is not the most appropriate of all possible ways; an official portrait is subverted with a text questioning the history of a city as a history of its famous men; on the mezzanine a tableau celebrates the original Tswana inhabitants of the region; and so on.

The exhibition tries very hard to look at history through the eyes of the oppressed and to redefine perceptions of Johannesburg, its past and its present. The emergence is celebrated of marabi in the Doornfontein slumyards, of African jazz in Sophiatown. We are treated to displays of memorabilia around the Sophiatown removals and various other heroic moments of resistance.

The museum, as the press releases insist, is a museum for all. In one sense this is manifestly true: the launch exhibition does record a lot more than the white Johannesburg construct of the colonial and apartheid past. In another, the question is more dubious.

Consider for example the “township” bits. On the upper level one moves through a warren of squatter shacks and recreated slumyards and funky township shebeens, all erected with the same loving attention to detail that might have been lavished on London Bridge when it was placed in the Arizona landscape.

Not only this, but also an implicit taxonomy: as the press release informs us, one shack has been brought in from Alexandra township, another from Thokoza, a third from Orlando. And: “Where possible, real smells and sounds will be recreated for authenticity — for example, a burning mbawula (fire tin) and a drum of umqomboti (beer) will simulate the actual atmosphere inside Mr Mbubana’s old home.”

Mbubana is the Alex resident whose home has made the journey — and note the irony: in South Africa it is a geographical one, not historical — of about 10 kilometres. In the course of that journey it is magicked from shelter into ethnography — for whites, that is. For a whole lot of the “all” the museum is aimed to serve, it’s a lived environment.

A couple of weeks before the museum opened, about R100 000 worth of historical costuming went missing. At the time I wondered if my colleague Krisjan Lemmer might be interested in pursuing the possibility of a bunch of Johannesburg’s homeless wandering around in kappies and red military coats. Now I’m wondering if maybe they couldn’t just move in.

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