/ 4 February 2016

Letting MuseumAfrica collapse is a cultural assault

There is a crisis at Johannesburg’s MuseumAfrica. It is in imminent danger of collapse because it will soon have no full-time staff to oversee the roughly 750 000 artefacts.

I started researching and writing about MuseumAfrica in 2001. In 2013, I published a book about the museum’s history, from its founder’s arrival in South Africa in 1902 into the post-apartheid era. It seems to me that some of the conclusions I draw bear repeating today.

MuseumAfrica was founded in 1935 as the Africana Museum under the explicit mandate to enact what its founder, John Gubbins, called three-dimensional thinking. In his mind, the museum had the capability to illustrate life south of the Zambezi River in ways far more complicated than emergent, polarised ideologies then suggested.

After his untimely death, the museum came under the management of the Johannesburg Public Library, where it remained until the early 1990s, and where it outwardly appeared to be the place many still assume it to be: an illustration of the logic of apartheid, where whites were situated in history and blacks dwelt in timeless tradition.

In 1994, alongside the birth of the new South Africa, the museum was reimagined as MuseumAfrica. After warm receptions for its opening exhibits showcasing the lives of the majority of South Africans, the museum floundered, ultimately entering a period of decline.

Early in my research, a prominent Johannesburg activist warned me against getting involved in saving the museum. That was never what my work was about. My project sought to ask what place artefacts collected during colonial and apartheid days may have in the new order and what worth this museum, as a whole, retains today. The answer is twofold.

First, this museum is made up of real items from the past. Although the post-apartheid era has seen the birth of new museums, such as the Hector Pieterson Museum in Soweto and the Apartheid Museum in Gold Reef City, they both owe their exhibits to items from MuseumAfrica as neither museum collects objects and there remains something profoundly important about real relics.

Second, in an era in which archives are increasingly in crisis, the museum provides researchers with a wealth of opportunities. In my book I noted that, in 2009 alone, the photography curator filled 184 orders for digital images; she filled nearly as many during the first half of 2011. And that was just photography.

The other collections, such as artwork, geology, costume and Khoisan artefacts, were increasingly in demand in recent years from researchers and students the world over.

I’m not certain that MuseumAfrica needs to be maintained as MuseumAfrica but I am certain that allowing it to rot by neglect, to knowingly render it vulnerable to plunder and demise, amounts to the same kind of depressing cultural assault we have witnessed throughout the postcolonial world.

Though the museum seems tainted by its past and many, if not most people, continue to see it as nothing more than a colonial and apartheid apparatus, it was never envisioned to be that. And, though it may never have lived up to the high ideals of its founder, its mandate certainly did. This means its vast collection contains within it the possibility of the very kind of inclusive, post-apartheid displays that the nation could benefit from.

The new South Africa was founded on the notion that it was preferable to build on the imperfect past rather than to destroy its remnants. It appears that that idea may have run its course. Although it may be tempting to bring the museum down by allowing it to fall, I sincerely hope that those who have the wherewithal to address the crisis do so with their eyes open, cognisant of what, precisely, is at risk.

A century’s worth of work will be lost and, with it, unending possibilities for how the past can be crafted in the future.

Sara Byala teaches critical writing and history at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and is the author of A Place That Matters Yet, about MuseumAfrica (University of Chicago Press, 2013)