Monday, August 30, 2010

Personal Reflections on Museums and the Promise of Transformation

Bongani Mgijima, Grahamstown

The promise of transformation in museums has been a recurring theme even before the advent of democracy. Central to this promise has been the participation and inscription of stories of those who were historically excluded. In almost every platform transformation of museums has been the most noticeable buzz word. The purpose of this blog is to reflect on this topic by drawing on my personal work experiences in the heritage and tourism sectors. My main point is that despite the promise and much talk, museum transformation , despite some few achievements, has been ironically a huge disappointment.

My own engagement with museums started in the mid 1990’s while a student at the University of the Western Cape. As part of a History assignment we were asked to visit the South African Museum in Cape Town to analyse how it portrays the histories of the so called “ bushman”. As students, were were required to view an exhibition entitled the “bushman diorama” which consisted of semi-naked lifesize human body casts presented in a panoramic scene. Our brief was to analyse this in terms of how it represents the “bushman”. For me this was my first visit ever to a museum and it proved to be a very important one. As a person who grew up in a small Eastern Cape village, the concept of a museum was something foreign. The visit to the South African Museum happened at a time when there were so many changes in the country. Nelson Mandela had just been sworn in as the president of a democratic South Africa and was very vocal on issues of reconciliation, nation-building and reconstruction. This one museum visit actually transformed my whole life. From that day on I became very interested in museums because I realised how their power to represent others bestows upon them an authority to determine how those who are represented get to be viewed and understood.

While the visit to the South African Museum, the oldest museum in South Africa , was an eye opener for me , the initiative to establish a museum in Lwandle near Cape Town was a very critical moment for me. As part of the new government’s Reconstruction and Development Programme an initiative in the late 90s was started to convert old single men’s hostels into family units. This prompted Charmian Plummer, a resident of Somerset West, who was at the time busy with the establishment of a local crèche to request the local municipality in 1998 to preserve at least one single hostel in order to preserve it for future generations. Given the fact that at the time the local municipality had no staff capacity to deal with requests of this nature the task of overseeing the implementation of this was given to the Town Librarian. The Town Librarian called together a steering committee consisting of, amongst others, Charmian Plummer and myself. After the meeting, the Town Librarian pointed out that with the establishment of the steering committee her job was done. The Steering Committee was entirely left on its own with nothing at its disposal only the idea of a museum.

Without getting into details, the Steering Committee with lots of effort managed to get an old hostel unit identified for the purpose. Hostel number 33 was identified as a suitable venue because “ its bucket system was still intact”. However getting immediate access to the hostel for the purposes of a museum proved difficult given the fact that it was still occupied by its residents. As an alternative permission to utilize an old community hall was obtained from the municipality and two years later the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum was officially opened on 1 May 2000 without any direct state funding. From its inception in 1998 the new museum was hailed as a major victory for transformation. However despite being the first township based museum in the Western Cape authorities in this province decided to turn a blind eye perhaps with the hope that it will fade away. Ten years later the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum still exists despite the funding challenges it is still facing. It looks like, at last the provincial authorities are in the process of incorporating it is a province aided museum. Whether this happens remains to be seen.

My second engagement with museum transformation happened at Worcester Museum better known as Kleinplasie Open Air Museum where I was appointed as a Museum Manager in 2003. Worcester Museum is a “ living open air museum which potrays the life style of the early pioneer farmers”. When I started in this museum I was the only black African to ever work in this museum and the first to ever manage it. My own appointment perhaps came about as a result of transformation. When I joined this museum there was lots of talk in the department responsible for museums and my brief was to transform the museum. A Provincial Transformation Task Team was appointed to look at the transformation of all museums and I also happened to be part of this team. This Task Team however achieved very little beyond holding a couple of meetings. It later transpired to everyone involved that there was no funding available to implement all the new transformation ideas that came out of this engagement.

I would like to come to my own brief of transforming the Worcester Museum. In transforming a museum,one is expected to revisit all the museum practices with the aim of involving those who were historically disadvantaged. I would like to admit that during my tenure at Worcester Museum I failed dismally to achieve this goal. In terms of exhibitions I managed to source out two exhibitions. One exhibition was sourced from the UCT based Centre for Popular Memory and dealt with the subject of alcohol and the pass laws in Langa. The second exhibition came from the UWC based Project on Public Pasts and dealt with and in fact questioned 350 years of the landing of Jan van Riebeeck. These two exhibitions were received with very mixed feelings. One visitor questioned the wisdom of having an exhibition dealing with township life in a museum dedicated to farming.

Transformation initiatives at Worcester Museum were limited to once off events. On special days such as international museum day residents from Zweletemba would be invited to participate on the activities. However the challenge with these type of initiatives is that they are once off and as Julie Mcgee points out “ a transformation ideology that is event-centred can easily mask or justify fundamental or underlying issues or policies sorely in need of change”.

Why did I fail to transform Worcester Museum? The main reason behind this is that when I started at Worcester Museum that museum was facing financial difficulties and was running an overdraft running into millions. With this type of situation it was even difficult to mount new exhibitions let alone keeping the phone ringing. Under these circumstances it is easy and convenient to blame the previous museum management of Worcester Museum. It is also equally convenient to place the blame squarely on pre-1994 scramble to privatise museums so that they do not fall into the hands of the new government. In many museums private trusts were formed and museum properties were controversially and perhaps illegally transferred into the hands of these trusts. In the 1990s Worcester Museum borrowed millions from a local bank with the intention of expanding the museum. Additional land was bought from the Department of Railways and abandoned railway stores were converted into a museum. In securing loans from the bank the museum property was used as a guarantee. When it became apparent that the museum would not be able to repay its debt and was facing a possible closure and given the political changes that happened with a new government taking over provincial government, transformation of the museum became a necessity. In order to save the museum from itself a new museum manager had to be appointed. I would like to argue that if it was not for the debt that the museum faced at the time perhaps I would not have been appointed. For Worcester Museum to survive in the new dispensation it had to be seen to be transforming. Perhaps my appointment at Worcester Museum made it easy for officials in the provincial department to convince the then newly elected provincial government to bail the museum out. One perhaps may be tempted to stretch the argument further by arguing that my own appointment at Worcester at the time has very little to do with transformation as such but was about saving this last bastion of “early pioneer farmers” .Indeed Worcester Museum was successfully bailed out of its debt and instead of being a province aided museum it became a provincial museum – a very cosmetic change.

On realising that the impossibility of transforming Worcester Museum, given the fact that it had not funds, I headed north to work for the North West Provincial Government in mid 2003. In the North West I was given responsibility for museums , geographical names and heritage resources – a very ambitious job description. For the purpose of this short paper I am going to limit myself to museums. In the North West there are about eight museums a majority of which is under local authorities. The provincial government is directly responsible for the Mafikeng Museum which is located in the provincial capital town. The History of this museum is very interesting. In pre Bophuthatswana era the Mafikeng Museum was declared administered as part of the Cape Provincial Administration in terms of the Museum Ordinance Act of 1975. When it was taken over by the Bophuthatswana Government this piece of legislation was never repealed instead the manager of the museum was instructed to report to Bophuthatswana government offices and its Board was abolished. In 1994 North West was created as a new province and all the administration of the Bophuthatswana homeland was transferred to this newly established province. Given the fact that the newly created province straddles the old provinces of Transvaal, Cape Province and the Homeland when old legislation was assigned to the North West the Transvaal Museums and Libraries ordinance was assigned to it. Despite this problem Mafikeng Museum continues to be run as part of the provincial department and is one of the most transformed museums in the country. The previous Curator of the museum deserves special credit as he began the process of changing displays long before the term transformation was fashionable.

Other museums especially in the former Transvaal province are under the control of local authorities. The provincial government had no say over how they are run beyond rendering incentive funding. This posed a big challenge in terms of enacting legislation for museums in the province. Our new constitution stipulates that “museums other than national museums” are a provincial competence. Enacting a piece of legislation meant taking over museums from municipalities and this from a financial point of view was not feasible. This was a problem faced by libraries in the North West and other provinces. Transformation of museums was also difficult. In certain instances the provincial department would allocate monies to municipalities for certain projects and these would not get off the ground. This caused a lot of frustration as these local authorities had to be pushed into implementing projects before the end of the provincial financial year.

There are also independent museums such as the Mphebatho Museum ,near Sun City and HC Bosman Museum in Groot Marico. The Mphebatho Museum is owned and managed by the Bakgatla Royal Authority. Around 2004 , this museum embarked on an Oral and Visual History project which was funded by the provincial government. About ten young people were trained in oral history methods and photography with the aim of collecting local histories for purpose of building up a museum collection. Although this was a very good project, due to funding constraints , it could not be sustained beyond one financial year. Also in the absence of coherent legislation for museums in the North West it was difficult to assign fulltime civil service staff members to this museum. Mphebatho Museum is very unique in that it is located in a rural village which is closer to Sun City and Pilanesberg National Park – major tourist attractions in the area.

The HC Bosman Museum is under the control of the HC Bosman Literary Society. The provincial government funded the partial construction of a replica of the school where the famous writer Herman Charles Bosman was a teacher. This museum is used as hub by local people interested in the writings of Bosman. The major transformation challenge for this museum has been the inclusion of the Africans from the local township. During the construction phase locals were given temporary work opportunities however due to the specialist interest of the organisation it has been possible to attract local participation of those who were historically excluded from museums.

Perhaps the HC Bosman Literary Soceity is not as specialised an interest group as the architects , archaeologists and planners who seat on the Council of Heritage Western Cape – a provincial heritage resources authority of the Western Cape. In late 2005 I received a transfer to return to the Western Cape Provincial Government to work as a manager responsible for Heritage Resources. In terms of the National Heritage Resources Act all provincial governments must have their own heritage authorities. Heritage Western is mandated to approve some of the developments happening within the provincial boundaries in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act. Heritage Western Cape has various committees, made up of independent experts, which look into archaeological , paleontology and meteorites as well as the built environment and landscape. These committees take decisions on these applications and it is the duty of full time staff members to communicate these decisions to the applicants. Given the objective nature of heritage and value judgements that are made heritage resource management in the Western Cape was and remains a contested terrain. Committees will spend hours and hours on an application disagreeing on whether its should be approved or not. What complicated matters in adjudicating applications was the fact that some members of the committees also doubled as consultants. Sometimes this created a dilemma for members of the committees because if a person is harsh in judging a fellow committee members’ application he or she may expect that other member to do the same to his/hers and vice versa. The other transformation challenge facing heritage resource management in the Western Cape are the value judgements on what must be demolished and what must be saved. These value judgements tend to be very Eurocentric and serve to perpetuate the old National Monuments Council thinking than the transformation that was envisaged when the National Heritage Resources Act was enacted. These value judgements also result in legal contestations in the highest courts.

The other disturbing trend is that the majority of Heritage Western Cape Committee members are also members of an association called AHAP. Although this is not a statutory body for heritage resource management in some instances Committee members do want to assist that before a person could practise as a Heritage Impact Assessor one must be a member of this body. Some developers are even given the impression that one must belong to this body in order to practise. My own experiences in the Western Cape indicate that there is a critical shortage of black heritage practitioners despite the Act making provision for this. This is a result of not having sufficient black students enrolling for archaeological, architectural and town planning courses. The few that are there hardly keep a heritage job for a month as they receive better offers elsewhere. However due to time constraints an analysis of transformation in the heritage resource management sector deserves a blog of its own. However training of heritage resource management practitioners needs to be prioritised as part of transformation.

Training is not only an issue for heritage alone. Owners of museums and heritage resources are always called upon to make these available to tourists and that tourism will help to sustain these. In search of this truth I decide to join the provincial department of tourism as a Manager responsible Environmental and Social Issues within tourism. In this capacity I began to learn how museums are viewed by the tourism sector. In the tourism sector there is a mistaken belief that museum could and should be run as businesses. This mistaken belief stems from the fact that people in the tourism industry think that opening the museum for tourists is the end. They are no aware that exhibitions constitute only about 30 percent of what museums are about. This explains why its always difficult to secure recurring funding from tourism departments. Funding from tourism departments is usually once off and the emphasis is that a museum should be self sustainable afterwards. In my interactions with stakeholders from the tourism sector I tried unsuccessful to convince them that museums, within the broad tourism chain, serve as attractions without which there will be very little tourism. Tourism Departments spend lots of money marketing museums but are not very keen to spend money on them. While they would spend money on a recurring basis on running information or visitor centres the same cannot be said about museums. The general perception , in the tourism sector , is that museums could be run as businesses. While the application of business principles and decisions in the museum sector is vital the thinking that museums could be profitable is misguided.

In my humble personal opinion the transformation of museums, in our country has been sabotaged by lack of funding. Before the advent of democracy museums were designed to serve a tiny minority. When democracy dawned the mandate of museums was widen to include the majority which was previously excluded. However the funding net was not widened instead it began to shrink making it impossible to change what Aron Mazel once referred to “ as bastions of apartheid ideology”. If transformation of museums is to succeed , funding has got to be made available otherwise the promise of transformation will remain a dream deferred.

In my next blog , I am going to write about why I think there should be a museum in the small Eastern Cape Town of Alice.. Please feel free to write to me

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