(Un)Liberated and Contested Narratives: Museums in a Free South Africa

(Un)Liberated and Contested Narratives: Museums in a Free South Africa

Bongani C. Ndhlovu (University of the Western Cape, South Africa & Iziko Museums, South Africa)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-7429-3.ch018
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This chapter analyses the influence of the state in shaping museum narratives, especially in a liberated society such as South Africa. It argues that while the notion of social cohesion and nation building is an ideal that many South African museums should strive for, the technocratisation of museum processes has to a degree led to a disregard of the public sphere as a space of open engagement. Secondly, the chapter also looks at the net-effect of museums professionals and boards in the development of their narrative. It argues that due to the nature of their expertise and interests, and the focus on their areas of specialisation, museums may hardly claim to be representative of the many voices they ought to represent. As such, the chapter explores contestations in museum spaces. It partly does so by exploring the notion “free-spokenness” and its limits in museum spaces. To amplify its argument, the chapter uses some exhibitions that generated critical engagements from Iziko Museums of South Africa.
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Museums As Agents Of The State

In the period prior to 1994, state funded South African museums produced content that was in line with the then dominant political dispensation. They produced exhibitions and public programs that reinforced the practice of apartheid. As such they served to promote and perpetuate, as was expected of them, the racist political philosophy of the country’s ruling white elite as espoused by the National Party government. Narratives of the black majority were largely subjects of anthropological and natural history museums while white achievements dominated cultural, technological and military history museums among others. Even in such anthropological exhibitions, blacks were mostly displayed in a negative light and were regarded as the inferior race.

The question of equality for all South Africans was a matter that the liberation movement fiercely fought for. The concerted effort and struggles for freedom and equality led to the first democratic elections that were held in 1994. Many South Africans exercised their political right and voted as equals in a process that introduced a Government of National Unity, which was led by the African National Congress. The elections was a product of a complicated period of negotiations and compromises between anti-apartheid political organisations and the National Party led government, including political parties that supported apartheid. The democratic elections introduced a period which recognised the importance of equality and the need to engage on critical issues affecting the country and its citizens. It was also a period that allowed South Africans to find new approaches and new ways of engagements.

In the museum sphere, the fall of apartheid, to rephrase Bennet (1995), also necessitated the emergence of a ‘new’ type of museum which exposed the decadence and tyranny of the old forms of control and was driven by democracy and utility of the new South Africa. Programming for the ‘new’ museum was anchored on constitutional rights for all her citizens. As such and to borrow Michel Foucault’s phrase, the new museum was to take a parrhêsiastic discourse (open spoken-ness) which was also critical of the present state with the aim of safe-guarding democratic gains (Foucault, 2011). Thus, the new museum aimed not at the sequestration of parts of the population but at the mixing and intermingling of publics – white and black – which had hitherto tended towards separate forms of assembly (Bennett, 1995; Omar, 2005; Nanda, 2004).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Technocratisation of Museums Processes: A system through which the strategic and operational functioning of a museum is subjected to bureaucratic processes of the state.

Tenderpreneur: A South African term that refers to businesses or entrepreneurs whose livelihood solely or largely depend on receiving business tenders from the state or public entities.

Parrhêsiastic: Open spoken-ness.

South African Native National Congress: At its formation in 1912, the African National Congress (ANC) was named the South African Native National Congress.

Participative Citizenry: Inhabitants who actively participate in the affairs of the state and where need be challenge the position of the state or its entities.

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