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The Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative was established in 2009 to grapple with critical questions about history, memory, identity and the public sphere in South Africa. Funded by the National Research Foundation and based at the University of Cape Town’s Social Anthropology Department, this interdisciplinary research project brings together leading established and emerging scholars/researchers to explore the workings of the archive in contemporary culture.


Researchers engage with theoretical ideas about archive and public culture, while, in the same instant, giving close attention to the record. In the spirit of trans-disciplinary exchange, the project brings together scholars from across the humanities and social sciences, while also supporting research on archive in the fields of science, law and medicine. As part of UCT’s drive to enhance the quality of post-graduate training, it assembles emerging researchers and students alongside well-established thinkers, providing a supportive space for the testing of ideas.

National Research Foundation (NRF) Chairs are charged with nurturing a new generation of high-performing researchers and academics. In an effort to vivify this vision of human capital development, the Initiative is structured around intensive post-graduate engagement, mentoring and support for junior academic staff, underpinned by sustained pedagogical reflection and experimentation.  
‘I have been privy to many ongoing seminars in my time, including the one I run at the Michigan Institute. I have never seen a more free, non-hierarchical space than this. African graduate students feel utterly free to think out loud, everybody talks, and talks on point, there is a sense of comradeship in mission while also plenty of argument, controversy, difference in position… The point is to make work in progress better, to have it progress. And I think, around the table, this happens for all….Here both advisor and student seem to share a pact that thinking out of the box deepens the message, that writing is something to be pored over by many different kinds of readers, that freedom of thought is a good thing.’

Professor Daniel Herwitz, Honorary Research Fellow

The development of an active cross-institutional, trans-disciplinary research group comprising senior established scholars, new academics, post-doctoral fellows, doctoral, masters and honours students, as well as research-active professionals in cognate institutions and practitioners in public life, underpins a collaborative approach to developing an active teaching and learning environment within a research context.

The Research Initiative promotes a number of pedagogical innovations designed to build research capacity and to foster critical, independent enquiry. These include schooling students in relevant theory by encouraging a breadth of familiarity and depth of systematic engagement through careful reading of selected works, developing analytical skills, honing methodologies and driving processes of writing up and publishing research.

The research programme is structured around quarterly research workshops; a directed reading group; a weekly seminar; monthly supervision meetings, with systematically generated supervision records; structured co-supervisions; multi-year core funding and independently raised top-up funding; conference attendance promotion and publication support.

Networks are developed and sustained through the participation of national and international honorary research fellows who are regular visitors, research partners on sub-projects and student consultants. In these ways the Research Initiative welds graduate students and advanced researchers into a mutually supportive, diverse but focused research group - an active community of practice, breaking the research isolation often typical in the Humanities.

'Having just completed another three-day Archive and Public Culture workshop, I'd like to applaud its character. It struck me as being a kind of "republic" in the sense that the space is democratic, but also one that blurs the boundaries between the arts, humanities, public and private life, since some of the students and faculty come from civil society (working for the city on heritage, having former lives in poster art/struggle politics, art writing...). To achieve this level of cohesion and focus among a group of students coming from such diverse backgrounds is impressive.'                                                

Professor David William Cohen, Honorary Research Fellow


National Research Foundation Chair in Archive and Public Culture PROFESSOR CAROLYN HAMILTON maps out the Initiative's intellectual terrain and research territory

As contemporary South Africa negotiates its many pasts - violent and racialised, poetic and political, entangled and divided - inherited notions of archive and inherited archives both constrain and nurture interrogations of the past and imaginings of the future. Likewise, fresh ideas of archive and new archives impose new limitations and portend their own possibilities.

The Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative is an enquiry into these inheritances and the limitations and possibilities of contemporary developments around them. Located primarily in the creative arts, history, anthropology and literary studies, it is a trans-disciplinary endeavour hospitable to all fields where archive presents itself as a subject of enquiry. The Initiative actively embraces material culture, visual forms, sonic objectives, landscapes, bodies, cultural repertoires and everyday practices, opening to the recognition of archive beyond documents, and in places seldom deemed 'archives'.

The Research Initiative gives attention to the work that the past was made to do at various times in the past, and is being made to do in the present, along with the notions of archive brought into play to enable that work.

In contemporary South African political and cultural life there are at once intense longings for a rich and fulsome knowledge of the ancient past, but also profound suspicions about the collections of the colonial and apartheid eras, which speak to the remote past. Recognising these currents, one of the focus areas within the Initiative concerns the remote South African past. Our work accords critical attention to how that past was captured in colonial and apartheid scholarship in the early racial sciences - in Philology, Linguistics, Anthropology, Bantu Studies, Archaeology and Ethnomusicology - and what evidentiary basis was marshalled in support of the findings of these disciplines.

We explore artistic and literary appropriations, augmentations and creations of archive, and the particular ways in which varied visual forms - artworks, art books, photographs and films, as well as performances and exhibitions - capture or imagine time, not only remembering, invoking and constituting archive but also its absence.

We are especially interested in understanding the role of material culture and visual renditions, in underwriting knowledge about the remote past. Colonial- and Apartheid-era scholarship had its own conventions for the collection and interpretation of objects. A marked feature of these conventions was the interpretation of objects as cultural items. Their assignment to museums without attention to their provenance and their utilisation as testimony to societies without history, along with the early evaluation of oral materials as unreliable, rendered those societies effectively archiveless. Our research actively positions the material and visual collections held in museums, heritage sites and elsewhere, as archives:

A key move in the effort to engage the pre-colonial in a postcolonial that does not have a pre-colonial documentary archival inheritance involves destabilisation of the seemingly natural division of archives and museum collections and that the move to name (or infer) the museum as an archive foregrounds the ability of the museum collection to speak to the past and not simply to a timeless tribal present (Hamilton, 2009).

The projects linked to this theme offer accounts of the circumstances of assembly, the history of the migrations of collections, and their current conditions of existence. This research reminds us that the various elements of tainted colonial and apartheid-era collections have distinct provenances and life stories of their own that need to be known in order for their potentially rich postcolonial archival possibilities to be realised. The enquiry opens up to settings elsewhere in the world where forms of domination depended on in-depth knowledge of those being ruled.

We interrogate the politics of commemoration, the mobilisation of public memory, and the challenges of public memory haunted by loss, whether of people, lands or of archive itself.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the concepts of intangible heritage, tradition and indigenous knowledge have entered official discourse in powerful ways, highlighting other kinds of contemporary inheritances which trace roots to the distant past, inheritances found in landscape, in everyday practices, cultural repertoires and cosmologies. The Research Initiative investigates these currently valorised and officialised inheritances, interrogating their archive aspirations and public lives. In these enquiries we track the variety of ways in which the past and its legacies have been 'known', paying special attention to that which is deemed to be the archive and evidentiary bases, and the conditions of the acts of deeming.

Certain inheritances are ignored by contemporary officialisation, consecrated nowhere in the colonial and apartheid museums and archives, and held outside of institutions. All of these inheritances, the conditions of their respective disavowal, valorisation, officialisation, discounting and neglect, and the archival notions, which are at play in and around them, are subjects of the enquiry.


'I posit the contemporary as the past arriving at knowledge, and as the present unfolding, indefinable, yet begging to be understood. The contemporary frees us from the past through our ability to transform that past into knowledge. It is this knowledge that has the potential to free us from any obligation to relive the past each time it is recalled. There is no imperative to relive the past, but an absolute, ethical requirement to know it. This seems unavoidable. The value of the contemporary is in the knowledge of the past that it allows us to contemplate. It is also about the suspension and even the avoidance of judgment. In the contemporary the inherited categories melt and are reformed in new ways.' Professor Njabulo S Ndebele

The archives, epistemological and material, that impose themselves on, or lend themselves to, such negotiations of the past are the core focus of our enquiry, as are the mutually constituting roles of the epistemological archive and the storehouses of archival materials. Our local project resonates in global discussions of memory, trauma, social justice, imperialism, indigenous rights, and the practices of history, examining how those discussions direct into local developments, and suggesting what local developments may connote for those discussions.

Our project marks a moment of urgency in contemporary South Africa, one that is linked to issues of restitution and redress. The ways in which we think about and engage with the past play a critical part in shaping the present and future. This socio-political urgency at once shapes our endeavour and is that from which we also seek critical distance.