Museums: dumping grounds for troublesome histories?

Posted on May 16, 2011

Photo credit:, I'm confused. It's International Museum Day and everyone in the rest of the world is going on about how wonderful museums are and what good work they do. ICOM says 'museums collect stories and convey the memory of our communities. These objects are the expressions of our natural and cultural heritage. Many of them are fragile, some endangered and they need special care and conservation. International Museum Day 2011 will be an occasion for visitors to discover and rediscover individual and collective memory.' Of course South Africa can't join the rest of the world, they're going to think we're behind the times, or maybe running on African time because we're only going to have Museum Day in the 23rd - we'll all be too busy voting on the 18th.

But then, maybe the 23rd will be a quiet day here anyway because it seems that we don't celebrate museums, we use them as store rooms.

The boss was very irritated when he came home from Grahamstown the other day. Seems that 'someone' has taken the statue of Rhodes away from the front door and hidden it! Maybe because Rhodes isn't considered such a hero anymore - he even got a mention in that book about 50 people who stuffed up South Africa. Maybe they took the statue away because they were scared the students would mess it up. Paint it or something like they did to the big 'boer' on his horse outside parliament a few years ago. I don't think so though. I think they just though he spelt trouble for them when they're trying to be all transformed.

Verwoerd's another story altogether. He practically invented apartheid, didn't he, or so the story goes. Anyway there's this statue of him sitting all calm and quiet in front of some municipal office down in Midvaal until someone notices it - someone who's looking for votes, I think, and starts going on about how the DA supports apartheid. Then the statue's gone, in the night, packed off to the storeroom. But not before everyone's had their say. Though they all disagree, a lot of the time, most of them think that Verwoerd should be put away far from prying eyes - in a museum maybe?

'Dr Verwoerd remains a symbol, embodiment and apartheid architect of all the ills of the country's terrible past and his statue should be confined to a museum' said the ANC. In another article Jackson Mthembu their spokesperson said 'We, however, do not have a problem with any other apartheid heritage symbols and we are even prepared to move the (Meyerton) Verwoerd bust to the Apartheid Museum, where it belongs.' The DA say that "the bust of Hendrick Verwoerd has rightly been consigned to history'. COSATU got in on the act too 'We demand that the statue should be removed and thrown into the dustbin of history within seven days and failure to do so will leave us as Cosatu in Gauteng with no option but to mobilise our community to destroy such a statue by force.' Then of course lots of people are shouting about the statue being part of their heritage and wanting to protect it' We'll at least it's a relief from all the toilet stories!

Question is, why do they want to lock the statue away in a store room? I thought that in the 'new' South Africa we were all supposed to be tolerant and reconciled?

I'm confused also because in Malema's case, some people are saying that 'shoot the boer' must also be put in a museum because it's offensive and other people are saying we must sing it, because it's part of our heritage. So who gets to decide what part of heritage is 'good' and must be left standing in full view and hearing of people, and what part is 'bad' and must be hidden away quietly. Surely there must be a way for us to live with both sides of the story! What happens when someone else gets voted into power, do we bring some stuff out and put the other stuff back - maybe everything should just be on wheels.

Now here's the thing. If all these bits and pieces of 'heritage' are going to end up in museums surely the museum people can do something with them, something that will help us to see if and whay they matter to all of us, or even some of us. Maybe that's the job of the museums. Isn't that what 'social cohesion' is all about? I know it's a challenge, but hey, so is living in South Africa and trying to get on with everyone without history getting in the way the whole time, isn't it?

Mak (from Makhado) is an occasional corresondent for the Archival Platform