Transformation in SA Museums - Anziske Kayster PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anziske Kayster Head Graaff-Reinet Museum   
Tuesday, 19 October 2010 19:04




Regarded as a late democracy, South Africa has seen a certain evolution of museums during the last decade, which can be described as a period of massive change and upheaval (Gore, 2005:75). Key words such as ‘democratic constitution, ‘human rights’. ‘Representivity’, ‘openness and transparency’ and markedly, ‘transformation’, were often and are still being used in this new democratic society. This democratic spirit also found its way to the museum world and subsequently museums were also faced with the task of making museums real public spaces in the service of the community.


The SAMA definition of a museum states clearly that museums are dynamic and accountable public institutions which both shape and manifest consciousness, identities and understanding of communities and individuals in relation to their natural, historical and cultural environments through various functions that are responsive to the needs of society (International Council of Museums, 2004:5). This definition implies that museums are public spaces, defined and shaped by circumstances and very closely associated with public life. It also signifies that museums are in service of society and as such, are morally obliged to be representative of those societies in which they exist. South African museums today have sought to transform their collections and exhibitions and to become relevant to their diverse societies (Gore, 2005:75). The implication is that the museum is attempting a change.




For many years in the history of museums in South Africa, the primary focus has been on the tangible heritage of European origin with a bias towards middle and upper classes, metropolitan and male interest. The accepted notion of heritage was one that ignored and avoided the history of black South Africans, except to display it as part of archaeological and natural history exhibitions. The South African Cultural History Museum, for example, exhibited Greek and Egyptian artefacts, European costumes and silver as well as Japanese ceramics and costume. With these exhibitions the message was conveyed that culture, art and history came from Europe. Western cultures were seen as much more superior to African cultures and deserving of a place in the South African Museum, which also represented a place of exclusivity (Crooke, 2005:135)..


In the 1950s, South African museums began to actively portray the history of colonializations, often displaying the victories of white cultures over black (Galla, 1999:38). During the 1960s, the division in display at the South African Cultural History Museum, where white culture was displayed in the cultural history section and the black culture in the natural history section, demonstrated how the museum also made a clear distinction between what they perceived as primitive and civilised, of nature and culture (Gore, 2005: 75). European cultures were regarded as progressive as opposed to the ‘primitive’ and ‘uncivilized’ culture of Africa (Gore, 2004: 33). According to the South African Museum (as cited in Crooke, 2005:135), in the context of the political sphere of the time, this approach in museums has been interpreted as an expression of apartheid – where belief was that high attainment and ability was of European (Western) origin, whereas black history (which originated in Africa) was absent and not deserving of any attention in museums.


For the first time in 1983, museums were classified according to the Tricameral Constitution, which had apartheid as foundation. Cultural history museums became ‘own affairs’, under the control of the Department of Education and Culture and part of the ‘white’ House of Assembly. Museums of natural history, which held material of indigenous Africa and those, which focused on audiences across the racial divide, were grouped together under the control of the Department of National Education, and classified as ‘general affairs’. Any efforts to begin transforming museums were restricted by apartheid. (Gore, 2005:77). The way in which museums functioned, clearly left the majority of the people out in the cold: their history and heritage were perceived as inferior and not deserving of a place in a cultural history museum. The museum, which was a public institution charged with the care of the nation’s culture, became an institution which was absorbed into, and became part of the apartheid system (Hall & Kros, 1994: 15). Thus, museums became the physical embodiment of apartheid. The law of the country dictated the museum, until democracy heralded a change in the museum sphere. Thus, the South African museum is presented with its present day dilemma: how can the West and Africa reconcile and integrate in the museum milieu? In other words: how can all the different cultural groups, those that share their origin with Europe and those that have their roots in Africa, come together in the cultural sphere, embodied by the museum?





When democracy was established in April 1994, social transformation gripped the majority of the public. In terms of the new constitution all citizens had equal rights (Dubin, 2006: 1). Since museums and associated cultural spheres are platforms where national ideals, such as those highlighted in the constitution, are given material form, the museum became a space where people may persuade others to endorse their ideas. On Heritage Day 1997 President Nelson Mandela used the opportunity to criticize museums as institutions which reflected colonial and apartheid points of view. Mandela demanded a change in the status quo: museums had to change to reflect the democratic ideals and experiences of the majority, instead of focusing on a privileged view. Long before Mandela’s speech, museums were trying to address imbalances, but still the speech acted as a catalyst. Some perceived it as a ‘wake-up call’ and the museum fraternity duly noted that what they represented and the way in which it was represented, was opposed to the new human rights culture of the new South Africa (Dubin, 2006: 3).


It is clear from President Mandela’s speech that the new government proposed and desired transformation in museums. One may ask what the process signifies and what it entails. Transformation encompasses inclusion, assimilation, participation, collaboration and sometimes, eradication. It is a process of constructing new ways of thinking, doing and understanding. Transformation in museums touches four interrelated spheres: exhibition policies, acquisition policies, human resources (personnel) and lastly, the transformation of audiences. The process of transformation dictates that museums should broaden the scope of their exhibitions, to make it as inclusive as possible and to exhibit multiple perspectives. Since acquisition policies corroborate a point of view, transformation requires museums to pay attention to previously neglected areas such as indigenous knowledge systems, traditional arts and crafts and traditional practices. With regard to personnel, transformation dictates that staff should be integrated from diverse backgrounds, so that a wide range of perspectives could be incorporated within the sphere in which museums function. Lastly, museums had to become relevant to a diverse society: to provide labels in more than one official language and to make museums accessible to all members of society (Dubin, 2006: 5 – 6). In 1997, Denver Webb, director of the museums and heritage sector in the Eastern Cape Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture announced the Indices of Transformation in museums, a document which set the course for transformation in the sixteen province-aided museums of the Eastern Cape (Tietz, 2008). This document encompassed the four goals as stated in the definition of the transformation and is still being used as guideline in the province-aided museums of the Eastern Cape. The ideal appears to be that eventually museums should become public spaces which reflect the diversity of the South African society. Museums have to become representative of all members of society, mirroring the ideals of the South African democracy and places where the West and Africa are reconciled around a common identity.




My involvement with museums started about fourteen years ago, when transformation in museums was in its infancy. This association gave me the opportunity to experience transformation first hand and also allowed me to formulate what I believe, is a useful opinion.


Museums cannot be viewed outside the political and cultural spheres, since museums do not exist within a vacuum. Museums in apartheid South Africa and museums in the new democracy support this notion. Museums play an important part in reflecting a nation’s identity and have been performing this role since their inception as colonial institutions. (Gore, 2004: 24) When transformation of people occurs within the context of the South African democracy, their attitudes, thinking, desires, inclinations and predispositions reflect the values of the Bill of Rights (of said democracy). Then, people will also participate in the transformation of societal visions and ideals, structures, policies, public and personal values so that it is aligned with the Bill of Rights (Koopman, 2007: 110). In other words: museums in South Africa have a moral responsibility to society to change and to reflect the ideals of the democracy within which they exist. It goes against the moral grain embedded in today’s society to not attempt transformation. If museum fail to change, they may be faced with the threat of extinction if they cater for an elite minority alone. They could become economically and socially (and ideologically) unviable (Omar, 2007: 54). If change is not implemented in museums, they may lose their relevance to the majority.



I agree that transformation in South Africa is loaded with political meaning (van Wyk as cited in Mangiagalli, 2001:3) but to admit that transformation is not a solution is to admit that South Africans cannot live together and in harmony. After all, museums today are public institutions in service of all members of society and as such, have to reflect the ideals, beliefs, heritage and history of all members of society in which they exist. However, transformation might look good on paper, but it is the implementation process that may be problematic.


It is very easy for new museums to adhere to the standards of transformation. These museums, such as Kwa Muhle Museum in Durban , Robben Island Museum, The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and the District Six Museum in the heart of Cape Town were specifically built and or established to reflect the previously neglected history of the majority of South Africans (Gore, 2005: 79 – 86). These museums, what Omar (2007: 54) terms as ‘institutions that typify the new museology’, were constructed with a specific purpose in mind, but it is the older or colonial museum that is faced with severe challenges with regard to transformation. Leito Suko, chairperson of the Arts and Culture Portfolio Committee of the Eastern Cape Legislature, recently stated that the museums in the Eastern Cape were slow in transforming. He referred to exhibitions amongst others, The Graaff-Reinet Museum and the Somerset East Museum, as still displaying the white colonial heritage of the apartheid era and stated that he wanted to see black culture displayed in these museums (Feni, 2008: 4). Are these curators obliged to store their period furniture, historical photographs and porcelain? The subject matter (of exhibitions trying to be inclusive) leaves the curator treading a tightrope between offending one sector of the community or another: for no matter how warranted a revisionist approach maybe, it almost certainly cannot fail to offend those who prefer the nostalgia and glories of heroic myths to the realities of the past (Simpson, 2001: 29). Transformation in these museums, especially those funded by government, is a reality and is embraced; however, the only way in which it can be done smoothly is if museums develop strategies against criticism from the public and controversy, when it occurs (Simpson, 2001: 43). Aims and objectives should be stated clearly, openly and transparently. Community involvement (for multiple perspectives) will counteract many problems which may occur during the transformation process (Simpson, 2001:51). Dubin (2006: 36) also cautions against what he terms ‘cleaning house’ of colonial and apartheid residues, since this is not an easy, effective or necessarily desirable strategy and may be more mystifying to a newly broadened audience. The older established museums also have the advantage of often being the largest and most prominent museums in town, with collections of both pre-and post colonial African culture. These collections may allow and assist the older museum to represent a wide and diverse community (Gore, 2005: 87).


The Graaff-Reinet Museum consists of four eighteenth century period buildings. Established in 1956, the museum exhibited, amongst others, The Anglo-Boer War in Graaff-Reinet, period furniture, historical firearms used in indigenous wars, historical clothing, a historical photographic collection, a doll collection, wagons and a mill house. One of the province-aided museums of the Eastern Cape, the museum also had to adhere to the Indices of transformation for museums, adopted by the Directorate Museums and Heritage of the Eastern Cape. Instead of dismantling all colonial heritage exhibitions, the museum committed itself to display history in a clear and objective manner and to relay facts as objectively as possible. The museum became the first province aided museum to establish a transformation exhibit with the financial assistance of the Province, namely the Robert Sobukwe Exhibition. This exhibition was established through a process of community consultation. A steering committee, consisting of members of the community, museum management and officials from the Directorate Museums and Heritage, was established. A new modern building was erected in 2005 and additional exhibition space added to a historical building to display the history of the previously marginalized members of the community (Baartman, 2008). The slavery and long Road to Restitution Exhibtion was officially opened in March 2009 and the same process was followed to make it a representative Exhibtion. The museum also encourages previously disadvantage people to visit the museum and allow members of the community to visit the museum free of charge on the first Saturday of every month and learners in their school uniform every Friday afternoon. We have also begun with an Oral History Project which involves all sectors of the community. With these efforts, the museum attempted to reconcile the West and Africa. Museum curators have to take the initiative. Each museum is unique and should be considered as such. The management of the Graaff-Reinet Museums, in my opinion, has attempted transformation in an innovative way, trying to create a balance with regard to their exhibitions.


Transformation of museums is not about a ‘chameleon-like adaptation to a democratic and multi-cultural South Africa, but an active engagement in shared cultural spaces informed by contested and empowering discourse for all South Africans’ (Galla, 1999: 43). In the past, multi-culturalism was used to keep the South African society apart, but today racial and thus, cultural, diversity is embedded in the constitution and in public policy (Galla, 1999: 43). As such, museums cannot afford to become exclusive once again, where a reversed kind of exclusivity is practised. Museums may transform too far and can be accused of marginalizing and neglecting the non-indigenous South African population in much the same way as they did the indigenous groups in the past. The reality is that the non-indigenous members of the country are still part of the nation’s history and have a fundamental right to be represented (Gore, 2005: 95 -100). Museums have to remain relevant to all members of society. Transformation is not total eradication of the past, although it has been suggested in the definition of transformation. We cannot tailor memory to become selective memory. Therefore, all our histories should be embodied by the museum. Government also advocates a tolerant society. Tolerance of each other’s traditions, heritage and culture should also be advocated in museums. Museums should strive to reflect this ideal of a tolerant society in their exhibition, staff, public programs, acquisition policies and audiences. In my opinion, the transformation solution lies in balanced representivity, of which tolerance is the foundation.


Transformation is hampered by funding, especially if the museum concerned is subsidized by the government. It has been noted, that in fact, few South African museums have succeeded in transforming due to a lack of funds (Gore, 2005: 90). Not only does transformation have social implications, it also has economic implications. Transformation is an expensive business and museums are lying very low on government’s list of financial priorities (Tietz, 2008). If transformation in museums is to succeed, financial assistance from government is required to speed up the process. Museums will have to become self-sufficient and generate their own funds if transformation is to be successful, or it may be doomed to failure.


I agree that the West and Africa can only reconcile through a process of transformation, because there is no alterative. I have already discussed why I, and others, deem transformation necessary. I also discussed the problems regarding the implementation of transformation. That may subsequently lead to the notion that transformation cannot be successful. This brings me to a very important question regarding transformation: how do we determine the success of transformation? Does it happen when people begin to regard them as a relevant public institution, representative of the community in which they exist? I am of the opinion that one cannot determine the success of the process of transformation, because it is difficult to measure a process. The success of the process can only be determined after the passing of time, since the transformation process in present day South Africa, is continuous. It also is a reality that this process may span a generation. Museums still need to travel a long way before they are to be seen as fully representative of their communities (Gore, 2005: 90). Transformation in museums constitutes not only a partnership between museum management and society, but also governmental departments, tasked with playing ‘watchdog’ over museums. This supervisory role should be characterised by informed decision making.


There is no doubt in my mind that a process of transformation is needed to reconcile the West and Africa in the museum milieu. Museums, however, are tasked to ensure that this process is implemented successfully. If the process of change is termed transformation, so be it. The fact of the matter remains, museums need to change, to become relevant to society and to become the mirrors that reflect the national identity. If transformation is required to achieve this, I see no other option for museums than to embrace the process and to remain relevant and sustainable in present day society. Admitting that the West and Africa cannot reconcile is to admit that people cannot live in harmony in South Africa. It is the task of the museum to prove this fallacy wrong.




Crooke, E. 2005. Dealing with the past: Museums and heritage in Northern Ireland and Cape Town, South Africa. International Journal of Heritage Studies, 11 (2): 131- 142.


Dubin, S.C. 2006. Transforming Museums. New York: Palgrave Macmillian.


Eyo, E. 1994. Conventional museums and the quest fro relevance in Africa. History in Africa, 21: 325 – 337.


Feni, A. 2008. Museums slow to transform. Daily Dispatch, 4 June:4.


Galla, A. 1999. Transformation in South Africa; a legacy challenged. Museum International, 51 (2). 38 – 43.


Gore, J.M. 2005. New histories n a post-colonial society – transformation in South African museums since 1994. Historia, 50(1):75 – 102.


Gore, J.M. A lack of nation? The evolution of history in South African museums, c. 1825 – 1945. South African Historical Journal, 51: 24 -46.


Hall, A. and Kros, C. 1994. New premises for public history in South Africa. The Public Historian, 16 (2):15 – 32.


ICOM, 2004. ICOM code of ethics. 2004 edition.


Koopman, N. 2007. Towards a human rights culture in South Africa. The role of moral formation. Dutch Reformed Theoretical Journal, 48(1&2): 107 – 118.


Omar, R. 2007. Meeting the challenge of diversity in South African museum. Museum International, 57 (3): 52 -59.


Simpson, M G. 2001. Making representations: Museums in the post colonial era, revised edition.New York; Routledge.




Personal Communication


Baartman, H.J.W. 2008. Deputy Director: Graaff-Reinet Museum. Graaff-Reinet. Interview on 10 June 2008 about the Graaff-Reinet Museum and transformation.


Tietz, R.M. 2008. SAMA Fellow. Graaff-Reinet. Interview on 11 June 2008 about museum transformation.












Last Updated on Monday, 20 January 2014 11:46