February 11, 2008

Apartheid Museum

Every weekend I try to do one touristy activity. This weekend was the much heralded Apartheid Museum. I must say that it is a beautifully designed structure. In particular, the path to enter the museum is a gorgeous depiction on full length mirrors of South Africa’s multi-racial people walking “with you” on the path. So as you walk by to see who makes up South Africa, you consistently see yourself. Another beautiful acknowledgement of inclusion and individuality.

Beyond the design, the museum itself brought up lots of interesting questions about what makes a “museum” and how one can tell the story of apartheid. The current “exhibit” takes you through the history of apartheid, beginning with Johannesburg’s gold rush that brought people from all over the world to SA and then taking you through the economic and social factors that created and eventually brought down the horrific institution of apartheid. Although most certainly worth experiencing, I personally have read and studied this aspect of South African history at length, so my mind went immediately to how the story was told as opposed to the story itself.

At the Apartheid Museum the story is told almost exclusively through photos, words, and videos. So you feel like someone has blown up pages from a multi-media history book and you’re simply walking through. There are few “artifacts” of the “era” – beyond the many signs that designated segregation between “Europeans” and “Non-Europeans.” Further, there is limited editorial to the story. Instead, everything known to have happened is placed on the walls in basically chronological order.

In truth I don’t know that the “museum” can present its “exhibit” any differently, except perhaps to deepen the segregation experience for attendees (which they try to do with the separate entrances to the museum, but it’s a very small example of the severe indignities people faced during apartheid). Beyond this, South Africa’s truth is that the story of apartheid is still evolving. There is yet little time and space for historians to look back and say, “This is how this story should be told.” No place to dig up “artifacts” to define the “experience” of apartheid. South Africa has essentially erected a “museum” (a structure usually displaying items already in existence, such as art or artifacts) for a story that is still in development, and the post-apartheid picture has yet to emerge.

My personal fear is that the post-apartheid story will be an economic one. Today, one does see racial integration – in the office, in the mall, even at the clubs – you see people of every color, a true “Rainbow Nation.” But the mix of races quickly belies the similarity in socioeconomic class. And as you move into the “poorer” parts of town, the mix of races all but disappears. There are few white members of Johannesburg’s underclass. And although there has been growth of a black middle class and the emergence of the "Black Diamonds," SA's black wealthy elite, the distribution of wealth is not even close to reaching a broad base. As such, the photos in the Apartheid Museum of how things “were” in terms of racial and economic segregation in SA are unfortunately photos that could just as easily be taken today.


Vimal said...

Interesting point on the structure of the museum vs. the content. Have you ever visited the Holocaust museum in DC? It provides an incredibly powerful way of telling an obviously tragic and important historical story both in macro and micro terms. On the macro level, it talks through the history and root causes of the holocaust, but you're also provided a little passport that walks through one individual's story.
On a random note, have you been interacting with South Africans of South Asian descent? I'm curious to hear your thoughts on what they are like. I remember Sandeep's comments on west indies indos being fascinating.

Trina said...

Yes, the Holocaust Museum does a fantastic job of bringing you on the journey, building from the frame of "Lest We Forget...," created as a monument to the tragedy many years after the fact. The people of South Africa, however, can't forget. Not yet at least. They're still in it. Even the "born free generation" (those born after apartheid) know of it everyday from their parents and their daily reality. Which is why I'm still not sure what the core concept is for the space from a "exhibition" stand point, beyond the definitive need to make sure the story is told.

As for the 'dos of the world, blog entry on that coming soon. :) Although must say it's pretty easy to be brown in SA.