Cultural artefacts are world treasures
We go behind the scenes to see extraordinary artefacts at the Ditsong National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria
Humankind and all that is associated with it lies at the heart of cultural history, which is essentially the story about all the people of the world. And it is the people entrusted with the artefacts of humankind's history who bring our stories to life.
It is fitting that passionate and deeply knowledgeable people – all experts in their fields − are entrusted with documenting, storing, conserving, preserving, restoring and researching the vast collections held in trust for mankind by the Ditsong National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria.
Acting Director of the Museum and Curator of Archaeology and Human Remains Frank Teichert, took
PSM behind the scenes to see some of the extraordinary artefacts in the museum's collection.
Artefacts, artworks and technology
Teichert has worked at the museum for 20 years and is enthusiastic about the stories the beautiful and sometimes unique things can tell. He became interested in archaeology as a child and takes obvious delight in his field of study.
Teichert says the museum houses more than two million items, ranging in age from some of the very first artefacts and artworks made by humans right through to modern-day items, such as 21st century technology.
Surprising items are the Egyptian mummy and Japanese doll collection depicting social hierarchy in Japanese society. The Japanese Cultural Attaché presented this beautiful collection as a gift shortly before his return to Japan and the bombing of Pearl Harbour, says Teichert.
Corine Meyer, Curator of the Ceramics and Precious Metal Collection, says she has in her care ceramics dating from the 1600s right through to modern-day works. She explains that in dating blue and white Dutch pieces, for example, researchers can examine the style of dress worn by figures featured in pictures and the water level because there is a record of when major floods occurred in the Netherlands.The example Meyer has illustrates a scene where only buildings on high-lying ground are visible.
One of the most special pieces is possibly one by renowned 1930s Art Deco ceramicist Clarice Cliff whose works fetch high prices among collectors. There is just one Clarice Cliff item with a South African theme in the whole world and it is in the museum's collection.
Especially significant is the selection of
Linn Ware made between the 1930s and 1950s in a small studio in Olifantsfontein, near Pretoria. Today the jugs, plates, cups and saucers, vases and other ceramics in beautiful shades of blue, sea-green, yellow, mauve, black grey, mushroom and white, are extremely sought after.
The museum also holds works by famous South African ceramicists Tim Morris, Esias Bosch and Henriette Ngako. Rebecca Mawelele, who has worked at the museum since 1984, is entrusted with cleaning and restoring ceramics and putting them
in cabinets. She acquired her skills at the South African Institute of Ceramic and Porcelain Restoration in Joubertina.
She showed PSM a decorative wall panel comprising a collection of painted tiles transferred from Kruger House to the Cultural History Museum. She is likely to spend about a month cleaning and restoring the tiles. Because the panel is older than 60 years it has historical status and is protected by the National Heritage Resources Act (Act No 5 of 1999).
Gertrude Seabela is the curator of the 30 000 pieces in the anthropology section. “The collection of ethnographic material contains items from South Africa, southern Africa, West Africa and Central Africa,” she says.
Safely stored in banks of shallow drawers are things such as clothes, publications, extraordinary snuff boxes (some made of tiny tortoise shells), as well as divining bones and tools from as far back as the late 1800s that were used for communicating with ancestors.
Seabela is entrusted with countless very large and small pots, wooden headrests made of tropical hardwoods, plenty of examples of Thembu beadwork, and baskets used for various purposes, such as fishing and grain storage.The latter are enormous and would have been buried underground at cattle kraals where the gases emitted by rotting manure deterred insects from con-taminating the grains.
What is culture?
During the tour of the museum, Teichert reflects on culture, explaining that it refers to anything that we as humans do and our interactions with others who have the same interests. It goes far beyond performing arts, such as dance and music.
Our cultural history embraces everything and anything to do with cultures and dates back about two million years to the Stone Age. Since that is when the first hominid species started developing tools for hunting and collecting resources, it is a very extensive story about human life.
Some might say history is boring and stuffy. But another take on it is that it is a continuous record of past events and trends,
which means that the vast story about humankind is still unfolding. Tomorrow, today's events will be in the past. They will become part of history.
Each of us is part of humankind's story. Each of us is an actor in this dynamic tale. For us to know who we are, how we got to be where we are, believe what we do, look the way we do, eat what we do, speak the languages we do and so forth we need to look to the past.
In looking back, we can see how we got to the present; and knowing about the past can inform our future. We can learn from our cultural history and mistakes, says Teichert, and we can build on the knowledge we have accumulated over time. It is because of this learning and building on our existing body of knowledge that we have gone from discovering how to make fire to landing a man on the moon, for example.
Teichert says that the role of cultural museums globally is the preservation of humankind's cultural heritage and that it is important for such institutions not only to serve as custodians of heritage but also to educate young and old about who and what we are. Museums preserve our heritage for future generations and museum visits supplement that which we learn at school and tertiary education institutions.
With September designated as Heritage Month, Teichert pondered the concept of heritage. “Heritage is where we come from as a country and individuals. What gives us purpose? Why are we here? An example of heritage being lost is that of the San losing their heritage because their language is dying out.”
“Heritage is global, dealing with all aspects of societies, ”Teichert muses.
Museums face challenges such as negative perceptions and a need for funding. Many publicly funded museums rely on donations, bequests and collaboration with others involved in cultural history.
“Museums are regarded as places that are not looked after and displays are outdated and not presented
in contemporary ways.The National Cultural History Museum recognises this and is looking at new ways of becoming more relevant to society,” explains Teichert.
The museum is part of the Ditsong Museums of South Africa amalgamation of eight national museums.The other seven institutions are the National Museum of Natural History (formerly the Transvaal Museum) in Pretoria, the South African National Museum of Military History in Johannesburg, and the Cultural History Museum's satellite museums which are the Kruger, Pioneer, Sammy Marks and Willem Prinsloo Agricultural museums, and the Tswaing Meteorite Crater that falls under the National Museum of Cultural History, all in or near Pretoria.
Together these institutions hold about five million artefacts in their collections with only about 23 curators and two conservationists taking care of them. South Africa needs more students to pursue studies in social and human sciences, such as art, history, musieology, sociology, anthropology, ethnography and archaeology so that the skills needed by museums are available. Another need is public and private funding for the acquisition of additional items for such things as ceramic or art collections, for example. Amateur enthusiasts can also contribute by donating or bequeathing their collections and also by volunteering at museums, says Teichert.
To remain relevant and to attract visitors, museums have to transform the way they present material. This is why the Cultural History Museum is augmenting its permanent exhibits with modular and travelling exhibitions and temporarily showcasing portions of its collections. This way the museum is able to rotate its exhibitions and show visitors more of the treasures it holds.
Examples of temporary exhibitions presented in collaboration with public and private museums and foundations include the travelling Ahmed Timol – A quest for justice exhibition that opened in July.
In Women's Month the museum opened a temporary exhibition honouring singer Miriam Makeba and on loan from the Miriam Makeba Foundation.
The museum is in touch with modern people who live in an age when information can be accessed within seconds because of technology which is why it is using modern communication technology and social media to reach out to potential visitors from South Africa and abroad.
Set aside a couple of hours to visit a cultural history museum to explore your history and get you thinking about your place in society and role in shaping today and tomorrow's stories.
Acting Director of the Museum and Curator of Archaeology and Human Remains Frank Teichert.