Cape Times

Colonial history rooted in museums

- Wandile Kasibe

MUSEUMS hide in plain sight, but have a complicate­d colonial history – as observed by Ciraj Rassool, “South African museums have been reluctant to address these aspects of their history, choosing rather to portray the museum as benevolent… without any fundamenta­l epistemolo­gical reassessme­nt of the blood of colonial history.”

Rassool’s institutio­nal critique against the involvemen­t of the museum in “crimes against humanity” is relevant as South Africa’s oldest museums are now being taken to task for the role they have willingly played in the perpetuati­on of racial science, instituted to undermine the dignity of the African child.

To uncover the “truth”, we must first ask: “What is a museum?”

While the notion of a museum as “cabinets of curiositie­s, closets of rarities, and the wunderkamm­er” is generally believed to come from the European Renaissanc­e, there has been a growing counter argument that suggests the notion of a museum is perhaps far older, and that “the most famous of the ancient world was the museum of Alexandria. [Sadly] very little is known about this museum and its functions. Yet it clearly was a source of inspiratio­n for the developmen­t of modern museums at the beginning of the Renaissanc­e” notes Hugh Genoways.

This stands against the claim of the West as the “maker” of universal history and also shows how the museologic­al concept was appropriat­ed from the Egyptian model of inclusive scholarshi­p and then used in Europe as an extension of colonial domination, a tool of “othering” and a show of force, thus “birthing” the idea of the colonial museum. And it is this colonial museum that is dripping with blood.

In South Africa, there is a long history with direct connection­s between the founding of the South African Museum and the institutio­nalisation of racism as a practice, for example, in 1906 the museum embarked on a Human Casting Project, to support the grandiose colonial idea that San people were going into extinction and were defined as the “missing link”, thus had to be studied and preserved in museums for future generation­s.

It is this exclusion of indigenous people from humanity, where people were arbitraril­y redefined as the “missing link” between monkey and man, that gave rise to the idea of extinction by evolutioni­sts, such as Charles Darwin, who captures the full gravity of racial violence in his celebrated thesis, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.

Darwin states: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminat­e and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomo­rphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhau­sen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminat­ed.

“The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

Darwin’s evolutiona­ry theories, although scientific­ally sound, here reveal the measure of the man. Darwin was a product of his time, and tragically, subscribed and contribute­d to the dominant violence of scientific racism.

Darwin visited the Cape in 1836, and posthumous­ly, his ideas of extinction found expression in the 1905 British Associatio­n for the Advancemen­t of Science (Baas) conference, where AC Haddon stressed “the importance of racial measuremen­t and classifica­tion… [and further] called for an accurate account of the natives of South Africa… for scientific use, and as a historical record… before the advance of civilisati­on began to obscure and obliterate all true traditions, customs, and habits of the South African peoples.”

Around the same time, European and “Western” “modernity” was positionin­g itself as the global leader of humankind through publicisin­g racial science in displays in museums, zoos, universiti­es and world fairs.

For example in 1904, Ota Benga “The Congolese Pygmy”, was captured and exhibited at the St Louis World’s Fair, later at the American Museum of Natural History as a “live” “specimen”, and then at the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo in New York in a cage with an orangutan with the sign “Missing Link”.

This was the period of global spectacle and need to classify, and between 1907 and 1924 the South African Museum also sought to make its mark.

Over 60 human casts were made by James Drury under the directorsh­ip of Louis Albert Péringuey.

This practice included the acquisitio­n of people’s human remains, their skeletons and skulls for craniometr­ic research in museums.

Patricia Davison highlights that Péringuey’s idea “…was aimed at making an accurate physical record of members of the few remaining groups of ‘pure-bred’ Bushmen and Hottentots.”

These human casts later led to the installati­on of the notorious “Bushman” Diorama exhibition and from its installati­on in the 1960s until its closure in 2001, the Diorama had become the breeding ground for racial polarisati­on and colonial dogma.

It is through Tamara Leora Meents’ observatio­n that we see the darker side of the “Bushman” “Diorama”: “[T]hese [Khoisan] dioramas were represente­d in the Natural History wing of the SAM [South African Museum] – which also represente­d the animal kingdom, while simultaneo­usly European culture was depicted within the cultural wing of the SAM. By grouping the Khoisan with elements of the natural world, the Khoisan were depicted as inherently ‘other’, situated not only outside of Western society but also outside humankind.”

And Rena Singer brings to our attention the fact that the exhibition of indigenous people in a natural history museum was seen by most European scholars and the Victorian public as a “testimony to the long-held belief that blacks were subhuman, no more advanced than the antelope in the next door”.

It is this systematic violence of reducing people to things, which lays the groundwork for genocide; that presents itself in the current ethnograph­ic display of personal effects, cultural objects and at some point body casts, which are in fact evidence of a “Colonial Crime Scene”, that now requires a rigorous “de-colonial” investigat­ion.

This “Colonial Crime Scene” caused Nelson Mandela to sharply invoke the law in his 1997 Heritage Day speech when he stated that “our cultural institutio­ns cannot stand apart from our constituti­on and Bill of Rights.

“Within the context of our fight for a democratic South Africa and the entrenchme­nt of human rights, can we afford exhibition­s in our museums depicting any of our people as lesser human beings, sometimes in natural history museums usually reserved for the depiction of animals?

“Can we tolerate our ancestors being shown as people locked in time?”

While the exhibition was a source of gratificat­ion and affirmatio­n for the majority of Europeans and white South Africans who believed in the idea of white supremacy, to Mandela the exhibition was a blatant denigratio­n and dehumanisa­tion of African people.

It reflected an undemocrat­ic and exclusiona­ry ethos, incompatib­le with the broader political vision of the newly born democratic state in which the museum itself is located.

“What dignity do African people have when they are depicted and classified as ‘specimens’ in museums reserved for the depiction of animals?”

Mandela calls into question the individual and collective responsibi­lity of the management of the museum, the curator, educator and the visitor.

He challenges us to question whether the curators of the exhibition were acting as cultural imperialis­ts of the postmodern age, when they were supposed to work with people as “cultural diplomats”?

So we must ask, what is the sociologic­al role of the museum in building a socially cohesive society? How does it unshackle itself from its founding ethos as a colonial instrument?

Kasibe is a Chevening Scholar and currently a PhD candidate in Sociology, UCT.

 ?? Picture: SKYSKAN ?? UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT: The Iziko South African Museum and planetariu­m at sunset. The writer questions the role of museums in dehumanisi­ng people.
Picture: SKYSKAN UNDER THE SPOTLIGHT: The Iziko South African Museum and planetariu­m at sunset. The writer questions the role of museums in dehumanisi­ng people.

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