Cul­tural arte­facts are world trea­sures

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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.

Cel­e­brat­ing ce­ram­ics

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.

Pre­serv­ing her­itage

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.

Re­main­ing rel­e­vant

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.

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