The Museum of Natural History in London is currently conducting an internal review of its displays and treatments of the work and specimens of that most unsettling and radical theorist of the Victorian age, Charles Darwin. It seems his power to shake up the status quo and upset believers has not diminished.
They’ll be looking at him through the eyes of Black Lives Matter disciples and he’ll probably survive more or less intact. But these are pressured times for curators, and those who record and tell our stories back to us risk falling foul of the powerful gauleiters of post-modernism and critical theory.
In the United States (US), the Smithsonian Museum of American History was quick to assure the nation that its researchers had been out in the field, at Lafayette Square, gathering objects to record grassroots and community-led ‘expressions of protest and hope’ to tell the tale of this ‘transformative time in US history’ sparked by George Floyd’s death. Museum Director Anthea M Hartig has made no bones about the fact that they’re working hard ‘to reframe the traditional, celebratory narrative of US history’ and find a way ‘to heal the nation’s gaping wounds and find ways to move forward’.
Previous popular culture exhibitions, no doubt part of the now dumped ‘traditional, celebratory narrative’, have featured the museum’s treasured artefacts such as Abraham Lincoln’s top hat, Farrah Fawcett’s pin-up swimsuit, Dizzy Gillespie’s trumpet, and Michael Jackson’s shoes.
Presumably the objects currently being collected (they’re not revealing exactly what they are) must include such things as Antifa flamethrowers, MAGA hats, shopfront rubble and police body cams. I can see that these may tell a less celebratory story in the future, but I’ll be interested to see exactly how they will be framed.
Sitting on its hands
Here at home, there’s no evidence, certainly not from their websites, that our own national museums, are up to anything at present. In fact, the moribund Department of Arts and Culture appears to be simply sitting on its hands while the independent District Six Museum, documenting the lives of a unique community destroyed by two successive South African governments, is struggling to survive without Cape Town’s foreign tourists.
I love museums. Any type. Small, local ones like the District Six Museum, or sophisticated and slick, like the V&A, with costly shops. My first ever museum visit was to the small collection illustrating Trekker life housed beneath the Voortrekker Monument. Kappies, riempie stools, velskoen and cloth dolls. I was six and fascinated.
My father took me to the Monument while producing a foreign television report. In the footage, I am the blonde child, gazing at the blood-curdling battle friezes and staring down at the sarcophagus where the words ‘South Africa’ would be lit by the sun’s rays precisely at noon on 16 December.
Gerard Moerdijk, the architect of this soaring block of granite south of Pretoria, is quoted as saying its role was ‘to remind people for a thousand years or more of the great deeds that had been done’.
Whatever the adjective you wish to attach to those deeds you have to admit the Voortrekker Monument is a powerful reminder, still standing 71 years after it was completed, which, considering how most of what the Nationalists left behind has eroded, deteriorated, collapsed, been neglected or stolen in the past 26 years (think railways, ports, Eskom, Denel, SAA), is quite a feat.
It makes me wonder what will one day symbolise what the African National Congress (ANC) government and ruling elite believed and did in the post-apartheid years we’re living through.
What artefacts would we need?
If 2024 were to bring – allow me a long shot here – a government of national unity or coalition or see the ANC substantially ‘transformed’ or even swept aside, how would we frame, for future generations, the narrative of these past few decades? What artefacts would we need to make our recent history come alive?
Perhaps the story of what we could, for now, give the working title ‘the Age of Lost Opportunity’ (other suggested monikers welcome) would be told best through a sparkling ‘Capture, Cadres and Corruption’ exhibition that dumps the ‘traditional, celebratory narrative’ – in our case the liberation myth – and pulls in the punters, of all shades and ages, hand over fist.
Inspired by the Shoe Museum in Marikina in the Philippines which displays some of former First Lady Imelda Marcos’ 2 700 pairs of shoes, and the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art so beloved of fashionistas and celebrities, I imagine an impressive display of many of the more memorable red-carpet outfits paraded by parliamentary peacocks of this late ANC period.
A millinery section would feature the gravity-defying headdresses and hats that have teetered above the Speaker’s podium and atop Pemmy Majodina, while yet another highlight would be a look at Dina Pule’s Louboutins, Julius Malema’s silver-buckled Louis Vuitton dress shoes and Floyd Shivambu’s Prada loafers. The Zondo Commission recordings, endlessly looping at garble speed, would provide the audio-visual element so essential for a modern museum experience.
Showstopper ‘big capture’ items
There may even be space for some showstopper ‘big capture’ items: Notorious cars, such as Tony Yengeni’s Mercedes Benz ML 320 4X4, Nomvula’s Aston-Martin, perhaps even the assaulted Mercedes Benz G-Wagon which didn’t belong to Malusi Gigaba, could have been Peterson Siyaya’s but was actually owned by Thapelo Tshepe.
Outside the exhibition, on the built side, we would need something to rival the appeal of what was once the Spring Palace of Romania’s Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu and the buildings included in Bucharest’s popular ‘Last Days of Communism’ heritage tour.
The Saxonwold Gupta compound is clearly a potential money-spinning day-tripper’s delight. Nkandla, if not too neglected by its absent and incarcerated owner, would serve as another reminder of the days of plunder.
Most of Sandton’s new buildings, all thrusting bling and Dubai ersatz, capture the spirit of the era of the tenderpreneur elite. The ordinary human’s housing story could be told through a selection of original RDP houses and contemporary land-grab shacks eloquently grouped on the site of the defunct Estina dairy farm.
Mansions on the hills of Hazyview and the burgeoning columns on the house façades of Polokwane testify to the growth of a black middle class and public service, and the 2010 days of high hopes are encapsulated in a couple of slickly designed but white-elephant stadiums and the ego-stroking yet budget-draining Gautrain.
Ultimately, however, we will need something hard-hitting and poignant to sum up the deeds – again, ‘great’ is not the appropriate adjective – perpetrated by the leaders in the first post-apartheid period preceding what will likely be known as our Great Recession.
There are, of course, the personal memorials. The headstones of Marikana victims, of the Esidimeni dead and so many victims of the Aids-treatment tragedy.
But we will also need a more public means of conveying to our children and grandchildren the sheer enormity of the wastage and theft of billions of taxpayer rands.
In Budapest, a memorial opposite the Hungarian parliament consists of sixty pairs of shoes cast in iron and in different styles and sizes. It recalls the Jews and other citizens shot dead and dumped in the river by the Arrow Cross ruling party militia during the last year of the Second World War.
We could create something equally evocative of the horror of our leaders’ heinous past deeds. Could it simply take the form of a pile of cheap, badly made but expensive PPE items, a permanent mound on the steps of parliament or the entrance to an Eastern Cape hospital?
It’s likely, though, that our future curating teams won’t have to make much effort to help us recall our recent traumatic history.
The economy is on its knees. It contracted 51% this past quarter, and the endless queues of grant recipients and long lines of unemployed people will be testament for many years, across the country, to what recent deeds and days have wrought.
The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR