We went to a lovely lunch a couple of days ago and I asked a professor (who maybe likes plants too much) if she were a plant what plant would she be and why. Her answer was a hosta, and for someone who cares as little about plants as I do, this answer and this plant–resilient, persevering, and maybe not the most beautiful–have stuck with me since.
See, not that cute, but I’ll return to the significance of this rather wack metaphor.
It would be rather easy to detail the history presented at The Apartheid Museum (ok, not easy but I could quote the history of apartheid from Leonard Thompson’s A History of South Africa), so here I’ll be thinking about the space and rhetorical shape of the museum with some reflections on my viewing.
The museum uses a chronological approach and begins with some foundations of apartheid–the mid-nineteenth century Great Trek, the popularization of the idea of Africans “swamping” South Africa, and mass anti-African propaganda movements–and while organized chronologically, the shape of this portion was rather circular and winding, showing how the rise of particular ideological movements became the impetus for the political actions taken by both Africans and colonials and respective subsequent responses.
Following this portion was the induction of specific petty and grand apartheid laws, with Jan Smuts and JBM Hertzog being the leaders of this ideology based on white supremacy. The policy of apartheid, or separateness, when the National Party brought apartheid rules and goals into law. This era of the museum was characterized by heavy use of images depicting petty apartheid laws (water fountains for whites only), images depicting cross-racial tension, and images of the Sharpeville Massacre. Particularly jarring about these years from early to mid-twentieth century was the use of metal grid work, depicting the kind of separation and subsequent imprisonment. The feeling of isolation was one that followed me throughout this era as well, especially when thinking about the efforts behind the demolition of places like Sophiatown and District 6.
The next hall was one of Ernest Cole’s, a freelance black photographer, photographs showing life on the mines for black men. Rather than walls moving forward and jutting out, this hall was plain and bare, save for the images, which in many ways reflected the bare and minimal (not in the trendy way, but as a result of deprivation) feeling in the mines.
Connecting the parts of the early apartheid era was a large installation with panels for the 121 apartheid laws passed from 1948-1971. The laws drew these non-disparate halls together, with certain laws reflecting white supremacy, economic and political suppression of African folks and segregation laws. While these laws organized neatly on the walls were supposed to enforce hyper social organization, the nature of the halls reflects the many areas at which these laws were arbitrary, unjust, and often rejected
This kind of bare-ness of the last hall in the beginning era was followed by a room more stark and jarring, which featured nooses hanging from the ceiling, and try as I might, there are few words to capture the harrowing and unnerving the sensation of this room. In museums covering such a large span of time with lasting impacts on so many people both dead and alive, one of the greatest parts about this room was the center box, with names, ages, dates, and causes of deaths of 159 political prisoners from 1963-1990. This kind of personal intimate memory is something we have seen in other museums we’ve visited, and but something that struck me on this particular instance was the frequency of question marks on causes of death or age–there is only so much that can be precisely remembered.
To get a sense of the precise terror of the prisons, the next room featured three solitary confinement cells, of which I lack the ability to articulate the sheer unnerving quality of the room. However, there is a bench positioned facing the three open cells, which in a room so open and suffocating, provided time and space to reflect on the ways in which time and space were created and forced upon prisoners.
There were many benches for reflection in this museum, which leads me to questions as to the ethics of viewing in a space like this: for whom was this space constructed and why, who is it accessible to, what sort of dialogue is happening inside the space, and how is that reflected in the physical space? While there are many possible ways to think about those questions, the last portion of the museum offered me this: in thinking about memory and publicizing memory for who Joan Faber McAlister would call victims and visitors, this museum carves out the spaces in which we can begin to conceptualize what diversity, respect, reconciliation, equality, responsibility, democracy, and freedom look like.
I snuck this photo because I had to.
And I promised return to the plant that will continue to haunt this trip, and while this space and many others like this in Johannesburg are not creating and immortalizing spaces that are necessarily positive, they are spaces that preserve resilience and are the result of memory and roots made public that will continue to be part of collective public memory. I told you the metaphor was wack.