We had a visit from Laura Gibson to our office in Bloomsbury back in May 2017. We’d been introduced by a mutual friend, Rosalind Parker, who was in the same PhD program as Laura, at King’s College London.
Laura was then working on her PhD, entitled Decolonising South African Museums in a Digital Age: Re-imagining the Iziko Museums’ Natal Nguni Catalogue and Collection. This was the culmination of many years of interest and work in the South African cultural sector, which began in 2009, when Laura was Assistant Curator at Iziko Museums in Cape Town. Since then, Laura has been back and forth and around KwaZulu-Natal building community, bringing together a team of Zulu community experts around the work of decolonising museum collections. She also recently submitted her thesis over the summer – Yay! – and Dr. Laura Gibson has already won a prestigious award for it, from Universities Antwerpen – double Yay!
Why am I telling you this, you may well ask… Well, it’s because Laura, and her colleague, Hannah Turner from the University of Leicester (now at University of British Columbia iSchool), constructed a brilliant project that we were to become involved in, which has turned out to be a highlight in the life of the company, and the first phase of which has just completed, so we wanted to tell you all about it.
Amagugu Ethu in Cape Town, April 2019
Fast forward to this year, and we find that Laura and Hannah secured funding from the Wenner Gren Foundation, and the University of Leicester Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) to bring together a group of nineteen Zulu community experts, anthropologists, scholars, entrepreneurs and museum professionals for a three-day workshop at Iziko Museums in Cape Town, the oldest museum in sub-Saharan Africa.
We were in the group, thrilled beyond measure that Laura and Hannah had designed that a Museum in a Box would be one of their project outputs, ideally to be returned from London (where we made it) to KwaZulu-Natal, so Zulu kids could learn about objects held in colonial museums – not from the museum’s perspective, but the Zulu community experts who selected and described them.
We assembled from various cities in KwaZulu-Natal, London, Cape Town, and Leicester to descend on Iziko and other venues for a three-day workshop.
Ostensibly, Charlie and I were there to document everything, taking photographs constantly, and recording audio of the whole event. We were keen that it wasn’t too orchestrated, but that the free-flowing fun conversation and activities were captured live and unfettered. Here’s the outline of the workshop:
We met in the morning at the Iziko Social History Centre, and said our hellos and introduced ourselves to each other. I was paired with Mama Nini, who got my measure within about 10 seconds, as we worked through the preset getting-to-know-you questions. “George doesn’t like talking about intimate relationships,” she said. On point. Haha.
Then, the group was able to do one of my very favourite things, which was exploring the museums historical registers, catalogues, and storerooms. Assisted by Iziko staff, Dr. Gerald Klinghardt, Curator of Anthropology, and Lailah Hisham, Collections Manager, we were able to see all sorts of items, with a view to each of the experts selecting one to describe.
In the afternoon, we were able to demonstrate Museum in a Box to the group, and were excited that everyone agreed a Box would be a good thing to produce.
The morning began with a tour from Fatima February, Conservator, who explained for the group what happens when an object is acquired by the museum. She had also gathered the objects chosen by participants so we could begin photography.
Next, we visited Lailah’s lair in the Collections Department, surrounded by old card catalogues and accession registers. It was so illuminating at this point to really see first hand how objects collected in colonial times were described. Laura shared a story from her research about a “Zulu” sweat scraper that is sparsely documented on the official catalogue card; however exploring the South African Museum’s archives more thoroughly reveals its disturbing provenance—stolen from the body of a Zulu man killed by the collector’s friend—that is absent from the official record.
In the afternoon, the group worked with ceramicist, Gary Frier, to create visual responses to belongings found in the collection and elsewhere in their lives, and Gary fired the pieces to return to the group once they were ready. The conversation around the making noted that many of the skills needed to make the objects seen the day before in the collection were disappearing, and how great it would be to facilitate makers who still hold those skills to teach and share that knowledge.
Towards the end of the day, the whole group took a trip to Table Mountain, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. That title is not given lightly, and the mountain was truly shining for our visit.
We moved venues for the morning, to Rust en Vreugd. The group was facilitated by Mbongeni Nomkonwana and Antonia Porter, and after some fun warm-up exercises, got down to business describing the objects from Iziko the group had selected. Antonia also encouraged everyone to look inwards, and reflect on what the workshop had brought forward for them.
Here’s how Laura described it in her summary of the workshop: “Dr Skhumbuzo Miya shared his concerns about the many powerful belongings held in the Iziko collections, items so powerful they could burn down a house without fire and that are, he believes, stored and treated incorrectly. He asked what reparation process is the museum following to cleanse these items? Later that evening, he stated that he had seen spirits living in hell in the storerooms. Thuli Mtshali likewise expressed regret that many of the stories behind the objects had been lost because apartheid and colonialism allowed people to collect, or steal, things form people without knowing this information that has since been lost. Thulani Thusi and Wilfred Mchunu spoke about the possibilities for collaboration that arose for them during the workshop, a sentiment captured for them by a leaf and feather. Nini Xulu’s plant choice also allowed her to reiterate how important it is that we work together and how beautiful it can be when we do.”
Then it was back to Iziko to do final photography and audio recordings, and we were delighted when Dr Miya played some of his songs for us on guitar!
Bringing it together
We left Cape Town with smiles, three days of audio, and thousands of photographs. It was lovely to revisit the event through these materials. We wanted the collection we developed to represent three things:
- The objects selected from the Iziko stores, their catalogue cards (if they existed), and the audio descriptions of each object, as given by one or more of the Zulu community experts
- The event itself, because so often this “contextual colour” is completely missing or hard to find in the works and background of events, and the workshop, its participants and its design generated the information and content, and finally
- The participants, through their portraits, their voices, and their own introductions (or songs!), since this is almost entirely absent from the official record of colonial museums.
We created three “types” of postcards to represent these three ideas, which were also all translated from English into isiZulu. Look and listen to their audio, too:
Last week, Charlie and I were sitting in our office in Hoxton, and photos started coming through on our project WhatsApp, showing the launch party that was going on at Luthuli Museum in Groutville, just north of Durban in KZN. The whole South African crew had gathered to celebrate, and Laura was there too, to hand-deliver the box. It was exciting and brilliant! We are very proud.
We were also thrilled to see two messages from Thulani and Nini…
I want to thank each one of you for another effort on Amagugu Ethu, our meeting after the launch was a productive one. The people were so amazed about the work of Amagugu and to see the Museum in a Box. The Prince Zulu express his heartfelt gratitude for the work toward conservation of the Zulu objects and he requested that Amagugu should also do awareness programs. All the best to all of us towards what we have discussed today. Dr Gibson and the team in UK indeed we thank you for all you hard work.
– Thulani Thusi
Thanks so much for the Charlie/George Magical Museum in a Box. God bless you with more intellectual technological invocation to share with Africa.Best wishes from Team KZN received via WhatsApp
– Nini Xulu
If the box wasn’t involved at all in the project, the results would still have been amazing. Power would have moved, would have changed hands. But, we like to think that one thing the Box has helped do is contain it, and perhaps present it more easily.
Thank you to our new friends, Nini, Thandi, Thuli, Wilfred, Dr Miya, Thulani and Boyzie for being fabulous, and we hope to see you again!
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