As with many creative industries around the world, the South African museum space has not been spared the devastating impact of the global pandemic, COVID-19. South Africa was one of the many countries which instituted sweeping mandatory lockdowns in an effort to curb the spread of the deadly virus. Tourism, which is the biggest revenue stream for museums in South Africa, came to a grinding halt and locals were forced to restrict their movements. In-person activities all but disappeared and many people turned to the online space for culture and entertainment.
The shift forced many sectors, which had, up to that point, relied on ticket sales and bodies coming through the doors to survive, to pivot in order to remain relevant and viable.
Even before the pandemic, digitisation has been an ongoing process for many museums in the country. Despite the challenges faced by museums and galleries, such as an absence of digitisation policies, a lack of policymakers who are not well-versed in what is needed for successful digitisation and a severe lack of funds, it is moving in a positive direction.
In 2019, the Phansi Museum Digitisation Project resulted in the digitisation of over 4 000 traditional Zulu artefacts held at the Phansi Museum in Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. This project is a work in progress, and further upgrades and refinements hope to be made in the coming years.
Liliesleaf Museum has a vast catalogue of photographs, newspaper clippings, letters of correspondence audio and video collected and digitised for those who want to learn more about South Africa’s struggle for liberation. It also features never-before-seen video clips told by those who were involved in the fight against apartheid.
Zeitz MOCCA (Museum of Contemporary Art Africa) now offers audio tours for those who can’t experience exhibitions in person, or who want to amp up their in-person experience. The Art and Architecture Audio tours are available via mobile device. This allows visitors to the museum to experience self-guided tours by offering them a depth of knowledge from leading artists, curators and designers. This creates a more immersive experience for visitors who want to learn more about the museum’s art, architecture and exhibitions.
While digitisation is important, South African museums recognise it is not without challenges. The primary challenge being the cost involved. South African museums are already facing a financial crunch, and there is not enough funding to go around.
The secondary issue is the lack of technology. While smaller items can be photographed easily, larger pieces require more sophisticated equipment. There is also the danger of damaging fragile artefacts in the process.
Finally, digitisation does not replace the feeling of interacting with deliberately curated exhibitions in the flesh.
The online and virtual space relies heavily on sight as the primary means of engaging with works on display. In reality, most museums are curated for all five senses to create an immersive experience that cannot be replicated online.
While the world waits for the COVID-19 storm to settle and funds for digitisation to become available, museums in South Africa are not giving up. Crowdfunding has become a means to keep things going, and spaces such as the District Six Museum have raised R1.1 million from members of the public to keep its doors open.
Digitisation will offer these important spaces a chance to expand their impact and increase their reach to a global scale. With a dire lack of funding and a growing need to move forward into the digital space, South African museums have room for collaboration with partners who value the need to keep history and memory alive and to preserve the knowledge housed in museum spaces.
Not only do the museums in South Africa focus on the preservation of the country’s colonial history and indigenous artefacts, there are also spaces such as the La Motte Museum, a private art museum on the La Motte Wine Estate in the Franschhoek Valley in the Cape Winelands which offers an overview of the cultural historical background of the estate and is permanent host to the JH Pierneef Heritage collection and other temporary modern and contemporary art exhibitions.
Spaces such as The SA Jewish Museum, narrate the story of the South African Jewish community from its earliest beginnings to the present day. While others, such as the Cape Lancia Museum, which aims to display the history of Lancia motor vehicles in SA as well as Italian Engineering in general, offer a different view of South Africa’s history.
South Africa has a relatively long history of museums. The first was founded almost two hundred years ago in 1825 at a time when the British were the ruling colonial power. However, even before that, Dutch settlers had begun gathering natural and man-made artefacts from South Africa.
Fast forward to today and The South African Cultural Observatory report, estimates that there are now 327 museums in South Africa. Most of these are found in the coastal provinces. Western Cape has the most with 83, followed by the Eastern Cape, which has 60 and KwaZulu Natal has 59.
According to the report, the reason the Western and Eastern Capes have more museums than other provinces is due in part to their long colonial-era history, in the case of the Western Cape, as well as the Eastern Cape being the site of colonial-era conflicts (such as the Anglo-Boer War, and frontier wars between English and Afrikaans groups with Xhosa tribes).
The country has many different types of museums which include:
· Fine Art Museums/Art Galleries
· Natural history and natural science museums
· Cultural and anthropological museums
· Museums of science and technology
· Privately-owned museums
· History museums with a special focus
· Museums focused on a specific person or era
· House museums
· University museums
· Children’s museums
· Museums based on a specific location
· Maritime museums
· Virtual museums
Digitisation will offer these important spaces a chance to expand their impact and increase their reach on a global scale. With a dire lack of funding and a growing need to move forward into the digital space, South African museums have room for collaboration with partners who value the need to keep history and memory alive and to preserve the knowledge housed in museum spaces.