Recovering a sector in crisis

Centurion Art Gallery

South Africa has around 327 museums (South African Cultural Observatory), all of which have the power to contribute exponentially to nation-building, social cohesion, education, tourism, cultural and visual literacy. 

Prior to the outbreak of COVID-19, the museum and heritage sector in South Africa was already facing a potential crisis. Lack of funding (and, at times, misappropriation of available funding) and staff shortages have led to maintenance, care and proper conservation of collections and buildings being haphazard or deprioritised completely. Compounding on this – or perhaps, rather, due to this – has been a decrease in visitors to museums in general.

Museums should reflect and tell the stories of the cultures and societies in which they are based. Due to apartheid in South Africa, and colonisation before that, these stories were told through the invariably skewed lens of the oppressor. The majority of South Africans didn’t see their lives, languages or cultures represented in their museums – and if they were, there were inaccuracies or omissions. In the 1980s, there was a drive for radical inclusion, and the building of new cultural infrastructure to enable widespread access to cultural infrastructure. While most museums have continued to apply a corrective lens to the histories and stories they tell post-apartheid, there is still work to be done to transform museum collections and exhibitions to ensure they are representative of the majority of South Africans.

The plight of museums in South Africa has been highlighted in mass media, online forums and through meetings of concerned organisations, activists and civilians for decades. In 1998 when the South African National Gallery faced a funding crisis, then Director Marilyn Martin noted that: “There is a real danger that museums may be denuded of their social role by becoming institutions that are driven by the profit motive, or are constrained in their activities by the need to minimise costs to the state.” 

COVID-19 and the economic impact of a hard lockdown in South Africa, and government and private funding being reprioritised for healthcare and social grants, forced the museum sector from potential crisis into implosion. Today, a number of our most important heritage assets are on the brink of closure.

Museum Africa in Newtown, Johannesburg, has been in crisis for a number of years, chronically short-staffed and missing experts in some positions for close to 20 years. When the museum was burglarised towards the end of 2020, flooding from the stolen taps and basin caused water damage and mould to creep in, threatening to destroy priceless collections of sketches, oil paintings and watercolours of the journeys of early explorers, botanical artists, missionaries and cartoonists for over three centuries, as well as photographs from the Bensusan collection, documents, historical artefacts and an extensive costume collection donated from the now-closed Bernberg Museum. 

The Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), which is now over a century old and boasts the largest art collection in Africa, has been the focus of crisis talks since 1989. It closed temporarily in 2017 due to rain damage resulting from the disrepair to the roof. Repairs and maintenance were initiated but have subsequently been delayed. 

The Robben Island Museum, which is internationally known as the place where Nelson Mandela spent the majority of his prison sentence, has seen millions of tourists since opening in 1997. Currently, it is said to be in a state of disrepair, showing signs of decay and mismanagement. Due to the loss of income from tourism due to COVID-19, it has had to implement stringent financial measures such as staff salary cuts to remain sustainable for the foreseeable future.

The District Six Museum in the Western Cape is facing funding woes, but is hanging on thanks to community support. As is the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, which temporarily closed its doors, but has since reopened. The Liliesleaf Heritage Site is also battling to survive financially, and Cradock Memorial, the Sobukwe grave, the Botshabelo Mission in Mpumalanga and Jan Smuts House in Irene are dilapidated and falling apart according to The Daily Maverick.

This critical period does, however, present an opportunity for the heritage sector to come together to remodel, reimagine and recover South Africa’s museums. A group of activists and passionate heritage professionals in Johannesburg have come together to try to recover the Gauteng Province’s heritage spaces through a detailed manifesto and action plan that will hopefully lead to a social compact. 

Now is the time to reconsider what role museums should and could play in South African society. Are education programmes dynamic, interactive and engaging to draw in teachers and students? Are the displays and exhibitions representative: can all South Africans engage in a way that isn’t offensive? What languages (and tone) are being used in writing about and presenting these exhibitions, does it disrupt previously established narratives of power? And are the items in these collections that are ethically problematic – how were they acquired and should they potentially be returned to where they came from?

While the sector is currently at a crucial stage where change is urgently needed, there is a drive to recover the sector from this current crisis by both public and private entities. The South African Museums Association (SAMA) is a dynamic and invested organisation of heritage sector professionals working hard to find solutions to complex problems. Government, through the Revised White Paper on Arts, Culture and Heritage, has outlined that cultural heritage has and should have an important role in the future. Globally, there is also increased interest and drive to repatriate African artefacts currently housed in museums outside of the continent.

To find out more about some of the key museums in South Africa, visit our listing here: .

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