Identities, memories, histories and representation : the role of museums in twentieth century KwaZulu-Natal.
Dlamuka, Mxolisi Chrisostomas.
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The history of museums in South Africa dates back to 1825 when the South African Museum (SAM) was established in Cape Town. Initially museums in South Africa were established for science and local history was seen as peripheral. Nevertheless, this began to change during the early 1920s as artifacts of historical nature gained popularity, saving them from historical oblivion in museums. Museums themselves broadened their role to become major centres of both scientific and historical knowledge. When museums started to include historical artifacts, they entered a terrain which was influenced by a racist ideology of segregation and then apartheid. Thus, they became centres of political discourse and mirrors of the white domination in South Africa. From the 1920s museums served to propagate certain myths which was based on the subjugation of Africans by white settlers. Museums played a pivotal role in entrenching ideas of white settlement in Natal as a triumph over barbarism, savage and heathenism. Exhibitions within the museums reflected certain identities at the expense of others. It was not until the 1980s that the political scenario forced museums to examine their role and adapt to the new order. This marked the beginning of a new dispensation in the politics and poetics of museum displaying. During the 1990s issues of representation in museums became popular. Historians were among those who became interested in the question of how to represent the South African a turbulent past in a post apartheid South Africa. This era was characterized by new displays which are more accommodative and represent diverse population groups of South Africa. Exhibitions in museums always involve political ramifications and ideas within exhibitions draw reference to the powerful groups in the making of political and social discourse. During the post- apartheid era, KwaZulu-Natal museums reflect new identities which are based on non-racialism and interaction of diverse people of the province. They no longer serve as reference point for white domination and educational programmes are more multidimensional and appeal to all sectors of our society. The thesis adopted in this piece of work is that museums are political institutions and reflect the political identities of the society that they live. They cannot be divorced from their time and circumstances.