Friday, February 15, 2008

What is a collection? - by Maureen


The concept of a collection calls for scrutiny.

For centuries in South Africa, disenfranchised people, such as the Khomani San depicted in this photo, were nomadic desert dwellers. They didn’t construct great monuments and most of their tools, clothing, accessories, arts were made of degradable materials. Their traditional relationship to the world was such that an individual human (insofar as I know as an outsider to their culture) did not own any parts of the natural world (such as land or trees). Which means apart from rock paintings, it is difficult to speak of San sites or artifacts.

Furthermore, the Khomani San people’s recent history is long on horrific stories (of displacement, deprivation, abuse, genocide) and short on a lifestyle that would lend itself to the collections of objects. Even now, the people living on the Khomani San’s designated land have not yet been able to determine where they will found their principal town. It has been 7-year long process involving various agencies of the national government and the San people themselves who up till now have not been able to reach a decision.

Now the Khomani San working with the South African San Institute based in Upington would like to found their own heritage center. One of the first questions is with what collection?

Given the traditional and historic relationship of the San to the material world, the situation poses an interesting challenge: How do you represent a culture (not your own) which does not own things and (at least historically) does not embrace the dominant concept of ownership?

In the case of the Khomani San, there is a rich array of possibilities, ranging from indigenous knowledge systems (IKS) and desert tracking information to the San language (which is dying out) to traditional tools and crafts. The plan for the venue, like all heritage venues, will have to follow from this basic first decision about what constitutes the collection.

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