Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Sacred and Secret Heritage: The diversity and sensitivities of African cultural traditions: A personal view


by Helene Vollgraaff
Heritance Participating Professional and Secretary of the South Africa ICOM


The South African Museums Association (SAMA) 72nd National Conference took place from 24 – 26 June 2008 in Cape Town and included a special session on Diversity and the Role of Museums organised by ICOM-SA. The conference was well attended by just over 140 delegates. This report is a personal view and does not reflect the full discussion at the conference. The conference proceedings will be published by the South African Museums Associations.

Despite the theme, the discussions at the debate at the conference focused on identity issues, access and power relationships. As Professor Crain Soudien, the facilitator of the wrap-up session put it, the conference dealt with the pressing issues facing South Africa in every sphere today. In some ways, the debate mirrored discussions around xenophobia and the brand of African nationalism associated with the current South African government.

A controversial perspective, but one not without significant support, is the opinion that defines “authentic Africa” as “black Africa”. This definition of African excludes people from European and Asian descent, many of whose roots on the continent date to the 17th century. While not explicitly stated, it also excludes the descendents of the first inhabitants of the country, namely the Khoisan. This view of the “authentic African tradition” considers other influences as a foreign corruption of the “authentic” and sees the museum as having the task of conserving and documenting this “authentic” version in cooperation with the gatekeepers of these traditions. One speaker cautioned the delegates to focus on their own culture as one cannot fully understand the traditions of the “other”.

Though no serious heritage practioner will argue against a process of informed consultation with community members and respect for traditional structures, the above perspective does raise serious concerns. Are traditions static or should one accept that living in a globalised world will influence traditions and that adapting to these influences is as valid as changes in previous centuries? And, how do one deal with discriminatory traditional practices, for example against women? Is respect for traditional practices not sometimes used to continue with these discriminatory practices and to affirm the position of those already in power?

An interesting paper in this regard was that of Paul Tichmann of the Luthuli Museum. The Luthuli Museum honours the life of Chief Albert Luthuli (1898-1967), a former ANC President and South Africa’s first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Luthuli, Chief of the Grooutville Umvoti Mission Reserve, challenged discriminatory traditional systems by allowing women into the kgotla. The kgotla is the centre of political power and decision-making in traditional African societies and women are still excluded from this powerful arena. Luthuli thereby indicated that these traditions may be challenged and adapted to conform to contemporary human rights values. The main thrust of Tichmann’s paper was that the Luthuli Museum uses the value system of Chief Luthuli to address contemporary social problems such as the recent xenophobic attacks.

Paul Tichmann’s paper was also one of the contributions that put a South African twist on the meaning of the sacred. Does sacred imply a religious site or can a site of significant political meaning also considered to be sacred? Another paper in this regard is that of Sabine Marshall of the University of KwaZulu-Natal whose paper dealt with two museums on the site of the Battle of Blood River (1836). The Battle of Blood River between the Voortrekkers and the local Zulus has been a significant symbol within African nationalism for many years. The two museums gave opposing views of the battle and Blood River is a clear example of a site that is sacred (in the political sense) to a section of one ethnic group, but has little relevance to the rest of South Africans. Marshall argued that the existence of two museums, a strategy that has been duplicated elsewhere, does provide a workable solution in respecting diversity in the country as it acknowledges that sites/events may have different meanings to different sections of the South African population.

Another theme that ran through the conference was that of museums as agents of social change (to borrow the phrase from ICOM). The keynotes to the ICOM-SA session, Kurt Dewhurst, Marsha McDowell and Diana N’Diaye urged museums to measure their success not in outputs, but in terms of the impact they have on society. My own paper, Depicting Religions: The Iziko Bo-Kaap Museum as case study, argued that religions are diverse and one always have to make choices of which viewpoint will be emphasised. Though these choices should be informed by thorough research and an understanding of the dynamics of the community, it will also be informed by your own values – in the case of Out and About Muslim Women Today, support for gender equality (a viewpoint that have strong support amongst Muslims in Cape Town).

During the wrap-up session, it was argued that museums should not only reflect cultural traditions, but critically engage with them. It was also argue that people are relational beings – we know ourselves through interaction with the “other”, including people of other cultures. Museums do not only play a role in creating understanding between different cultures, but also by focusing on which values are shared across cultures. In his wrap-up, Prof Crain Soudien urged museums to be bold and to become active participants in public debate.

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