Colonial history rooted in museums

The Iziko South African Museum and planetarium. The writer questions the role of museums in dehumanising people. Picture: SkySkan

The Iziko South African Museum and planetarium. The writer questions the role of museums in dehumanising people. Picture: SkySkan

Published Aug 13, 2017


Museums hide in plain sight, but have a complicated colonial history – as observed by Ciraj Rassool, “South African museums have been reluctant to address these aspects of their history, choosing rather to portray the museum as benevolent without any fundamental epistemological reassessment of the blood of colonial history”.

Rassool’s institutional critique against the involvement of the museum in “crimes against humanity” is relevant as South Africa’s oldest museums are now being taken to task for the role they have willingly played in the perpetuation of racial science, instituted to undermine the dignity of the African child.

To uncover the "truth", we must first ask: “What is a museum?”

While the notion of a museum as “cabinets of curiosities, closets of rarities, and the wunderkammer” is generally believed to come from the European Renaissance, there has been a growing counter argument that suggests the notion of a museum is perhaps far older, and that “the most famous of the ancient world was the museum of Alexandria. [Sadly] very little is known about this museum and its functions. 

Yet it clearly was a source of inspiration for the development of modern museums at the beginning of the Renaissance” notes Hugh Genoways.

This stands against the claim of the West as the "maker" of universal history and also shows how the museological concept was appropriated from the Egyptian model of inclusive scholarship and then used in Europe as an extension of colonial domination, a tool of "othering" and a show of force, thus "birthing" the idea of the colonial museum. And it is this colonial museum that is dripping with blood.

In South Africa, there is a long history with direct connections between the founding of the South African Museum and the institutionalisation of racism as a practice, for example, in 1906 the museum embarked on a Human Casting Project, to support the grandiose colonial idea that San people were going into extinction and were defined as the "missing link", thus had to be studied and preserved in museums for future generations.

It is this exclusion of indigenous people from humanity, where people were arbitrarily redefined as the "missing link" between monkey and man, that gave rise to the idea of extinction by evolutionists, such as Charles Darwin, who captures the full gravity of racial violence in his celebrated thesis, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex.

Darwin states: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilised races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races. At the same time the anthropomorphous apes, as Professor Schaaffhausen has remarked, will no doubt be exterminated.

"The break will then be rendered wider, for it will intervene between man in a more civilised state, as we may hope, than the Caucasian, and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as at present between the negro or Australian and the gorilla.”

Darwin’s evolutionary theories, although scientifically sound, here reveal the measure of the man. Darwin was a product of his time, and tragically, subscribed and contributed to the dominant violence of scientific racism.

Darwin visited the Cape in 1836, and posthumously, his ideas of extinction found expression in the 1905 British Association for the Advancement of Science (Baas) conference, where AC Haddon stressed “the importance of racial measurement and classification [and further] called for an accurate account of the natives of South Africa for scientific use, and as a historical record before the advance of civilisation began to obscure and obliterate all true traditions, customs, and habits of the South African peoples.”

Around the same time, European and "Western" "modernity" was positioning itself as the global leader of humankind through publicising racial science in displays in museums, zoos, universities and world fairs.

For example in 1904, Ota Benga “The Congolese Pygmy”, was captured and exhibited at the St Louis World’s Fair, later at the American Museum of Natural History as a "live" "specimen", and then at the Monkey House of the Bronx Zoo in New York in a cage with an orangutan with the sign "Missing Link".

This was the period of global spectacle and need to classify, and between 1907 and 1924 the South African Museum also sought to make its mark.

Over 60 human casts were made by James Drury under the directorship of Louis Albert Péringuey.

This practice included the acquisition of people’s human remains, their skeletons and skulls for craniometric research in museums.

Patricia Davison highlights that Péringuey’s idea “was aimed at making an accurate physical record of members of the few remaining groups of ‘pure-bred’ Bushmen and Hottentots.”

These human casts later led to the installation of the notorious “Bushman” Diorama exhibition and from its installation in the 1960s until its closure in 2001, the Diorama had become the breeding ground for racial polarisation and colonial dogma.

It is through Tamara Leora Meents’ observation that we see the darker side of the "Bushman" "Diorama": “[T]hese [Khoisan] dioramas were represented in the Natural History wing of the SAM [South African Museum] - which also represented the animal kingdom, while simultaneously European culture was depicted within the cultural wing of the SAM. 

By grouping the Khoisan with elements of the natural world, the Khoisan were depicted as inherently ‘other’, situated not only outside of Western society but also outside humankind.”

And Rena Singer brings to our attention the fact that the exhibition of indigenous people in a natural history museum was seen by most European scholars and the Victorian public as a “testimony to the long-held belief that blacks were subhuman, no more advanced than the antelope in the next door”.

It is this systematic violence of reducing people to things, which lays the groundwork for genocide; that presents itself in the current ethnographic display of personal effects, cultural objects and at some point body casts, which are in fact evidence of a “Colonial Crime Scene”, that now requires a rigorous “de-colonial” investigation.

This "Colonial Crime Scene" caused Nelson Mandela to sharply invoke the law in his 1997 Heritage Day speech when he stated that “our cultural institutions cannot stand apart from our constitution and Bill of Rights.

"Within the context of our fight for a democratic South Africa and the entrenchment of human rights, can we afford exhibitions in our museums depicting any of our people as lesser human beings, sometimes in natural history museums usually reserved for the depiction of animals?

"Can we tolerate our ancestors being shown as people locked in time?”

While the exhibition was a source of gratification and affirmation for the majority of Europeans and white South Africans who believed in the idea of white supremacy, to Mandela the exhibition was a blatant denigration and dehumanisation of African people.

It reflected an undemocratic and exclusionary ethos, incompatible with the broader political vision of the newly born democratic state in which the museum itself is located.

“What dignity do African people have when they are depicted and classified as ‘specimens’ in museums reserved for the depiction of animals?”

Mandela calls into question the individual and collective responsibility of the management of the museum, the curator, educator and the visitor.

He challenges us to question whether the curators of the exhibition were acting as cultural imperialists of the postmodern age, when they were supposed to work with people as "cultural diplomats"?

So we must ask, what is the sociological role of the museum in building a socially cohesive society? How does it unshackle itself from its founding ethos as a colonial instrument?

Kasibe is a Chevening Scholar and currently a PhD candidate in Sociology at UCT

Related Topics: