The room where Mahatma Gandhi meditated doesn’t appear like a place that would facilitate transcendence. It’s a barren attic with rough wooden floorboards. There are no windows, so it’s dark, sombre, and disconnected. The only hint that it might, or has, accommodated an occupant is a slim, worn mattress. Perhaps its uninviting appearance is what compels an occupant to reach into the deep recesses of the mind.

It was, of course, in this virtual space that Gandhi’s unique philosophy of resistance began to take shape. The role the room played in the cerebral shifts that occurred to him is perhaps insignificant. His notion of passive resistance (satrayghra) is thought to have developed around the time he inhabited the Kraal, a group of thatched rondavels in Orchards, Joburg, where Gandhi lived for several years from 1908. Because of this the meditation room is one of the attractions at the new museum-cum-guesthouse, Satyagraha House.

The historical documents and photographs that adorn the walls of this restored heritage site evoke the ambience of a museum but this house does not function as a conventional homage to a great leader. It is a guesthouse too. The people who check in get to live with history and the ethos that shaped it. Guests or visitors are encouraged to meditate where Gandhi meditated.

The sense of sacredness that usually surrounds landmark historical sites has been obviated. There is no glass barrier separating visitors from this site or other significant areas in the house – barring an area in the basement where Gandhi hid during police raids. There are no security guards lingering on the edges. In other words, visitors are given the opportunity to explore history in a more intimate manner than they would have been permitted in a traditional museum setting – particularly those who check in for the night.

This is not a conventional five-star destination. The furnishings are expensive and tasteful but simple and understated, in line with Gandhi’s reverence for simplicity. To remind guests of his approach, text printed on a piece of fabric advertises his philosophy on consumption: “it must be done with a conscience”. Fortunately, since the economic crash, minimalism has been embraced with new fervour, so the varnished concrete floors, large white sofas and simple wooden and stone accessories are all up to date and coincide with Gandhi’s ethos – well, an aesthetic version of it.

The owner of the property, French travel company Voyageurs du Monde, has attempted to take Gandhi’s ethos even further: only vegetarian food is served and no alcohol is sold on the premises.

“This is not an entertainment destination but a meditation destination,” asserts Didier Bayeye, its Congolese director, who has observed that while there are no rules governing the behaviour of guests, they alter their behaviour in response to the environment by acting in a modest fashion.

So overcome by the atmosphere in the house, one couple offered to sweep leaves – “they wanted to be in service instead of being served, which is what guests tend to expect when they stay at a hotel”, recalls Bayeye.

In this way, the guests not only live in this historical space but in an attempt to access history they root themselves in an imagined experience of it.

Could Satyagraha House be termed a living museum? The last time this phrase was bandied about was when plans were being made for the Sophiatown Museum in 2008. One of the young curators attached to the project suggested it was imperative that part of the museum was “alive”. He planned to achieve this by staffing the museum with actors, who would play shebeen owners and other stereotypical characters who inhabited and defined the culture in that suburb during its heyday. These activities would not only make history real but would ensure that “museums weren’t just a place for historians”, he said.

Undoubtedly, there has been a need for a shift to occur in museums in SA: they are in a state of crisis. They may be receptacles of culture and hold the memories of our nation, but the limited funding they receive from the government suggests they play an insignificant role in our society. This is idea is echoed in diminishing visitor numbers.

Many museums have made some inroads into severing ties from colonial history but limited funds have made it impossible for museums to acquire new items to expand and keep their collections relevant. Most are not even in a position to maintain the often ageing buildings in which they are located. The Durban Municipal Gallery had to close temporarily this year because of a leak in a badly maintained roof. The same could happen to the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG), since structural damage hasn’t been properly addressed.

At a recent workshop held at JAG to discuss the institution’s future, monetary problems were quickly eclipsed by debates centred on its relevance to the surrounding community in the inner city. It seemed that any structural alterations would have to be met with an ideological shift, though the two were interlinked. If the colonial façade of the building gave way to a glass front perhaps the display would appear more within reach. Some participants in the workshop suggested that if a Woolworths branch opened in the gallery, the public art institution would immediately feel “accessible” – it would be part of people’s daily existence.

Accessibility around art is a complex matter – art is a specialised field of knowledge. However, the notion of accessibility around history – a series of events that have passed – is just as laden with problems. How do you faithfully evoke or make real events that can no longer be accessed?

This isn’t a new dilemma. Very dated displays of life-size models of people and structures at the Old Court House Museum in Durban, evince the solution that museum curators once embraced. In the second level of this small museum on Aliwal Street is a display of olden-day traders during Durban’s nascence. One of the displays is a chemist’s shop. Complete with a façade, glass bottles and a counter, you can step back in time. The shopkeeper is a mannequin in period dress.

If anything these life-size displays remind you how inaccessible history is. Strolling through these simulated scenes you feel as if you are in a television or movie studio – they look like sets. A soccer-themed exhibition on the ground level is full of contemporary paraphernalia, another attempt by a curator to insinuate the museum into contemporary life.

Satyagraha House presents a new model for museums, not only for experiencing and interacting with the past but its business scheme is novel too. It is a non-profit private entity that through its commercial function as a guesthouse is able to sustain the museum, theheritage aspect.

Voyageurs du Monde is clearly interested in heritage but the initiative was also driven by a desire to create an attractive stopover for its mostly French clientele. Voyageurs du Monde has been operating tours in SA since 1994 and it found that guests didn’t ever want to stay in Joburg. “They saw it as a trampoline to the next place,” observes Bayeye. He estimates that just 3 percent of international leisure travellers stay in Joburg. He attributes this phenomenon to negative views of the city.

“They have this image that as they land at the airport they are grabbed and their belongings taken.”

The French company wanted to create a unique setting that would inspire guests to spend time in this illustrious conurbation.

“There are lots of hotels in Joburg but they all offer the same luxuries; they have TVs, wi-fi. They have different names and are located in different buildings, but they are the same things. For international visitors they have left these kinds of places behind in the countries they have come from.”

So, interestingly, this museum’s function is help foreign visitors connect with present-day circumstances – everyday life in Joburg. The sense of tranquillity that the house and the displays cultivate prepares guests for the journeys around Joburg, advances Bayeye – they are more open minded.

“It makes a difference to you as you go into the noisy atmosphere. It gives you a different perspective.”

There is limited funding available for the preservation and restoration of heritage sites in SA, says Gandhi Maseko, an architect who specialises in heritage projects and served on the board of the South African Heritage Resources Agency for five years.

A lack of funding for the restoration of heritage sites has meant that many are mostly upgraded rather than restored, according to Maseko.

Upgrading simply entails gutting the interiors and modernising them. So while the facades are preserved, the interiors mostly lose their historical links. In this way they appear bland. It’s as if every trace of the famous former inhabitants has been expunged.

This has been the case with the Liliesleaf Museum in Rivonia, and to some degree, Satyagraha House.

Though some architectural features in the interior have been retained, there is no sense that when you walk through the abode you are inhabiting the world that Gandhi knew: the furnishings, fittings and flooring are all firmly rooted in the present.

This approach has become standard, proposes Maseko. Sometimes the original interiors are so dilapidated that it is difficult to retain them.

This was the case with Chancellor House on the corner of Fox and Gerard Sekoto streets in Ferreirasdorp. This is where Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela’s law practice was located in the 1950s. This historical building had been in a state of disrepair for over a decade and was occupied by homeless people who burnt fires inside it to keep warm during winter. Because of this the original design of the interior had been completely destroyed.

Using old photographs as reference, Maseko worked at restoring the exterior of the building ensuring that some period details, like sign bearing the name of the building and the wooden window frames, were faithfully rendered. This site is also intended to function as a “living museum” – human rights advocate George Bizos has referred to it as a “living structure”. The ground floor boasts a typical museum display – large photographs with text explaining the historical events that are related to the building and its occupants. Interestingly, the displays are situated in front of the large windows, so that passers-by need not enter the building to view them. Presumably, the plan is to extend this display so that if fills the ground floor.

The second floor, where Mandela and Tambo’s former offices are located, has been updated and is intended to function as the commercial aspect of the “museum”; it will house young lawyers or law firms or a legal library – it is a stone’s throw from the magistrate’s court. In this way the spirit and activity of its history will continue to live through its new occupants. This will generate an income that will presumably sustain the conventional museum aspect on the ground level. On paper this sounds like an ideal scheme.

The building isn’t open to visitors yet. On the day that I visit it takes much persuasion to allow the security guards to let me take a peek at Tambo and Mandela’s offices.

As I mount the stairs I feel a frisson of excitement as I contemplate the historical magnitude of the place; ordinary people queued on these stairs hoping to see one of the two Struggle stalwarts, who battled on the behalf of the man in the street. It was a place where people’s belief in restitution and justice could be restored.

The interior that I confront completely conceals this history. The floors are covered in cheap, generic blue office carpets. The walls are white. The doors to Tambo and Mandela’s offices are locked so I cannot see what views of Joburg they may have enjoyed as they sat behind their desks and contemplated the future.

Did they look out of a window or did they, like Gandhi, draw inspiration from within? If the latter is more likely then standing or sitting where they sat is a futile exercise, though the compulsion to do so isn’t diminished by this reality.

A supposed living museum might create the impression that we have a more intimate view into the past, but it is an illusion, however necessary it may be. - Sunday Independent