Thursday 25 February 2021

Gendered representations in museums: examples from South Africa 

Presented by Ayanda Ngcobo (Museum officer, Bergtheil Museum, eThekwini Local History Museums, Durban South Africa) on 12/02/2021.

ARROWSA - Indra workshop as part of the South to North and SAUKINDIA projects including youth from South Africa, India and United Kingdom 

One of a series of workshops partially funded by National Arts Council, SA. 

Blog post written by Luyanda Makoba-Hadebe 

 "Most people have little or no say in the depiction of their own history in textbook, libraries and research institutions[museums]. The meaning portrayed about Africans is painful to recall. Our museums represented the kind of heritage which glorified whites' activities and colonial history." – Nelson Mandela, 1997. 

The world health organisation defines gender as a socially constructed characteristic that defines women, men, girls, and boys (WHO,2021). The impact that gender has goes beyond the social parameters that impact one personally—gender impacts who gets seen and how they are represented in history. Ayanda Ngcobo, a master's student and a Museum officer at Bergtheil Museum in Westville, Durban work revolves around women's representation in museums. Ayanda believes that "Museums represented the power holders, their concepts of museology, of public commemoration and society." (Ngcobo,2018). 

Valencia Gushu of Bergtheil Museum, LHM, Durban watches storyteller Dr Gcina Mhlope use storytelling to describe the cultural heritage of the iGwalagwala Cliff archaeological site.

She conducted a skills transference workshop for ARROWSA that gave great insight into how gender impacts how museums. Museums, in South Africa were first established in 1800's. The colonial government of the time curated museums to represent the ideologies that they believed in. Ayanda Ngcobo elaborated on how museums had become a political space during South Africa's apartheid years. 

Voortrekker monument Pretoria

When the political hold of the government started to weaken in the 1980's, questions started to arise about how museums could be more inclusive by The South Africa Museums Association. In 1994 when South Africa became a democratic country, the African National Congress won the election and advocated for racial equality. The government created a new constitution, new policies focusing on the reconstruction of the country. Their main themes were reconciliation and nation building and wanted to impact the cultural landscape. During this time of reconciliation, the government was worked on changing how the country was represented. Efforts have been made with a focus on what dominates the cultural and heritage sector. This included statues of new heroes, like Nelson Mandela, erected alongside white European men's old statues. The statues that were being erected were predominately men. 

   King Dingane, Ncome Museum

Museums and tourism were a field under the apartheid government that Africans were not privy to. After 1994 museums were being opened in townships to represent new heroes and neglected histories. Some women activists in their own right, women like Bertha Mkhize, Charlotte Maxeke have not received the same recognition as their male counterparts. New national heroes were to be identified, the women took a back seat. When women were shown, they were usually shown as: 

 • Domestic related items 

 • Communal 

 • Auxiliary workers 

This brings about questions about how women are represented through one socially constructed domestic lens. Women are seen as the subject and not the main object in museum displays, showing how gender filters into how gender is represented. Ayanda closed her workshop with three questions: 

1. How would women want their stories to be narrated?  

2. What representations would be gender-balanced? 

3. When you think of museums around you, what have you noticed about representations of history and gender?

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