There are hard talks and there are soft talks. A hard talk would
deal with: Where is the money going to come from? What will the
structures be? How about affirmative action? Soft talks are about
the imagination and the role and function of the museum.
If one can get the feeling right and the approach right, one can
solve the practical questions but, if the approach is wrong, you
can throw in as much money and have as many reports as you like
and you still will not get useful answers.
It was quite a strong emotional experience for me coming back to
this museum. I was a kid at SACS [South African College School],
which used to be around the corner. It was our neighbourhood museum.
We had to come here at least once. When you had been once you could
say, 'Well, I've already been to the Museum'. It was part of self-improvement
to become clever, and in those days I think knowledge had a greater
intrinsic worth than today. Today we are into success and pleasure.
Knowledge in those days stood on its own and was worthwhile in itself.
If ever there was a place where you could get more knowledge per
square inch, it was in the museum.
So we went with a mixed emotion of curiosity. It was a strange building;
it did not look like any others. You met people from off the street
there. It was not like school when you met everybody from the same
school. There were no networks, there was a kind of serendipity
in going to the Museum, which was quite pleasurable in itself.
It did not have a real beginning, middle or end, and we resented
going there because we were confronted with endless rows of coins
and shards and pieces of information. It was a trial, but you came
out triumphant at the end, because 'I had been to the Museum, I'd
done it and now I was improved.' At the same time there were two
exhibits that stood out very clearly. One was the petrified tree.
It was marvellous . . . it is still marvellous. It is not that it
is so old. I think when you are a 7- or 8-year-old child, 50 years
or 100 million years, it is all the same. But the fact that something
that grew and sprouted and produced denneballs and had seasons and
breathed like we breathe could transmute itself into stone . . .
that was magic. That was wonder and that was something that one
never forgot, and one felt incited and encouraged to ask all sorts
of questions: How did it come about? What does it mean? I have never
The tree is still out there, 75 million years old. It has not changed
very much, but it still has that capacity to incite wonder in me.
That made me think: What are museums all about? Are they repositories
of knowledge? A place of scientific endeavour in the sense that
they accumulate valuable information---where you classify it and
lay it out for people to come to improve their minds and enhance
the knowledge at their disposal? Or is it a place of delight and
wonder? Does one have to make a choice between the two? I have no
doubt that, if one has to make a choice, . . . well I will leave
that for the end, but I do not think you will have difficulty discovering
where my answer lies.
One of the advantages of exile is that you travel. When you travel
with a very strong sense of yearning to come back to your country,
you feel you can immerse yourself in whatever culture or whatever
place you are in and imbibe of the culture and experience of the
cities and towns you are in. One of the things one does is that
you go to the museum. It is partly that, in some ways, visiting
is boring. If you simply do the things you do at home, then why
not stay at home. And once you have seen the place, then you have
seen it and you can look and look again but the place is still the
same. So it is convenient to have a focus of activities, things
that you do. It structures your visit. I am sure it is the same
for people coming to Cape Town from other areas of the country and
from the outlying parts of Cape Town. What do you do when in the
centre? You go to the museum. It is just a point of reference. So
I went to museums and galleries all over the world and reflecting
on the experience has been quite interesting in terms of what I
remember, what stirred me, and what made the visit worthwhile.
The British Museum was the first and perhaps the greatest of all.
You 'wonder' through the British Museum, and the word wonder is
so appropriate. If you have to move slowly in a museum, there is
something wrong. Your spirit, your body, your imagination, your
eyes should all relate to the objects you are walking past and seeing.
Then it stirs you deeply, then it reaches right into your concept
of history, of the world, of things, and of humanity.
If you are using your eyes to read to take in knowledge, you might
as well be at home. So the flow of your body, the wondering (in
the physical sense) and the flow of your mind (the wondering in
the imaginative sense), I think should go together. In that sense,
museums should be open. They should encourage movement and that
sense of drifting through the times, the places, the experience
of other cultures, how they lived and how they saw themselves---of
even the pre-people world (which is a stunning idea in itself).
The British Museum is a wonderful place as far as that is concerned.
Its layout is chaotic. You move from one age to another. You take
a left turn---you are back a couple of hundred centuries. You take
a right turn---you are in Asia. You move on and you are in a place
of miniatures. You turn around because you feel like going somewhere
else, or you are looking for the coffee bar, and there are gigantic
stone relics of the past. To me that is always been what a great
museum can and should be. Not that every Museum should attempt to
be a great one, but that combination of knowledge and imagination
was always established. I can go to that museum anytime and still
have a surge of delight of experiencing something new, and not feel:
'Well, I've been there, I've already done it.'
The Natural History Museum, where I took my children, excited me
less. The dinosaurs were wonderful, they were so huge. The scale
mattered. It told you that somehow things existed that were completely
different. You looked up at it and you felt physically small in
relation to those huge bones that existed before. It is the opposite
of peering down---that was my memory of the museum here where I
was big and the coins were small. I had to screw up my eyes to read
what was happening there and to see something of interest for a
rather small response.
The Science Museum round the corner was much more fun. You could
make electricity, you could see mills operate and a sense of discovery
was encouraged. Maybe it was nineteenth-century knowledge, but it
was a more active museum that touched on not just accumulating facts,
but on how discoveries are made. You discovered discovery and that
is something that is memorable. It encourages you to go to other
sources that are more accessible than a museum, to read up, to find
out, because your imagination has been touched and you want to do
it---not to pass an exam but because you want to know because it
interests you and turns you on.
At the Space Museum in Washington they have managed to combine the
feeling and sense of space through the architecture. The building
becomes, in some ways, more important than the objects. It is that
relationship between the fantasy of the building (you walk in, and
you have that huge sense of a vast dome out there) and the total
reality of knowing this was the actual capsule in which Armstrong
went into space. You link up fantasy and reality in a way that television
and other media just cannot do. It is the knowledge that I, an individual,
spied with my eye that actual capsule, but in a context in which
my imagination opened up through the physical sense of space in
Pain! There is a museum in Prague, in the old Jewish cemetery. The
dead Jews were ghettoised like the live Jews and so the cemetery
is actually higher than the surrounding ground. For over 500 years,
Jews were buried in that cemetery. There are two little buildings
next to the cemetery, tiny little synagogues, the curator tells
you. In the one building you just see lots of cloth hangings, and
in the other building just names, nothing else. He tells you that
the Nazis pillaged the synagogues of occupied Europe of all their
hangings before burning them down, and put all the hanging in this
building because this was going to be a museum to an extinct race.
It is the most savage, emotional museum experience I have ever had.
But now that museum becomes a museum to a museum. It tells that
bitter story as a monument in itself, very carefully preserved according
to what the Nazis intended. In the next building are the names of
the Prague Jews, very simply put, who were exterminated in the camps.
This is another kind of museum experience, where the story just
tells itself with the minimum of intervention by guides or cover
Perhaps the most fun museum I ever saw was in Lima. It has erotic
Inca art---it is a very popular museum. And you can buy cards like
at the temples in India, and feel you are being very aesthetic and
not being dirty at all. But again the part that interests you is
not seeing the variety of positions that Incas used, but the universality
of love-making as a pleasure in pleasure, and the depiction of that
behaviour at that time.
What a museum does is put you in touch with all history, all people,
with all the past in a way that is very real. What would these approaches
mean for South Africa? I do not know exactly: you play to your strengths,
and we have immense strengths in this country. Here I am going to
refer to the Bushman diorama. From a visual and interest point of
view it is beautiful. It conveys an enormous amount of information
simply from the setting, and yet I find it painful. Even as a child
I felt there was something wrong; that with the pots and the shards
and the old coins you have people on display like that. Their function
is to be viewed by us. Their personality is that of an object. Yet,
why should they not be in the museum? They are part of South Africa,
part of the past.
The problem is the way they are segregated from all the other people.
If you want to see our history, you will not see it in the museum
but you will see it in the streets. Our history is in the faces
of our people. And history has been our enemy up until now. We used
history---our colours, the shape of our noses, our hair---to divide
ourselves and to create different rights and duties. Now we reclaim
our origins. We present them on a basis of visual and physical equality.
Acknowledging the diversity of different people--- their background,
their appearance, their cultures---that is what should be on display
in the concentrated form of the diorama. This should include not
just the original settlers or later settlers, but everyone---and
reaffirming the dignity of the people and the cultures of our origins.
How fine it would be for a South African to come into the S A Museum
and see a depiction of South Africa in that way. What a strong affirmation
of the things we are fighting for in Kempton Park, at the abstract,
constitutional level---of unity and diversity. It connects us to
the museum and makes everybody welcome and represented here.
South Africa is the country from which scientists claim the first
human emerged, but you would not know it to look at our museums.
Surely we should take pride in our country, not just in the sense
that it all started here. It also has meaning for us today: in the
equality of the act of creation (whether evolutionary or by a creator);it
links us up to this common origin; it has special meaning for South
Africans. It is also of great interest to understand how far back
you can go in understanding evolution.
A South African museum that does not give at least a replica of
the skull found in Sterkfontein is neglecting something that clamours
for representation---and evolution has been banned. If you can unban
the ANC, surely you can unban evolution? If there is a debate about
it---that it is only a theory---then you say it is only a theory,
but let people know the nature of the debate. But to the extent
that its overwhelmingly accepted as the theory regarded as having
the highest probability in terms of how species came about, surely
our museum should represent it. It so happens that Darwin sailed
past the Cape and found some igneous rock embedded in sandstone
in Bantry Bay and thought, 'Wonderful!' But there is nothing in
the Museum acknowledging this fact, yet it is just around the corner
from here. We have to reclaim the ancient past that has been excluded.
There is another thing that needs to be reclaimed. By and large,
museums represent the kings and presidents. What is left out are
the kitchens and the fields. My plea is to take the kitchen out
of the kitchen.
The last thing is not to just open up the themes and displays inside
the museum, and not just make the museum more attractive and accessible,
but to realize that it is a moral entitlement to knowledge (unlike
going to see a movie).
The scientific side is important. We need the repositories and laboratories.
These do count and the collections should not just be stuffed into
cages and boxes. One should separate out these two functions structurally,
as we do thematically. In addition to that, we need a whole new
approach to knowledge about the past, and things of the past. We
should involve the old people who remember and, through recording
oral traditions, record our past.
We need to set up local museums, with people from the locality being
involved and taking pride in their community, what happened there,
and involving old people and making them feel they have lived through
something and are not just discards. Give them the chance to pass
on their experience, knowledge and wisdom to other generations.
The museum should also collect---the pots and pans and books and
pictures that relate to the past of each community.
There will also be places that become like museums. The boundary
between a museum and a protected monument can become blurred: there
are caves that have special meaning, sacred trees, and burial sites
that are part and parcel of the past and the history and sense of
self of different communities. So we do not have to take something
out of its habitat and stick it in a building to become significant
or important. We can go out to these places and establish a kind
of link up.
Far from television and other media being the enemy of museums,
they interact. They come to the museum and we display things on
the TV. Each encourages different forms of displaying knowledge.
Do not turn the museum into a Disneyland and say its wonderful because
lots of people are passing through. The value of Disneyland is that
its fake---you know its fake and you want it to be fake. But the
importance of the museum is that you know the things are real---but
the visual effects, the lighting and the sense of theatre and drama
can be of a similar kind.
I will end with my experience of seeing the Tutankhamen exhibition
in Cairo and then in the British Museum. In Cairo it had the special
feeling of seeing it near to where it was found---that was quite
important. But all the gold and other objects were displayed in
glass boxes (which, I am sure, was the colonial experience of museums).
It was an immense disappointment, as I did not have that sense of
amazement and wonder that these things were dug up from the tomb.
I paid to see it in the British Museum. I did not mind as it was
a special exhibition and was quite expensive to stage. They put
it in a huge dark room so that the gold was lit up. The building
was fake, but the objects were real. There was the excitement of
thousands of people participating in a discovery. It was the combination
of the illusion and fantasy of the setting and the knowledge that
these were not made of plastic, gilt and painted up---like you get
in Disneyland. They were not replicas, they were the real thing;
that was what counted. Then you wanted to know about who discovered
it, and the fights they had over it . . . and suddenly you are interested
To me that was the perfect example. If you have got the money and
the imaginative approach, so much can be done to get millions of
people involved without trivializing the whole experience. Let us
make going to museums something that people will want to do again
by Albie Sachs