Recollecting history

2009-09-23 00:00


Mounting Queen Victoria: Curating Cultural Change

Steven C. Dubin


SOUTH Africa’s history is hard-fought terrain — its museums and art galleries are the minefields and barbed wire. Steven Dubin navigates his way deftly, and sometimes amusingly, around the obstacles showing equal distrust of the claustrophobia of the past and contemporary political correctness. He promotes a sane middle ground often missing from public life.

Dubin seems to have interacted with every museum and gallery director in the country. It was effort well spent because personal insights and observations are the making of this intriguing book. The tongue-in-cheek title presumably refers to the juxtaposition of portraits of Queen Victoria and King Cetshwayo in the Tatham Art Gallery that Dubin ­applauds as an example of inclusivity. Brendan Bell is quoted as saying that he does not wish to exclude anyone’s history.

This seems a fairly general sentiment, although applied with varying success. Another local institution commended for inclusiveness is Macrorie House. The magic formula seems to be to broaden a collection, integrate new and old, and improve understanding. Simply tagging on acceptable additions is insufficient.

Inevitably, pragmatic professionalism has collided with more ­extreme views of transformation. Dubin shows how politicians have tried to influence acquisition policies or made ludicrous demands about selling off collections that would amount to cultural vandalism. A commentator with links to District Six Museum, a place of community activism, identifies government as an enemy of creativity. For those at older museums, new pressures have threatened lifetimes of work.

Museums and galleries both fell foul of criticism from Nelson ­Mandela in 1997. But in colourful turns of phrase Dubin describes them as ­hardy and resilient like ­fynbos, shedding their ideological corsets to prevent the erasure of ­history and create ­collections for a democratic country. Natural history museums, for ­instance, have tackled the issue of HIV/Aids.

And in one of the most entertaining parts of the book, he looks at trickery in the art world, in particular the differing fates of work by the same artist submitted under white and black names. Then there was the ­farcical arrest of employees at the ­National Museum of Military ­History, accused of storing enough hardware to start a small war.

Transformation of museums, Dubin concludes, is about representation and reception. Recovery of memory is difficult at a time when interest in history, personal stories aside, is dying. But the struggle is far from over as powerful groups ­believe they have a franchise on history — Dubin’s take on street renaming in Durban would be interesting. His book provides valuable insight into the state of the nation and ­deserves wide readership.

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