Using the past

2012-12-14 00:00

“THE centenary of the museum comes at a better time in the history of our country,” says Mlungisi Ngubane, director of the Msunduzi and Ncome museums (incorporating the Voortrekker Complex). “We need to use the centenary to entrench and further promote the spirit of reconciliation.”

Ngubane refers to an article titled “Can Museums Be a Place of Reconciliation?” by Andrez Vujnovic of the German Historical Museum in Berlin, who believes that museums can be sites of reconciliation if history is properly transmitted — “not whitewashed” — via education.

“I hope the museum centenary will achieve that,” says Ngubane.

Although the Msunduzi Museum celebrates its centenary on Sunday, its roots lie in the 19th century, in one of South Africa’s most bitter conflicts that saw Boer pitted against Zulu, which culminated in the battle of Blood/Ncome River, fought on December 16, 1838, when a trekker force commanded by Andries Pretorius defeated the army of Zulu King Dingane. Prior to the battle, a biblical-style prayer or covenant was created to boost the morale of the trekkers. This covenant promised that in the event of victory, a church would be erected in God’s honour and the triumph commemorated by future generations.

What became known as the Church of the Vow was subsequently built in Pietermaritzburg, then the capital of the trekker Republic of Natalia, and December 16 was thereafter celebrated as the Day of the Vow, or Covenant, until it was renamed the Day of Reconciliation in 1994.

Fulfilling the vow took time. First came a wood-and-thatch building, which was replaced by a more substantial building on which construction began in 1840.

“Everyone lent a hand,” says Elrica Henning, chief research officer at the museum. “Some donated planks and other building material, others their labour.”

British annexation of the republic in 1842 saw many trekkers retreating back over the Drakensberg, while an influx of British settlers saw Pietermaritzburg become a predominantly English-speaking town.

During this time, the Church of the Vow was made available to European settlers of other denominations, including Anglicans, Methodists and Lutherans. “Reverend P. Huet also encouraged people of colour to attend,” says Henning. “He said there was no distinction between colour at the foot of the cross.”

By 1855, the church had fallen into a state of disrepair and the construction of a new church was embarked upon. This was consecrated in 1861.

The older church then enjoyed a chequered history. “It was used as a school, a mineral-water factory, a refreshment room, a wagon-makers shop and a pharmacy,” says Henning. “Then in the 1900s it was about to be demolished to make way for a roller-skating course, which was a big craze at the time.”

The Voortrekker Church executive committee and the funds it raised saved the building from demolition and on December 16, 1912, following restoration, it opened as a museum of Voortrekker culture and history. Thereafter, it was known as the Voortrekker Museum, until undergoing a name change in recent years. There was a move from the narrow collecting focus of the museum in the thirties.

“There is evidence of tension within the leadership at this time,” says the museum’s deputy director Gilbert Torlage. “But the instruction was given to collect more broadly and to turn the museum into a cultural and historical museum with wider vision.”

The collection was duly broadened but as time passed, the museum began to run out of space. The seventies saw the addition of Andries Pretorius’s house, which was brought from Edendale and reconstructed stone by stone on the current museum site. In the eighties, the museum acquired the old Longmarket Girl’s Primary School building and the adjacent church manse. “This made an enormous difference, both in terms of administration and for the collection,” says Torlage.

This period of growth and expansion occurred under the directorship of Ivor Pols, the first curator to be appointed director in 1977. He was succeeded in 2002 by the museum’s first black director, Sibongiseni Mkhize. In 2004, Bongani Ndhlovu was appointed director. He had previously curated the Ncome Museum which was created in the late nineties on the banks of the Blood/Ncome River.

Ngubane was appointed to the directorship of the museums just over a year ago. “When I came this was a museum in transition,” he says. “What excited me was that the museum had moved from being a single-theme museum to being a multicultural institution. That, coupled with the fact it was about to celebrate its centenary, which is a great achievement for a museum.”

The centenary is also being marked by the publication of a history of the museum by Bill Guest, titled Trek and Transition — A history of the Msunduzi and Ncome Museums (incorporating the Voortrekker complex) 1912-2012.

Ngubane says the current range of exhibits and exhibitions reflects the multicultural and reconciliatory vision of the museum. These include a variety of cultural history exhibitions such as the Birth of Democracy and Colour, Grace and Spice, featuring the Indian community of KwaZulu-Natal. This is supplemented by a Hindu Shiva temple, a traditional Zulu home and a herb garden. The newly renovated sports exhibit features soccer and bowls, as well cars and bikes related to the Roy Hesketh Circuit, while the exhibition area in the Church of the Vow has also been given a makeover.

Ngubane says the transition period is not yet over.

“This is a museum of national interest but with a local character. We aim to change that. The identity of the museum must be a strong one. We must occupy our space as a national museum. We will work hard to ensure that happens. When we have achieved that, then we can say that transition has been fully achieved.”

The Msunduzi Museum (incorporating the Voortrekker Complex) and Ncome Museum Centenary Event will be held at6 pm on December 16 and will include a service of thanksgiving, the unveiling of a memorial plaque, the laying of reconciliation stones and refreshments. Professor Russel Botman of Stellenbosch University will be the guest speaker. If you would like to attend, please RSVP to Phumelele Ngubane at 033 394 6834.

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