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Exhibition explores fire deterrents

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The Jagger Reading Room alight on Sunday 18 April 2021. PHOTO: City of Cape town
The Jagger Reading Room alight on Sunday 18 April 2021. PHOTO: City of Cape town

The formal opening of the special Jagger Library memorial exhibition Of Smoke and Ash last week marked 12 months since a wildfire tore through the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) library.

On Sunday 18 April last year, flames engulfed the library located at UCT’s Rondebosch campus following the outbreak and rapid spread of a fire close to Rhodes Memorial.

Archival and published print collections kept within the reading room (previously known as the JW Jagger Library) were consumed by the flames while residual damage included flooding of the building and seepage into various spaces and two basement stores.

At the time, UCT confirmed that the archival and published print collections kept within the building were destroyed.

These included the vast majority of the African Studies Published Print collection (approximately 70 000 items), the entire African Studies Film collection on DVD (approximately 3 500), all the UCT university calendars, some of the heavily used government publications, documents from South Africa and across the continent, and manuscripts and archives. A significant institutional loss was the original card catalogues for the manuscripts and archives repositories, the history of UCT Libraries, and the Special Collections Archive Office and administrative records.

Speaking at the opening of the exhibition on Wednesday 20 April, UCT’s Vice-Chancellor Prof Mamokgethi Phakeng said they remained grateful that no staff member or student was harmed by the fire or the evacuation process.

“But that does not mean we were not affected by what we experienced. It has been a long journey of recovery for all in the UCT community, and we remain appreciative of every internal and external role player in response to and post the tragedy that befell us,” said Phakeng.

Curated by Dr Duane Jethro and Jade Nair of the Centre for Curating the Archive, “Of Smoke and Ash” is based in the Michaelis School of Fine Art.

Phakeng explained that the exhibition is not just about what the fire did to UCT and the Jagger Library. “It is also about our responses to the fire, as an institution; as librarians and curators and knowledge specialists who have the skills and responsibility to make this treasure known to the wider world; and as individuals who are committed to building, learning from and cherishing African knowledge and its place in the knowledge bank of the world,” she said.

Providing an update on the work that had been carried out since the fire, Phakeng shared that Prof Alison Lewis, the dean of the faculty of engineering and the built environment, was leading a team that would help the university reimagine the future of the Jagger Library and the surviving African Studies archives.

“So far there have been a couple of sessions facilitated by the think tank in the form of imaginariums with students and stakeholders to imagine the new possibilities for the destroyed library. Emeritus Prof Martin Hall presented and facilitated discussions on university spaces as places for transformation with the Library Working Group and Library Management Team,” she said.

She added that the actual rebuilding of the space may take a number of years, including applying for planning permission and Heritage Western Cape authorisation.

“Meanwhile, a temporary roof has been installed over the reading room to protect the heritage structure. Access to the building remains restricted,” said Phakeng.

Of Smoke and Ash is currently open to the public.

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