Launch of the Iziko Social History Centre

Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version
16 Sep 2010

Honourable Speaker
Honourable Members
Distinguished Guests
Ladies and Gentlemen:.

Today we mark the official launch of the renovated and refurbished Social History Centre on Church Square in Cape Town.

The event takes place during Heritage Month in which we reflect on our rich cultural diversity and the way in which different cultural expressions have intermingled in the making of South Africa.

This year’s National Heritage Day celebrations will be held in Durban on the 24th September at the Moses Mabhida Stadium under the theme, “Celebrating 2010 FIFA Soccer World Cup Successes: our Heritage” and this event will be addressed by President Jacob Zuma.

In this way we hope to build on the successes of the World Cup of a nation united in action and to call upon our people to use this momentum and their collective energy and commitment to continue to bring about a better life for all.

The launch of this Social History Centre is a welcome development, since it is our stories, our commitment and tremendous will, our successes, how we address our challenges that must take pride of place in the narratives of this nation as part of our contribution to world history and to world culture.

Heritage is crucial to any society that seeks to define its identity in recognition of the multiplicity of the diverse cultures and traditions that are representative of its people.

Heritage is even more pivotal when we also show how these diverse strands can engage in dialogue in order to coalesce and in so doing create a new world.

It is important that we do more to ensure that heritage permeates across the different sectors and levels of our society, starting with an individual, a family unit, a community and the public and private sectors that collectively comprise our nation.

We need to convey this history and way of living to our youth, through education and sustainable teaching of our cultural heritage.

The realization of true equality can be expedited through concerted intergenerational dialogue, through education about the values underpinning gender equality, through education about who we are as Africans to counter those who fan the fires of xenophobia, to programmes that seek to actively instill equality and the values underpinning non-racialism, non-sexism and democracy.

Through arts and Culture, through the fostering of intra African relations and the encouragement of our cultural expressions across cultures, we can draw attention to our shared past and our common future.

“Celebrating South Africa’s Living Human Treasures – The Custodians of our Intangible Cultural Heritage”, is an initiative of the Department of Arts and Culture to draw attention to the role played by our living legends and to seek to protect and preserve this knowledge and to transmit this to future generations.

It is in this context that we also have chosen 2010 and beyond to identify, recognise and hold up to our society our National Living Human Treasures, the men and women of practical wisdom in our communities who are also role models for our new generations and who stand for our common values.

We are therefore pleased that this Museum’s collections certainly boast work by such Treasures, including the work of ceramicists, past and present, such as Bonnie Ntshalintshali, Hyme Rabinowitz, Barbara Jackson, Andile Dyalvane, Clive Sithole, and many other unnamed indigenous artists, as well as textiles by women’s projects such as Heartworks and Mapula.

Iziko collections are filled with the cultural lives of South Africans with many different histories from periods ranging through precolonial, colonial apartheid and post-apartheid periods.
It is important that we also understand how our struggle for liberation has shaped us, how apartheid exploited differences of any kind and condemned some to superiority and others to inferiority, how apartheid imposed positive versus negative identities on the colour of one’s skin, divided black and white, men and women, language against language, urban against rural and one cultural grouping against another.
Iziko is of course a very important museum and since its establishment in 1999 has undertaken a series of rather groundbreaking exhibitions, including ‘Democracy X’ marking 10 years of democracy, the ‘Timbuktu Script and Scholarship’ and currently ‘Ghoema and Glitter: New Year Carnival’, which has a strong emphasis on oral history and people’s stories.

This could not have been achieved without the depth of vision and the resultant range of its collections and collections expertise.

Caring for these collections in a building with an advanced infrastructure, such as this one, allows us to further develop our collections and knowledge and therefore enable us to fill the gaps in representivity that apartheid and colonial history has denied.

The renamed Iziko Social History Centre is housed in the former National Mutual Life Association of Australasia building, designed by Sir Herbert Baker and Francis Masey in 1905.

This building was first purchased by the Government of South Africa in 1989 to house the collections of the former South African Cultural History Museum, today an integral part of Iziko.

In 2004, the building’s derelict state was communicated to my predecessor, Dr Pallo Jordan, by the current CEO of Iziko, Prof HC Bredekamp. Dr Jordan ensured that funds were made available via the Department of Public Works to undertake the restoration and conversion of the building as a dream museum collections facility.

I am told that the refurbishment has involved some radical changes with former office spaces converted into large open storage areas to house some 250 000 artefacts and assemblages of various kinds, including ceramics, glass, furniture, metals, textiles, beadwork, basketry, and historical archaeology. In addition, specialist facilities had to be constructed and new office spaces.

Out of this emerged a new large 9-storey building plus the ground floor and basement, which includes two newly-created floors. The result had to be aesthetically pleasing as well as having all the modern conveniences.

I am glad that there is also an excellent reference library that houses an array of social history publications. This will certainly improve public and educational access to the Social Collections, whether in small groups of the general public, learners or specialist researchers.

We would like to see learners take on projects that are inspired by these vast collections so that in this way we also make an investment now to encourage the young and aspiring historians and the histories of the future.

There is space in the building to continue the mentoring process so that the study of history is done by all, particularly young black men and women historians, which is crucial for the future of the museum profession in South Africa.

The creation of the Social History Centre is also groundbreaking because this Centre will become an integrated facility for collections which have been separated since the days of the apartheid regime.

The history of museums in South Africa, reflecting metropolitan colonial powers’ practice, had no qualms about the division between natural history and ethnography - or the study of the cultures of indigenous people - on the one hand, and European-related, so-called cultural history on the other.

Apartheid ideology meant that even as late as 1965 the apartheid government and the museum Councils agreed to create a separate museum for European-related cultural history and therefore to keep the ethnographic and precolonial archaeology collections at the South African Museum together with natural history.

With the election of the new democratic government, one of the first actions of the new Department of Arts and Culture was to amalgamate the five existing separate national museums in Cape Town.

This process led naturally to the structural amalgamation of the formerly separate South African Museum and South African Cultural History Museum – bringing together collections separated by histories of colonialism and racism.

In the year 2010 – some ten years after the formation of the Southern Flagship Institution or Iziko today – Iziko is putting the seal on this process with the launch of a building to store the reunited cultural collections.

To give form to this integration, ways are being found to store similar materials and objects, whether wooden Zulu neck rests or small wooden Cape chairs, women’s beadwork from various areas of southern Africa or Cape colonial women’s embroidered samplers.

On the basis of this wonderful collections facility, collections management and conservation processes from now on will proceed more efficiently and staff members can operate more effectively and have more time to be creative and innovative.

Today is certainly a moment for celebration as the Department of Iziko Social History is officially united and centralized, with staff, collections and library, in the new Iziko Social History Centre.

Finally, ladies and gentlemen, I have heard that a highly respected and beloved son of the soil, Cape Town librarian, activist, musician and community historian of note, Vincent Kolbe, passed away last week. I have been told that he was a walking library, a man who had spent his time preserving the history of District Six and demonstrating that our music and culture are evidence of the real connections and ties that exist despite the impositions of apartheid.

In honour of Vincent Kolbe and other luminaries such as Prof. ZK Matthews, Prof. AC Jordan let us dedicate this important moment of the unification of our collections, to the memory of their contribution so that this Centre also becomes a space where ideas can be shaped and stories documented about the past in order to tell the truths about ourselves – for, in so doing, we can influence the present and the future.

I now have pleasure in officially declaring the Social History Centre launched.

I thank you.