HERITAGE: Museums crumble as government goes awol

Source: Financial Mail

If people without knowledge of their history, origin and culture are like a tree without roots, as activist Marcus Garvey said, we should be acutely concerned by the recent closure of the Apartheid Museum and Liliesleaf Farm


It used to be a typical scene: busy parking lots, packed full of buses and cars, large groups of children and tourists chatting enthusiastically about their visit to a museum or tourism site.

Just over a year and one pandemic later, those parking lots are eerily quiet. These post-Covid scenes are now de rigueur at many of SA’s heritage spaces, as well as at museums, public galleries and heritage sites worldwide.

The Apartheid Museum, which opened in 2001 and billed itself as the “pre-eminent museum in the world dealing with 20th-century SA”, is perhaps the most notable casualty.

Built at a cost of R80m on 7ha next to Gold Reef City in Joburg, it was one of SA’s few world-class heritage spaces, and arguably SA’s most important museum for anyone wanting to understand our past.

Until Covid hit, I’d worked as a specialist guide to international tourists and education groups, and this was one of the major stops for over a decade. Then I didn’t visit the Apartheid Museum, or any others, for nearly a year.

At the beginning of 2021 I returned, while working on a virtual project.

It was a gloomy, dispiriting experience. Over the five days I spent there, I could count on two hands the number of visitors, I presume mostly local, who came through the museum.

It was a stark contrast to before the pandemic. Then, the café was packed at lunchtime, the bookshop buzzed, and the museum was full of noisy learners, eager to learn about the Group Areas Act, Sharpeville and the 1976 student protests.

By January 2021, it was all unnervingly silent. Technically it was open, but staff waited to serve a clientele that didn’t arrive.

Finally, last month, the Apartheid Museum made the difficult decision to close “until further notice” — unable to weather the Covid storm and its economic repercussions.

Were this an isolated example, it might not be such a problem. But the Apartheid Museum is just one of many heritage spaces and attractions — including privately run and government-owned — that have been forced to close, some temporarily, and others possibly permanently. Either way, it’s because of insufficient funding or a lack of visitors.

The end result is the same: more job losses in a tourism industry that, before the virus, used to employ 1,5-million people and contribute 8.6% to SA’s GDP. And that’s before we even speak of the intangible intellectual loss of having a society less aware of its history.

This month, tourism minister Mmamoloko Kubayi-Ngubane spoke of her plan to “revive” the industry, saying there were “quite a number of battles that we have to fight to get our numbers back”.

But the government’s lack of support for heritage spaces during the pandemic — leaving operators to fend for themselves — means it’s not certain what will still be standing by the time tourists do return.

Many museums and heritage centres weren’t in great shape before Covid hit. Management problems, minimal or non-existent financial support from the government, and low visitor numbers took their toll on many — and the pandemic magnified the issues.

‘Inequity of government’s approach’

Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia, a national heritage site, has also closed for the foreseeable future. It’s a big loss.

Between 1961 and 1963, Liliesleaf served as the secret HQ and nerve centre of the ANC, SACP, Umkhonto weSizwe and the Congress Alliance. But in July 1963 the police raided the farm and arrested leaders of the liberation movement — including Walter Sisulu, Denis Goldberg, Govan Mbeki and Ahmed Kathrada. Nelson Mandela had been arrested the previous year, near Howick.

Liliesleaf’s story is a fundamental tenet of our political past, and to not have this interactive site is unthinkable.

This month, Liliesleaf Trust CEO Nicholas Wolpe wrote that “like many other independent cultural institutions, the site is finding it increasingly difficult to sustain operations”.

Wolpe said that Covid had “thrown the spotlight on the inequity of how the government approaches and treats the arts, cultural and heritage sector. It has highlighted the fragility of the sector and its vulnerability”.

Liliesleaf, struggling to pay its 30 staff, turned to crowdfunding. It’s an approach which other museums, globally, have used. Most famously, this includes the world’s most visited museum: the Louvre in Paris.

Liliesleaf Farm, where liberation movement leaders were arrested in July 1963

Late last year, the Louvre launched a creative fundraising programme. This included a “luxury auction” where experiences like a night locked in the museum, and an opportunity to see the Mona Lisa — up close and out of her case — went under the hammer.

The auction raised €2.36m (R40m), with the Mona Lisa inspection going for €80,000 and the night visit fetching €38,000.

You can see why museums are doing this. A 2020 survey by Art Newspaper, focusing on 100 top museums and galleries, found that visits were down by 77%. At the Louvre visitors were down 72%, an estimated loss of €90m.

International museums have large endowments to fall back on during a crisis, whether from state coffers or private funders. SA museums have less breathing room.

Unlike SA, many countries have a strong “museum culture”, which helps sustain them.

It’s something I’ve seen close up: in the early 2000s, I worked as a ticketing assistant for the British Museum, and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. There, a large percentage of the tickets were sold to locals.

But this is something absent in SA for a number of reasons, including relatively high ticketing costs, a lack of good marketing of the value of these sites, and greater ambivalence about engaging with our communities.

So if you take away the international tourists (as has been the case, and probably will be, until we have a workable Covid vaccine rollout), our heritage sites have no clientele.

To adapt, many museums have launched “virtual experiences or tours”.

But this can never properly replicate the real-life experience. Sure, you can see a Casspir vehicle online — but how can this compare to seeing its tank-like appearance in real life, and feeling its cold metal exterior under your fingertips while you ponder the atrocities it saw in its lifetime.

As Wolpe says, these sites “bring our history and memories to life, and in the process makes our history tangible and real”.

‘Need to reinvent spaces’

Still, despite the dire straits, some museums have stayed open. This includes some of Cape Town’s Iziko Museums, which have introduced strict screening and staggered entry times to mitigate the risk of Covid.

In Joburg, Constitution Hill is not only open for business but is developing a “Creative Uprising Hub”. This is a space that aims to support the creative economy by providing art studios, a state-of-the-art recording studio, retail space and business resources.

Mariapaola Mcgurk, the site’s public programme co-ordinator, says “galleries and museums need to reinvent themselves both because there is not enough local support, for so many reasons, but also because the world is shifting and how we experience and engage is changing”.

Covid, she says, forced reflection and change within many of these institutions. “Museums and galleries are spaces that hold history — but surely they could also be spaces that hold the history of our future — where youth can feel a sense of belonging, growth and support”.

It’s an optimistic tone, but it’s not one shared by the many SA historical sites which remain closed, with uncertain futures.

Many of them feel badly let down by the government, whose leaders won’t hesitate to open new museums or sites with over-the-top ceremonies and much back-patting, but are nowhere when the cameras are turned off.

Most recently, we saw this with the June 16 Memorial Acre in Soweto and the Alexandra Heritage Centre. Promising and beautiful spaces at the outset, there is little upkeep, and no publicity and marketing.

It’s not as if there isn’t money. Last year, the national department of sport, arts & culture, headed by Nathi Mthethwa, was allocated R5.7bn, of which R1bn was then “reprioritised” for Covid relief programmes.

But what seems clear is that many of the most valuable heritage institutions, which should be getting the bulk of this to survive, have been frozen out.

For Wolpe, Covid should cause the government to acknowledge its role as an enabler for the sector “to preserve our collective historical edifice to ensure it remains a treasured resource and building block for future generations”.

It’s an important point. As a country, we claim to celebrate our heritage — but setting aside one day a year for a braai isn’t enough.

Let’s hope we don’t find ourselves in a post-pandemic world where generations of people who lived through important historical moments are gone, unable to tell their story in a tangible, multidimensional way because all our museums are closed.