Africa's sad museum

#115. Wonder what happened to Museum Africa. Having missed the launch last week of l’Afrique: A tribute to Maria Stein Lessing and Leipold Spiegel – pioneering collectors of African art and artefacts who recognised and celebrated the profound influence that these had on 20th Century European artists like Picasso, Gaugin and Matisse – I took a trip to Newtown yesterday.

And what a trip it was. The once-proud Museum Africa that occupies the heart of Joburg’s “cultural precinct” is a sad place. It’s exhibits vary from a recreation of Sophiatown shack life (poorly lit or explained) to happy-snap photography, from the life of Ghandi to a study of portraiture, mostly haphazardly arranged with little attention to detail or explanation bar some scraps of paper press-stuck to the walls. The Museum seems to have been frozen in time (no doubt its budget was frozen at some point in the distant past). It is as if it has had no influences from the outside world where museums compete to produce an “experience” for their visitors.

The exhibits are barely signposted and the building is difficult to navigate with oddly designed barriers and partitions that cut off one section from another. Like Alice down the rabbit hole we wandered the corridors, taking the lift down one floor only to discover that we were back where we started.

Empty storage cases lay in one corner while others were filled with relics of South African fashion and strewn about the stairwells with no explanation of where they came from or why they would be worth looking at.

It is as if the museum has been curated to ensure as little interaction between the visitor and the place as possible. And what would I have liked to have seen there? Some sign of life. With Joburg pinning its hopes on Newtown as a thriving cultural hub, where is the engagement with Newtown as a place, as a living breathing urban space whose history is the story of this city. From the wagon drivers who came to strike it rich and occupied the square outside what is now the Museum in the late 1800’s, to the ambitiously designed Mary Fitzgerald Square, to the historic Market Theatre and the Brickfields housing development, each is testament to this city’s aspirations. Museum Africa is outside its own door.

And so we wandered out the building, blinking in the bright sunlight, and to fortify my companion – who having recently returned from London, is re-acquainting herself with the city – I led her to Newtown’s proudest space, the refurbished Turbine Hall, and then for cappucino on the deck at Doppio Zero overlooking the newly constructed extension to Sci-Bono, Joburg’s science museum. Her faith in the city and her confidence in me as a tour guide restored, we drove back across town.

* For more on Stein-Lessing and Spiegel, l’Afrique: A Tribute to Marie Stein-Lessing and Leopold Spiegel is published by David Krut Publishing and edited by Natalie Knight.

4 thoughts on “Africa's sad museum

  1. It’s criminal to see what state the Museum Africa is in.They have virtually no curators left (I think…. one?)and most of the museum space ends up rented out to conventions and fashion shows (the money garnered from which doesn’t seem to get plowed back into the museum). An exhibit like the L’Afrique one goes to show what can be done with a little TLC and of course, a bit of cash.The collections that remain housed away from public eye are vast and whatever remains on view isn’t maintained at all. It’s certainly a sad indication of what we feel about South African history and culture from all points of view and aspects.

  2. Hi Kabelo. Not the last time I looked. There may be parts of the city that fit that description but thinking it applies to the whole will mean you are missing out on all sorts of interesting things that Joburg has to offer. Watch this space for more of them.

  3. Came across this by accident, looking for the shop at museum africa… THANK YOU for your kind words about Turbine .. I have spent 2 years on the project and I love the building .. wish i could think of how to open it more to the public.

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