Friday 13 November 2009

District 6

I was three weeks in Cape Town before I went to a museum.
This is a new record for me. But I chose something special to break my fast: District 6 Museum.

The background: in 1966, District 6* – just at the outskirts of Cape Town city centre – was declared a White Group Area. The mostly black and coloured inhabitants were forcibly removed and their homes demolished. The Museum tells their stories – of what life was like in District 6 before 1966, the removals and demolition, and finally the post-1994 efforts to compensate the people who lost their homes and to revive the area.

The good: the museum narrative is composed of memories. Almost everything is explained through the memory of someone who actually lived through the demolition of District 6 and lost everything.

A lot of the displays have an art installation feel (in a good way) like this one which creates a tower out of the street signs of District 6 with earth from the site at the bottom:

There is hardly any didactic/informative text, apart from a timeline.** Though I would have liked an introduction, there is no doubt that hearing the stories first hand creates a very powerful emotional experience. The Museum uses lots of sound – mostly first person testimonies but also music – very effectively. I also like the way objects and photographs were layered onto plans and maps since so much of the museum is about mapping memories onto place: the District 6 that has vanished, the wasteland that’s there now and the vision for its redevelopment in the future.

The bad: the Museum isn’t perfect. Of course it isn’t – no Museum is. With my museum design goggles on I have three main gripes. First, it would be helpful to have more of an overview at the beginning to understand the Group Areas Act and its context. Second, there is a lot of text and most of it is very small. Third, the circulation is a bit convoluted and involves backtracking a few times.

The ugly: I was surprised at how upset I was during the visit. But District 6 Museum is a reminder to me of how powerful museums can be. You might know about the past, but there is nothing like being in the presence of the physical evidence to bring it home.

A note on the sponsors: I was surprised but pleased to see that the Irish Government had supported the Museum. Money well spent.

*Not to be confused with District 9, a movie about aliens settling in a township in Johannesburg.

**I hate timelines usually (in fact, every exhibition designer I know spits when they say the word) but this one was useful to give some background. Unfortunately it was in wee tiny font running along the bottom of the panels.

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