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stories and histories – museums in cape town

Cape Town Slave Lodge museum exhibit

I have a friend who loves museums (hi Betsy!). She says that it’s interesting to see what a city or nation chooses to remember and how they do it. Of all the places I have been to I would choose Cape Town as a city of museums. While I was there I visited the slave history museum, the Slave Lodge, one of more than 20 museums in that city. 20!

Cape Town’s museums range from a museum housing artworks and fossils from all over South Africa, to one celebrating all things rugby, to one commemorating the legacies of Apartheid laws on the urban fabric, to yet others celebrating the cultures of different peoples who have constituted Cape Town. What’s more impressive is that half of these museums are run by the city under the Iziko (hearth in isiXhosa) banner. It is fascinating to wonder why there are so many museums in a relatively small city like Cape Town: to ask what makes remembering especially important to the city of Cape Town.

Iziko Museums of South Africa CEO, Rooksana Omar, gives some clues. Speaking about the role that the museums play, she mentioned their part in shaping one’s knowledge and understanding of the world, and of their urban space. She emphasised the educational role of museums:

“We want to be able to influence young people to engage with society and their own histories, and to help ensure that young people can think creatively and critically. We want people to ask questions and stand up for their convictions. Our museums are resources that need to be exploited for their knowledge, entertainment and cultural value.”

The Slave Lodge is one of the Cape Town museums endeavouring to do just that. It is housed in a former slave lodge as the name suggest. Built in the 17th century it was meant to house enslaved peoples brought to the Cape Colony to work for the Dutch East India Company. The people were brought from Dutch controlled Asian territories, and from the East African coastal countries.

The museum’s exhibits examine this history, digging a bit into the backgrounds of those who were brought here to the point of trying to identify which countries in particular. In some cases they tell stories of particular enslaved peoples where known. Importantly however, the museum is there to show how deeply formerly enslaved people changed Cape Town as a city, and ultimately South Africa as a country. It is said, for example, that Afrikaans, one of the official languages of South Africa, was born out of an amalgamation of Dutch, indigenous Khoi languages, and the various languages that enslaved peoples spoke. This mix of peoples and cultures has also resulted in the Coloured population of South Africa.

I found the exhibits remarkable in their dedication to researching and digging to humanise people who were historically dehumanised. It is laudable for a nation to admit to those parts of its history that are not pretty and to celebrate how they have been changed by them. Moreover, the global history of slavery is not often known, researched or discussed outside of the Trans-Atlantic trade. This museum does a bit to rectify that.

Another region often overlooked even when discussing the Trans-Atlantic trade is Congo-Angola. Most scholars and the popular imagination focus on West Africa. It might be because that discourse is mainly in English whereas the people taken from Congo-Angola often ended up in Brazil, Haiti and other Caribbean countries (including New Orleans, which was French-controlled at the time) that aren’t English speaking. I will be teaching dances from this region in my dance class this week, and the forms they took when they were transported across the ocean so perhaps that is why I had the history of slavery on my mind.

One difference between Cape Town and other places is this: they remember where others don’t. Where is the museum commemorating slavery on the Kenyan coast where some of our cities were slave ports? Or along the East African coast? Omar was not remiss in pointing out that museums are also a source of economic development, bringing people into the city (and into the country) to explore stories and histories. Nairobi, where I am from, has 3 or 4 museums that I can count. Mombasa even fewer. Remembering and creating spaces for memory is not only educational, cathartic, and formative, it can also boost a city’s economy.

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