thumbnail Rewriting history – how South Africa’s museums were designed to support apartheid


Research by a Newcastle University expert sheds new light on the deep seated practices the ruling elite in apartheid era South Africa used to spread their beliefs.

Dr Aron Mazel was the last Director of the South African Cultural History Museum.  While he was there, he became interested in how the museum came to be established and how it was used to reinforce apartheid.

Dr Mazel, now Director of the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University, decided to investigate further and his paper, Apartheid’s Child: The creation of the South African Cultural History Museum in the 1950s and 1960s, is published in the Museum History Journal.

It outlines how members of the white National party and the Afrikaner Broederbond recast and realigned museums to strengthen the ideas of apartheid, casting white culture as civilised and black culture as uncivilised and inferior.

They gained control of the South African Museum Board of Trustees and used their influence with the apartheid government to split the museum in Cape Town and established the South African Cultural History Museum in 1964, when Nelson Mandela and many of his comrades were sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to Robben Island.

The South African Cultural History Museum was committed to the presentation and housing of white South African and European material and history –  including, for example, the colonial history of the Cape and ancient civilisations, while black South African History, including Khoisan and Bantu-speaking inhabitants,  was represented in the South African Museum which specialised in natural history.

Dr Mazel said: “The creation of the SACHM was a profoundly political act, driven by proponents of apartheid who believed in the segregation of races in all aspects of life.

“When the South African Cultural History Museum was established the message it sent was extremely powerful.   The history of white South Africa and black South Africa was essentially split between the two museums – and this was entirely motivated to perpetuate the belief that whites were the superior race. So, white South African History and European history was linked to civilisation and advanced industrialised societies. Meanwhile black history was treated as natural history, perpetuating the idea that black South Africans were uncivilised and primitive and should be considered alongside animals.

“The museum’s creation is a prime example of how a museum can be used to support a political idea.”
The South African Cultural Heritage Museum was merged into Iziko: Museums of South Africa in 1999 along with the South African Museum and three other museums, bringing these museums together in the same organisation after a split of 35 years.


published on: 13th December 2013

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