North-East expert sheds new light on how apartheid chiefs used museums to spread beliefs

The Northern Echo: Dr Aron Mazel Dr Aron Mazel

A NORTH-EAST expert has shed new light on how the ruling elite in apartheid-era South Africa spread their beliefs – through the design of their museums.

Newcastle University lecturer Dr Aron Mazel - the last director of the South African Cultural History Museum (SACHM) - developed an interest in how the museum came to be established and how it was used to reinforce apartheid.

Now director of the International Centre for Cultural and Heritage Studies at Newcastle University, he decided to investigate further, resulting in his paper, Apartheid’s Child: The creation of the South African Cultural History Museum in the 1950s and 1960s.

The paper, published in the Museum History Journal, 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.

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 civilizations.

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 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.

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