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The role of museums in slavery and apartheid education

On Tuesday, I had the privilege of sitting down with Paul Tichmann (curator of the Iziko Social History Collection and former curator of the Iziko Slave Lodge Museum), Shanaaz Galant (curator at the Iziki Museums), and Lungile Gadezweni (Castle Museum Educator.)

Thank you so much for giving your time today. The purpose of this interview is to talk about ways in which the Iziko Museums, such as the Slave Lodge, and use what is learned to improve social justice and anti-bias teaching practices in the US. How do you approach working with teachers and students when it comes to addressing issues of race, racism, and apartheid?

PT: There is a focus on using oral histories, which I think often bring in an emphasis on the past. What’s interesting is that schools have been coming to talk to us and the museum to prepare students for these topics. They want to learn about the people who have brought about democracy like Nelson Mandela, but interestingly also a big focus on the Black Consciousness Movement with people such as Steve Biko. But also because learners are encouraged to focus on locality, we have very interesting histories of people. This tactic is used to bring in a non racial aspect because learners go out to speak with their parents and others to learn more. It’s quite a range all within that theme of change and democracy. With the Slave Lodge, we move the focus from human wrongs to human rights.

How young are students?

LG: We are guided by their grades, so we go from grade 6 and up. Although we mention important leaders and the geographic setting, we also focus on religion with them. We have Christianity and Islam. In our history, Christianity is regarded as the “superpower” religion, while Islam is associated with the working class.

SG: We get a lot of young learners, and studying places of worship is one of their lessons. To add on to what Lungile was saying about worship and religion, the emancipation period is important. Many enslaved people chose Islam as a religion, and they had to practice it covertly because it was illegal under the Dutch. It was working class in a sense, but it was also a CHOICE for them, and I think it’s very important for us to link that choice and agency to activism.

PT: The museum focus is more on high school, which is something we’ve recognized and lamented. The Slave Lodge is a bit high level for young learners, but one still needs exhibits that appeal to the young. We need to find a way to tell the stories through the eyes of a younger child.

SG: A few years ago, we had a class of 7 or 8 year olds that ended up visiting the Slave Lodge. These little kids got all excited about the chains and the whips on display. Sometimes they do understand it, but we don’t have the right facilities as it is for them to understand this history in an empathetic way. Educators have to physically be there to navigate them through the space.

PT: The recreation of the slave deck does make an impact. We’ve had teachers who have their students stand in the confined space and think about how it would feel to be in that space for three months and be taken from their homes. The students became quite emotional.

Do you think schools do a good job educating their students about your history of slavery and apartheid? I have a lot of curiosity because our Civil Rights era ended in the 60’s and our era of slavery ended over a hundred years ago, yet it’s sometimes left out and forgotten because our students parents didn’t even live through it. I’m curious about your schools, because your history of apartheid is much more fresh and recent than ours. Is it possible to still sweep it under the rug, or are schools upfront and honest with students?

PT: I do think a similar amnesia is creeping in. When I was with school groups, I would ask the learners if they know what apartheid is, and I would be stuck sometimes that some would not know, and apartheid that wasn’t that far back.

LG: When you talk about slavery, it’s a long distance back in history. As curators, we close that gap.

How do you focus on the reconciliation piece? After apartheid, there were trials and attempts to reconcile and heal, which the US has never tried with any marginalized group of people. Do you feel that it has made a big impact with youth to come together and talk about healing?

PT: We are fortunate because we had a Mandela. From the moment of his release, he spoke of reconciliation. He walked out of prison and picks up this white child. This was a gesture that had quite an impact and I think partly because of that, there has been a focus on reconciliation. Yes, we’ve been through this traumatic past but we need to build a united future. It’s not unproblematic! But many people feel there was a lot of truth but not a lot of reconciliation.

SG: To me, Mandela was very clever and what he did was very important. But it was very calculated because it was a very big job because there could have been a lot of violence. Blacks are the majority in South Africa, so it was crucial that we had TRC happen. We are trying to use museum narrative to write and rewrite, and acknowledge that there are many problems in our country. Violence, abuse towards women, poverty, unemployment, stemming from BEFORE apartheid. It’s all connected, all one line of oppression, which is something we need to highlight.

Most people deal with a subtle form of racism that you feel through policies, and we’re not treated equally. We have a lot of issues and we are thinking and talking about it in our spaces, but our museums should be reflecting it more, but we’re all continuously processing it.

LG: The other thing is that we are the Resource Center, supporting schools. Step back though. There is unemployment, the Rand is low. How do you even take your student to school? We have budgets, but the students who live in the townships… We can’t cover for all. Those who can afford will come.

SG: In terms of access, we try to do a lot. This is City Center, so the schools here are affluent. The majority of Black schools are in the townships. For them to get here, it’s nearly impossible.

How do you think teaching and talking about these topics have changed over 10 years?

SG: People are getting more impatient and more radical and more desperate. People are without work and without opportunity, especially education opportunity. People can’t feed themselves, so now we have this massive crime problem. I can’t even go into issues of gender and slavery. It’s not just racial, it has a lot to do with gender. The silence around it compounds the problem and it’s just getting worse. It’s all connected.

PT: Although we’ve had affirmative action enacted, people think it’s dealt with, but we still have the class division of the past that are still here, people in the townships are of a particular color, and yes there have been opportunities and changes, but for the majority, it’s still a problem.

Coming to the curriculum though, there’s now the history of slavery and apartheid in focus which is a good thing, but there are issues with the teacher education. Teacher preparation hasn’t kept up with the changes. You often hear rumblings about that.

The other thing that is strange in a sense is that there have been incidents of schools having huge problems with teachers tossing out students because of their hair styles. It sounds silly, but it’s happened at quite a few schools in major cities. There are huge debates over cultural sensitivity, and people need to understand that people have different types of hair. On one hand we have this great planning and new curriculum, but on the other, these issues of tolerance and racism among teachers.

Is that common?

PT: It happens more often than it should. Recently there’s been a case going to court and the teacher got frustrated with a child, used a racist term, and slapped the child. The parents found out by accident when the child refused to go back to school. The principal tried not to make a big deal of it by saying the teacher had already resigned.

LG: These issues will also be found in the most affluent areas. This tells you that we still need healing.

SG: You have this old guard that still controls a lot of our spaces. Then you have youth that didn’t grow up with that mentality, and are now challenging the hierarchies. Institutions are built on tradition, and a lot of these people in charge are the old guard, you can see just by their ages. The older some of the teachers are, more difficulties will be faced because the young are challenging these beliefs. They are going through something very difficult. It’s different because it’s a different time and space, but the same struggle against racism and inequality.

If students were to come into the Slave Lodge knowing nothing, where would you begin?

LG: You start with the basics. For instance, “What is a slave?” Even though you might know, how do you become one? You add questions, “Were they happy? Did they have rights, as you do as children?” You look at the self. You ask a child, “Are you a slave?” From there, it takes you step by step.

PT: Also, get them to look around and think about the city we live in and how it was built. What are the oldest buildings and who built them? We’ve been through a past where we were taught to be ashamed of our ancestry, but it was THOSE people who built what we have today. Slavery was a foundation for what followed the migrant labor system, on whose backs the wealth of this country was built. It’s about the story you tell. It’s really about stories, and for me when I listen to the educators here they’re very good because they teach by telling stories.

SG: To the educators credit, they have to stay on top of everything, always having to contextualize. We get all types of learners and individuals. The very thing they perform is to fill in the gaps between history and today. That is where the magic happens.

LG: You probe. You ask questions and have them reflect on the present.

SG: It’s very important to have time and space to reflect. Learners need agency to create. You need to understand history, and where you come from. It makes you understand who you are and how you’re connected to others.

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