Museum Review: Cape Town

I recently visited Cape Town and, as is my responsibility as a museum enthusiast, tried to visit as many museums and historical sites as possible. This was slightly difficult as it was the December holiday period, and many museums were closed. They all listed dates of closure on their websites, but in actuality they were closed for more days than listed: the excuse given by locals was that because Christmas was on a Sunday, everybody took the next two days off instead of just one day. (OK, sure.)

First, Kirstenbosch Gardens. The last time I was there I was less than ten years old, barely as tall as the agapanthus. It’s a really wonderful botanic garden showing the extensive variety of plants from the Table Mountain fynbos region and further north – the Namibian desert plants were quite spectacular. The fynbos is a unique ecosystem of tremendous biodiversity adapted to an arid environment. I hiked up Table Mountain four times, and each route had remarkably different vegetation specifically adapted for local shade, wind, and rain runoff. Kirstenbosch has a “boomslang”, or canopy walk, for visitors to admire the treetop flora and fauna; if we’d actually seen some fauna it would have been awesome, but it was not to be.

Next I visited the South African Museum. Most of the museums in Cape Town are part of an organization called Iziko, which sets standard prices and presumably consolidates direction and curation. All the Iziko museums were 30 rand; student entry was 15, but only if one has an ISIC card. I decided the difference in price, which worked out to just over a dollar, was not enough to buy an international student card, and I’d rather the meager (for me) entry go to funding the museum. The SA Museum is your average natural history museum – not particularly impressive compared to the NHM or AMNH, but similar in scope, with halls of taxidermy and a multi-story gallery of whale skeletons. They really shone in the exhibit on rock art, though: it had some of the most culturally-aware interpretation I’ve seen, and really thoughtful placards featuring quotes from interviews about traditional San medicine and rock art meaning. Additionally, the introduction to the ethnographic gallery should be used in every museum that still has displays of (non-white) traditional practices, although they could have used more explanation on the collection of body casts (but perhaps I’m still on a rant from Museum of the Normal). Sadly, the museums suffer from a severe lack of funding. In many rooms, the lights were out, the walls had leaks and mold, and one case contained a dead lizard that was definitely not meant to be there.

Across the Company’s Garden, originally planted by the Dutch East India Company (VOC) to feed their merchants when Cape Town was a re-supply point on the route to the Far East, is the Slave Lodge, which was the original prison for slaves working for the VOC or the city. The temporary exhibit in the entry was about Tweede Nuwe Jaar, Cape Town’s carnival celebrated on January 2nd. The permanent exhibit about slavery, including a long video (most of the museums had a 15+ minute introductory video), a reproduction slave ship segment, and a hall of remembrance, were devastating. Interestingly, most of the slaves brought to Cape Town were Malay and Indonesian rather than West African, the latter being brought to the Americas rather than further south. Many of them were given names based on the month they arrived, and a photographic exhibit featured 12 interviewees whose surnames are months, making a calendar of sorts. Local Khoekhoe individuals were not enslaved, but were pressed into indentured servitude. The first half of the first floor of the museum was very informative. The second half was about the struggle to end apartheid, with another video and large placards. However, I felt that these seemed to be more evocative than informative, and the focus on oral history without artifacts (or with replica artifacts and a prison cell) was not very effective for me as basically a tourist with little knowledge of events like the Sharpeville massacre. The second floor was an odd mix of ancient Egyptian artifacts and 20th-century African and European domestic objects (silverware, pottery, jewellery) with little to link it to the history on the first floor. There was a marvellous temporary exhibit of ishishweshwe, an African fabric traditionally printed in blue. I realized that the first skirt I ever sewed was with ishishweshwe from Durban.

The Bo-Kaap Museum celebrates Cape Malay history in a house in the Bo-Kaap neighborhood, where all the houses are painted different colors as a sign of independence. Once again, it began with a rather long video interviewing local residents about their relationship to the area, which – as an area close to the city center – is gentrifying. The museum is only four rooms, one of which had the video and one of which was a historic kitchen with no placards. There were also tours of the neighborhood, which we didn’t take as they felt a bit poverty-tourism.

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The Bo-Kaap neighborhood

I really enjoyed the Maritime Centre. This museum doesn’t have very many objects, and despite being smack in the middle of the waterfront, it seems to not get much foot traffic; my mom and I were the only visitors then. It’s about Cape Town’s history as a port, first for trade and then for transport. My parents told me about riding passenger lines around the coast, and the museum even had a scale model of the ship they took! There’s also a maritime library, which seems like an invaluable resource. I’m rather obsessed with ships and trains, so I’m pleased I found out about this one.

Finally, we went to the Castle of Good Hope. Constructed in 1666, this was the second fort built to guard the harbor, and as far as I know it has never been attacked. I was a bit disappointed by the lack of information. I probably found out more about the castle’s history from the website than from the actual site visit. Many areas were closed for restoration, but we did go into the second-in-command’s house, stocked with original Dutch-imported furniture, and the prison, which had amazing historic graffiti. It was a nice day to walk along the castle walls and pretend to guard the city (though not the harbor, because there’s been significant land reclamation in the last 350 years), but it probably would have been more informative to take the tour.

Scattered around the Cape, particularly the shore and places of natural beauty, are placards with information about geology or history. I was pleased to learn about the stratigraphy of the rock beaches and the rock dassies and warnings about baboon behavior, but was left distressed after learning that Jan van Riebeeck parked his ships in the middle of a Khoekhoe grazing route, forever disrupting their herding strategies and forcing them into lives of servitude. Very much “we put a flag on it.

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View from near Judas Peak

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