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Museum in a Box – Using Technology to Reclaim Local Histories and Make Them More Accessible

By 3rd November 2020November 18th, 2020Exhibitions

Museum in a Box is an innovative project that aims to make history accessible for all. It does this by taking exhibitions outside of the conventional museum space, placing them into little boxes, and using a small computer and 3D-printed models to tell stories in local languages.

An isiZulu-speaking group of artists and educators in KwaZulu-Natal named the Amagugu Ethu/Our Treasures collective, are using this technology to make South African history more accessible to a population that historically has been excluded from museum. Collaborating with Museum in a Box, the team of local experts have chosen artefacts from the Zulu collections at Cape Town’s Iziko Museum to be shared across the country. The museums in boxes use a Raspberry-Pi computer device and 3D-printed artefacts to make history tangible and readily available. When placed onto the small computer device, a narrative accompanies each 3D-model and learners can engage with local histories even if they cannot see the original, physical artefacts. This makes historical artefacts accessible, both in terms of location and language.

Added to this innovation is the fact that the voices speak in local languages, in this case, isiZulu. The creator of this box, Nini Xulu, notes that this is both “emotional and affirming.” The project seeks to tackle cultural bias towards colonial histories and reclaim erasures of the past. In the time of Covid-19, it also enables people to engage with history without needing to travel.

Museum in a Box

Redefining the Past – One Box at a Time

While museums are vital spaces in which history is preserved, and important stories are remembered, they are also complex spaces, especially in formerly colonised regions. It is important to ask what histories are being presented, who originally documented them, why and under which conditions. Colonial powers frequently erased local accounts and took important or valuable artefacts so that they could showcase them in their own, European museums. Cultural institutions, like museums, are often contentious spaces, reflecting the dominance of colonial powers and the erasure of indigenous communities from the historical records of their own countries. Even today debates about ownership and returning these artefacts to their countries of origin, prevail.

At the beginning of 2020, 12 African heads of state, including Cyril Ramaphosa, agreed that it was necessary to “speed up the return of cultural assets” that are still held captive by former colonial states. This conversation emerged amid growing calls for Europe to decolonise their museums. While technological innovations might not get these artefacts back to their rightful place, they do enable locals to engage with important parts of history that were taken away and misrepresented. Significant items that might otherwise be forgotten.

Although the people who once used these artefacts are no longer around to tell their stories, the Museum in a Box project does give people a chance to see history in a new light. Dr. Laura Gibson, who spearheaded the South African project with her colleagues, writes:

“For this group, artefacts dismissed by museums as pots, medicine containers, herbs or beadwork — objects chosen in colonial and apartheid days to “prove” how little civilised Africans were — have rich histories and significance that resonate today. What the box does is give space to narrate these unwritten stories on their own terms.”

The Iziko Museums’ storerooms during a workshop in Cape Town, 2019

A Step in the Right Direction but Redress Still Needed

Channelling technology is a step in the right direction if we want to navigate our past in new ways, allowing multiple perspectives and inputs and trying to reclaim, or reenvision, histories that were previously silenced. It is also imperative if we want all South Africans to be able to access our wealth of cultural artefacts. However, there is a long way to go if we are to remedy these historical erasures, and this is simply a stepping stone towards rectifying these past wrongs. The project makes history more accessible, both in terms of language and physical availability. It also seeks to instil a sense of pride in the history of local communities, as do the Durban Local History Museums’ Mpumalanga Heritage Museum and the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum, which aim to represent the past from different perspectives. However, for redress to occur, Dr Gibson feels that the repatriation of artefacts is also needed:

“Being low-cost and portable, the box provides people access in places where internet connectivity is limited and expensive. It is not a substitute for doing the soul-searching political work of repatriating the artefacts; decolonisation is more than repatriation, but cannot happen without it.”

Thus, while much has been done to “make museums more responsive to, and representative of the majority of South Africans who were previously excluded from these institutions”, there is still a way to go. Museum in a Box is one project that seeks to bridge gaps in accessibility and broaden engagement. For more information on the Museum in a Box Project, visit their website.

Images courtesy of Museum in a Box and Mail & Guardian.