In South Africa much of our recorded history is housed in museums, libraries, and archives. This may be objects in museum collections or documentary records lodged in archives. Covid-19 has highlighted questions of access to cultural institutions. However, the issue of access to museums collections is not a new one.
By the early 1990s, towards the end of apartheid, all major museums in South Africa were located in the largest cities with little access for much of the population, especially those in rural areas. These Declared Cultural Institutions (DCIs) often reflected a bias towards colonial cultural forms, white ‘civilisation’ and links to European heritage. Significant efforts have been made in the post-apartheid era to make museum’s more responsive to, and representative of, the majority of South Africans who were previously excluded from these institutions – both physically in terms of access and in how their histories and cultures were represented. The results of these efforts include community museums like the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum and the Durban Local History Museums’ own Mpumalanga Heritage Museum.
Digital access to museum collections?
In an increasingly digital world, many will say that digitisation and providing digital access are the solutions. But it is important to remember that they are not a silver bullet. There are a number of factors to consider when digitising and putting physical collections online. Cultural practitioners need staff or external service providers with the necessary skills to digitise the material. Once it has been digitised, they need to add metadata to it to make it digitally searchable and also choose the correct software (collections management system) with which to make it available it to the general public. All of this has time, resource and, importantly, cost implications, particularly when ongoing maintenance, updates to software, new technologies and changing institutional priorities need to be taken into account. Safety is also a concern as once a digital collection is available online, so is information about the physical holdings. Potential thieves might target the institution to get their hands on the original artefact. Covid-19 has put digital ways of interacting in the spotlight and museologists in South Africa, amongst others, are exploring new ways of interacting at a distance with their audiences. What this will result in remains to be seen…