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The Politics of Representation in South African Museums

By 25th September 2019September 26th, 2019Articles

Not everything is as it seems or so the saying goes. Unfortunately, this seems to be the case when it comes to South African museums according to a paper authored by Durban Local History Museums (DLHM) museum officer, Ayanda Ngcobo.

A display from Bergtheil Museum, one of the museums which feature in Ayanda Ngcobo’s paper

In theory, museums should accurately reflect the histories of the communities they represent. In reality, in many South African museums and, indeed, many of the institutions in formerly colonised countries, this isn’t the case at all. The stories that museums tell are often times those of European settlers and their descendants as the majority of our museums were established during the colonial and apartheid eras. While new museums and exhibitions attempt to redress this imbalance, it seems that politics have yet again had an impact on representation in our museums. For example, the history of women and their contribution to society is largely unrepresented.

Ayanda’s paper, The Politics of Representation in South African Museums was published last year as part of the ICOFOM Study Series and is also available in our Resources section. In the paper she suggests that a way forward might be to record previously undocumented indigenous knowledge and create a link between museums and heritage scholars, many of whom are producing new knowledge and developing new insights. By establishing relationships between museums and institutions of higher learning, we may see a more accurate representation of the history of our communities, so that generations to come know the true story of their people, and that of their country.

To read the paper, The Politics of Representation in South African Museums, please visit the Papers & Publications section of the DLHM website

Image of Bergtheil Museum courtesy of