Rebekah Williams, Public Health and Development in South Africa, Spring 2014
We’ve been quite busy here finishing up exams (yes those do in fact actually exist here). But before our exam season started we traveled to Johannesburg for a four-day trip before flying to Kruger. To be quite honest our time in JoBurg wasn’t filled with too many highlights…which isn’t at all the fault of the program. In the middle of one of our excursions to a historical church in Soweto our entire group was simultaneously attacked by travelers diarrhea. Despite this funky sickness, we were able to visit two museums in Johannesburg that took my breath away and remain in my mind still weeks after. The first visit was to the Hector Pieterson Museum in Orlando West, Soweto. It’s only two blocks away from where in 1976 a 13-year-old Hector Pieterson was shot and killed by the police when they opened fire on a group of protesting students. Soweto was alive with student protests to the use of Afrikaans in instruction in the classroom. It symbolized years of struggle and oppression and students wanted no part of it. The iconic photo of Hector’s lifeless body being carried away by his brother and his weeping sister running beside them sparked attention to the upheaval happening in Soweto. The world turned its gaze to South Africa as it exploded into bloody rioting. When we visited the museum we had the opportunity to hear from Hector’s sister, the same one in the image, about that day, the creation of the museum and the legacy her brother has for the South African people. Her moving words also described the symbolism behind the creation of the museum and how each element of the walkway, the stone layout and shrubbery locations were designed to be representative of the protest movement and the lives lost in it.
Probably one of my highlights on this entire trip was our visit to the Apartheid Museum. I was captivated by the museum’s use of symbolism throughout its design. From the point of entry guests are given passes which identified them as either black, colored or white; just as in the apartheid era. Guests pass through separate entrances through the museum based on these passes. They walk through a small hallway filled with real passbooks individuals carried. As they exit, “black passbooks” walk up stairs to reunite with the whole group while “white passbooks” walk up a ramp. Once reunited, the tour guide explains that the reason for this difference is to reiterate the fact of the struggle blacks and coloreds underwent compared to the privilege whites have historically been given. These types of small symbolic reminders were found throughout the entire museum. They pushed you to think a little bit more about the images and words you saw in the museum. It forced the museum to enthrall all your senses and moved it beyond simply a one-dimensional experience. Because of these tools, it’s probably why weeks later I still cannot get that experience out of my mind.
I’ve gotten so swept up into the idea of museum symbolism, I’ve begun to search for fellowships and internships about museum curating and historical investigation. Mind you I’m a sociology and global health student…entering my senior year. It’s a bit too late in the game to switch to an art history or history degree! But it’s as if like a light bulb just went off in my head that reminded me how I used to take piles of history books home from the library as an 8-year-old and read through them over night. But I digress! If I do, however, end up working in the Smithsonian one day I’ll only have beautiful South Africa to thank for teaching me yet another lesson.