Representation of the San in Contested Moments in Museum History: Three Moments of San Display

By Medeé Rall.

Published by The International Journal of the Inclusive Museum

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

This paper argues that museums are not neutral spaces, but spaces in which representations are contested. This is exemplified by an analysis of three different moments in the display of the San at the South African Museum. Early cultural and natural history museums in South Africa, based on dominant discourses of the time, were based on the classificatory division between the disciplines of western societies and ethnology that focused on traditions, life, and habits of indigenous peoples. In the first moment, in the early twentieth century when the evolutionary discourse was dominant, the San casts were displayed in glass display cases devoid of identity, social, or historical context. They were described as “specimens”, reflecting scientific endeavour of the time. The second moment, some fifty years later, reflects a shift in discourse with the ecological discourse becoming dominant. People, predominantly indigenous peoples, and animals were displayed in habitat groups, or dioramas. In this moment, the San were displayed in an idealised camp scene. In the third moment, under pressure due to changing political circumstances, attempts were made to give the San an identity and an historical context. A social semiotic multimodal analysis of these moments over a century gives credence to the argument that museum displays of culture cannot be neutral but are problematic, contested, and inverted.

Keywords: Multimodal Social Semiotics, Museum Representation, Discourse Ideology

International Journal of the Inclusive Museum, Volume 4, Issue 4, pp.41-58. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 5.052MB).

Medeé Rall

Director, Centre for Open Learning, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa

Medeé Rall holds a Bachelor of Arts, a Diploma for educators of adults, a Masters Degree in education from the University of Cape Town, and is currently registered for a Ph.D, also at the University of Cape Town. She is currently the director of the Centre for Open Learning at the University of Cape Town. Previously she worked at Iziko Museums of Cape Town as coordinator of publications and at Progress College as an educator. She has also worked as an adult educator, teaching English literacy. Her research interests are museums as spaces of literacy provision, museums and lifelong learning, and multimodal communication in museums. Publications include Spirits of the ancestors, The students at the South African Museum speak, and Reinventing South African Museum. She received the Western Cape Provincial Award–Adult Learner’s Week in 2001 and 2002 for work done in a literacy class based at the South African Museum.


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