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