Review: Hostels, Homes, Museum: Memorialising migrant labour pasts in Lwandle, South Africa

Author(s) Noëleen Murray and Leslie Witz
Publisher UCT Press
Year 2014

Anyone who has travelled through the small towns of South Africa will know that the country is dotted with small museums. While they differ from place to place, there is a certain sameness about them, and it’s not just because one always seems to have to pass a collection of rusted agricultural implements at the entrance, or because the exhibits are down at heel. Referred to in some circles as ‘een tannie’ museums, visitors will often be confronted with photographs of long-dead often unnamed people, displays that include mute figures dressed in period costume, and the seemingly obligatory recreations of domestic interiors used to showcase ad hoc collections of obsolete machinery and utensils — the flotsam and jetsam of an indeterminate past.

The Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum is not like this. Touted as “the first township-based museum in the Western Cape” it’s located in a community hall in an area designated under apartheid as a ‘native location’. The museum tells the story of migrant labour, life in the hostels, the transformation of the area through the development of family accommodation after 1994 and segues seamlessly into the present with a display of Lwandle Designers.

While thought-provoking exhibits in the community hall form the basis for the narrative, the most poignant ‘artefact’ of the museum is Hostel 33, a remnant of an apartheid era compound that has been restored and ‘dressed’ as an integral part of the museum. Described in the book as ‘a tourist site, educational resource and as a memorial to the migrant labour system that underpinned apartheid’, it packs a powerful punch. It brings home, in unequivocal terms, the reality of life as a migrant labourer in an overcrowded hostel and evokes the presence, or absence, of family. Set a short distance away from the museum, in the midst of newly constructed family units, past and present sit seamlessly side-by-side. It wasn’t always so. Somewhere along the guided tour offered in this book the narrative shifts into the story of the museum and its making.

Hostels, Homes, Museum weaves together the complex strands in the biography of the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum. As the authors note, the history of the museum has been spelt out in many ways: through its own publicity, exhibitionary and archival practices, through conference papers, funding applications, project reports and a few reflective articles. Murray and Witz’s account does something different: it seeks to unpack the cohesiveness of the oft-related narrative and to self-consciously explore the museum’s ‘active involvement in the ways in which it constitutes its communities.’ This approach foregrounds the agency of the museum and allows the way in which it both acts upon, and is acted upon, by the world to unfold in all its multi-faceted complexity. In so doing it casts a fascinating light on ‘museum-making’, and the complex engagement of the Lwandle community, academics from the University of the Western Cape, provincial heritage authorities and others in memorialising migrant labour.

Divided into five chapters, and including two photographic essays, the book is a series of episodic reflections on ‘museumisation through materiality, institutionalism, visuality and orality’ by two authors who have been intimately connected to the museum since its earliest days (they are both museum board members).

Consciously avoiding the danger of falling into the trap of producing a triumphalist narrative, the authors lay bare the multiple inconsistencies and contradictions that mark the journey from hostel to home to museum. Chapter One deals with the beginnings of the museum against the background of the Hostels-to-Homes project and the museum’s province-aided status and outlines the authors’ approach and the dilemmas they faced. Chapter Two considers the rehabilitation of Hostel 33 and the conflicts and negotiations that characterised the process as the museum charted new territory. Much has been written, particularly in the Western Cape, about the notion of urban conservation and the need to protect the historic built environment. But little attention has been paid to the need to safeguard the structures that represent South Africa’s more difficult past in a manner that does not compromise their integrity or authenticity. The description of the restoration of the toilet cubicles attached to the hostel and the care with which this was approached characterises the museum’s approach to this matter, as does the process of ‘dressing’ the hostel described in Chapter Three. This chapter discusses the institutionalisation of the memorial project, and the need to shape the project to meet the rigid requirements of formal state heritage structures: not an easy task when these remain, to all intents and purposes, as far as museums go, are rooted in the past.

Chapter Four considers the various initiatives that contributed to the process of re-visioning the museum and the creation of a new and alternative archive. Richly textured photographic essays, by Paul Grendon and Thulani Nxumalo, and a wealth of black and white images spread through the text complement this chapter, conveying a sense of the museum as place and process. Chapter Five looks at the shift in the way in which oral histories have been used in the museum. While oral histories initially drove the exhibition development process, in later years exhibition imperatives drove the research process. The book ends with a deeply reflective postscript. Acknowledging the museum’s precarious history and the challenges associated with its unconventional process, it notes, almost in passing, its remarkable uniqueness. Unlike museums in other townships — Soweto and New Brighton for example, where iconic buildings have been constructed to share the national narrative of the triumph of resistance over oppression — the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum brings something different into view and gives it voice.

Hostels, Homes, Museum is an invaluable publication: an honest reflection on the complex process of museum making in South Africa in the twenty-first century. While the story it tells is specific to Lwandle, it captures the dilemmas of the post-apartheid museum landscape and offers a glimpse of what might be possible if these challenges are addressed thoughtfully and courageously. It should be of interest to anyone working in the fields of history and heritage and tourism and those concerned with the development and conservation of the urban environment.

 Jo-Anne Duggan is the Director of the Archival Platform, a civil society initiative committed to deepening democracy through the use of memory and archives as dynamic public resources.


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