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On-line version ISSN 2309-9585
Print version ISSN 0259-0190

Kronos vol.34 n.1 Cape Town Nov. 2008




'Digging [D]eeper than the eye approves'1: oral histories and their use in the Digging Deeper exhibition of the district Six Museum



Chrischené Julius

History Department, University of the Western Cape and District Six Museum



In this article the role of oral history practice and its relation to the exhibitionary and curatorial practice of the District Six Museum is explored. Its focus is on the 2000 exhibition known as Digging Deeper, in order to examine the precedents for how oral histories are actively translated, managed and staged within a museum setting.

The District Six Museum works with the memories of the former residents of an area situated in the heart of Cape Town that was destroyed by the Group Areas Act. Located on the slopes of Devil's Peak, District Six developed from a community of freed slaves as well as those immigrants who found lodging in the area after disembarkation at Cape Town's harbour. 'The District' was known as an area with a rich political, musical, cultural and architectural history. It was characterized by a large working-class community whose members found employment in the city and its immediate surrounds. In February 1966, District Six was proclaimed a 'White Group Area', and over a period of thirty years 66 000 people were removed to areas on the Cape Flats on the outskirts of the city. Buildings that were used for commercial purposes, living quarters, educational, cultural and religious activities, were bulldozed. As a result of the piecemeal removal, residents both witnessed and lived with the physical destruction of their neighborhoods. By the early 1980s the empty landscape of District Six became a scarred one - evoking memories of the tightly-knit community as well as the trauma of removal. The District Six community's forced removal, and ex-residents' memories of growing up, living and working in the area, is a central feature of the Museum's work and exhibitions.

The origins of the District Six Museum lie in the Hands off District Six campaign of the late 1980s which sought to galvanize resistance to plans by British Petroleum (BP) to redevelop District Six. A Hands off District Six conference was held in 1988 with the involvement of a broad range of community-based organisations. The District Six site, approximately 42 hectares, was proclaimed 'salted earth' and a group of conference participants was tasked to develop a memorial project around the area. The programme for the conference included sessions and efforts to visualise and 'perform' District Six, and included slide presentations, videos, poetry readings and a photographic exhibition.2 In support of the mandate to mobilise memories around the area, a District Six commemoration week took place four years later in 1992.3 The photographic exhibition which launched this week also served as the launch of the District Six Museum project. The exhibition included the work of six photographers as well as 'material from personal records and archival sources'.4 In a similar vein to that of the Hands Off conference, processions to the District Six site, poetry, plays, music and audio-visual presentations comprised the commemorative week's events. The programme components of the Hands Off conference and the commemorative week underscored a broad acknowledgement of the importance of performance and visuality in sustaining and evoking meanings around District Six. The launch of the museum project together with a photographic exhibition, and the accompanying performances of poetry, music as well as a narrated audio-visual presentation, is significant for the supportive context it provided for the recall of testimonies by ex-residents.5

The success of the1992 photographic exhibition further sanctioned the use of a Methodist Church building in Buitenkant Street as the site of any future museum of District Six. The Museum was constructed as a space where one was able to articulate a sense of the razed spaces of District Six and its communal life, as well as one where that community could be mobilised towards the objective of land restitution. Oral history and testimonies were key features of the Museum. Alongside these testimonies, however, ranged the debate around the appropriate form a District Six memorial project could take, one that would take into account the active participation of ex-residents. Today, while the institutional character and organisational structure reflects on a superficial level the features of a Museum, it is in the contestation of these that spaces were created where the role of oral history - as a dynamic methodological element - was emphasized as an example of both a curatorial and research practice.6

The visual history of the Museum cannot be recounted without a brief description of the two seminal exhibitions that have been crucial for thinking about how oral histories have been used in its exhibitionary strategy. These are Streets: Retracing District Six, which opened in 1994, and the main focus of this work, Digging Deeper, which opened in 2000.


Streets: Retracing District Six (1994)

The exhibition which marked the official opening of the District Six Museum was that of Streets: Retracing District Six, which looked at the people and streets that made up the District. Its aim was 'not to recreate District Six as much as repossess the history of the area as a place where people lived, worked, loved and struggled'.7 Central to the exhibition were three curatorial features, namely the street/floor map of District Six, the 75 original blue and white street signs salvaged by the foreman of the demolition team tasked with razing the area, and a length of calico on which ex-residents could write remembrances and messages about District Six.

The floor map was an artistic rendering of the geographical boundaries of District Six. It was hand-painted and was covered with a protective layer of transparent plastic. Situated along the edges of the map were artists' and poets' prints, poems and paintings depicting life in and experiences of the District. The names of streets were printed by hand (in the same blue of the original street signs) and ex-residents were encouraged to inscribe the names of streets, institutions, as well as family names, onto the surface of the map.8 The map was centrally located in the centre of the church building.

At the northern end of the map, clearly visible as one entered the building from Buitenkant Street, hung three columns of street signs in ladder-like formation. At the base of each column was an 'archaeology box' made of perspex which contained soil and fragments from an archaeological excavation conducted in District Six. The length of calico mentioned above was situated just alongside the pulpit of the old Methodist Church. This length of the calico became known as the memory-cloth.

Along the map, alongside the western wall of the church, were five alcoves depicting the interiors of five streets in District Six, namely Hanover, Horstley, Tyne, Vernon Terrace and Constitution Streets. A number of portraits of community leaders and public figures from District Six were printed onto transparent architectural paper and hung in the gallery space, between the balustrades, looking down onto the central area of the church. The eastern wall of the exhibition was populated with historical information and photographs, as well as artistic representations of District Six. Streets is considered the curatorial framework for all other exhibitions held in the Museum space since 1994.


Digging Deeper (2000)

Digging Deeper - the exhibition that marked the opening of the newly renovated Museum space - is considered one of many exhibitions that have been added to the core Streets exhibition. While the role of Streets was to speak to the lives of individuals in District Six, Digging Deeper's focus began to include the value of its history for a broader South African society. As noted in the exhibition guide:

Digging Deeper engages with the multiple ways in which the collections, resources and spaces of the Museum are used, and expresses the central intention of the Museum to enquire into the pasts of South African society and the workings of memory.9

In the Methodist Church there are three interlinking exhibitionary spaces which house the exhibition. The core of the exhibition is contained within the main hall of the church, while temporary exhibitions and displays are found in an interleading passage space and the Memorial Hall which is located at the back of the main hall.

The main hall of the church is a double volume space that contains the ground floor and gallery area. The street map of the District created for Streets retains its foothold in the centre of the church. The original District Six street signs are now constructed into a single, four sided pillar that rises to the ceiling of the church. At the centre of the pillar is a mound of earth, symbolising the earth of the District Six site. An embroidered memory cloth can be found near the entrance of the Museum, and is mounted as part of the exhibition. Two lengths of calico - one for visitors and the other for ex-residents, are located near the pulpit, and continue to capture messages of ex-residents and visitors to the space.

The ground floor of the main hall is dedicated to the broader socio-political narrative of District Six. Timeline panels - form the spine of this narrative namely: Arrivals/Formation (1800s - 1930), Resistance (1930 -1970), Restitution and Demolition (1970s to the present day). These are located along the walls of the hall. A theme that focuses on the 'interior' spaces of the District is reflected in the construction of Nomvuyo's Room alongside the map on the ground floor, and is a reconstruction of a room occupied by Nomvuyo Ngcelwane and her family when they lived in District Six. Nomvuyo's Room contains a soundscape (a collage of oral history testimony, music and excerpts from old radio programmes), as does another 'interior' located on the upper floor, Rod's Room.

The upper floor of Digging Deeper is divided into six alcoves. The alcoves are representations of different social spaces in District Six. These are the Bloemhof Flats, Barbershop/ Hairdresser, Langarm Bands, Places of Work, Public Washhouse, Hanover Street and Bioscopes and Carnival. In the Barbershop/Hairdresser alcove a soundscape comprising the voices of District Six barbers and hairdressers may be heard. In the Langarm alcove, one hears a recording of music. The portrait gallery, a series of portraits from a 'wide cross-section of District Six inhabitants' is suspended along the balustrades of the upper floor. 10

At present there are two features of the Memorial Hall. Firstly, a recent exhibition entitled Memory Traces (2005) speaks to the Museum's shift towards working with, and on the site of, a redeveloped District Six. A proposed memorial park at Horstley Street - the site of one of the first forced removals in 1901 and the last in the early 1980s - is the focus of the exhibition. A permanent feature of the hall is an artistic rendition of the foundations of a Horstley Street house, which is sunken into the Memorial Hall floor. Brightly lit, this 'sunken cavity' depicts archaeological fragments and shards excavated from Horstley Street. As noted in the guide to Digging Deeper, the foundations represent a 'space symbolic of the layering of lives that accrued within those simple boundaries'.11

The second and more permanent feature of the Memorial Hall is that of the 'Writer's Floor'. It consists of painted tiles of poetry and prose embedded in the floor. These tiles reflect writers' experiences of District Six and Cape Town. The hall is seen as a space for temporary exhibitions which reflect the theme of 'beyond District Six'

A range of components make up the Digging Deeper exhibition. Enlarged, hand-tinted photocopies of images from the area, as well as enlarged historical maps, form the backdrop to the displays. Photographs are an important part of the display and take the form of family photographs from family albums, echoing their source. Their significance, as noted by one of the curators of Digging Deeper and a Museum trustee, lies in their value as the 'records of lives and identities, forming elements of a recovered public history'.12 Artefacts may also be found on display. The use of text - as interpretive exhibition text or extracts from oral history interviews - is a key feature of the exhibition.

The origin moments of the District Six Museum in the 1980s, and later its official opening in the year of the first democratic election in 1994, has both directly and indirectly framed the Museum's approach to uncovering the history of District Six. The 1980s, a period during which social and popular history movements became key in the writing of a progressive South African history strongly influenced the early 'institutional' language of the Museum. Thus the focus of its early displays was to render the hidden voices of a District Six story in a public forum where they could be recovered. This rendering was often identified as an organic process, one which sprung from the ex-resident's need to narrate and share their stories about District Six, and the trauma of being forcibly removed from the area. The Museum, in its tentative phase of becoming a more formalised institution, provided a receptive space where these stories were told, heard, and co-operatively incorporated into its displays. Its agency, however, in ensuring that these voices were heard by others and made visible, became a key role that defined its own institutional narrative and was later re-narrated institutionally as well. Situated in a newly renovated space, the new Digging Deeper exhibition signified attempts to bring to the fore the importance of District Six not only to its ex-residents, but also to a broader Cape Town and national public. One of the ways sought to signify this importance was through the voices of ex-residents themselves. Within a framework where 'expressive elements [were] woven together in an interrelated whole',13 oral histories, particularly life histories, became the basis through which the story of forced removals and experiences of District Six were narrated.

The body of work available on oral history - how to conduct interviews, how it may be used, and the construction of meaning from interviews - is vast. However, key to this study has been a reading of oral histories as a constituent part of oral, literary and performative contexts - contexts which ultimately shape the orality of spoken traditions and storytelling. 14 The work of Isabel Hofmeyr in collecting oral historical narratives around the siege of Makapansgat has been useful for thinking through how oral narrative and the telling of oral historical tradition have not been 'pure' renditions of the siege, but have drawn from the interplay between oral, literary and performative accounts of the event.15 In identifying how elements of the oral and literary representations of the forced removals were used in exhibitionary form, and taking into consideration the performance of interviews within the exhibition space, Hofmeyr's position that oral historical tradition cannot be divorced from the socio-political contexts that have shaped it, provides a foothold into thinking of oral history practice as a context-specific practice, particularly in relation to how its products are disseminated and consumed within an exhibitionary strategy.

Therefore, a key focus of this work is on how the poetics of exhibiting oral histories may be brought to the fore. As noted by Henrietta Lidchi, the poetics of exhibiting may be defined as the 'practice of producing meaning through the internal ordering and conjugation of the separate but related components of an exhibition'.16 It is this interplay between oral history extracts in relation to visual representations found in the Digging Deeper exhibition itself, as well as to each other, that this work seeks to decode. In the process it sketches how the exhibition, in its attempts to provide meanings to the forced removals which affected District Six, took on the practice of social history and, in certain moments, embodied the critique of this movement initiated by historians in the 1990s. The process of decoding, however, is not a practice which provides an objective, unbiased telling of what the meaning of an exhibition might represent. As Lidchi notes, in order to decode meaning a simultaneous process of encoding inevitably takes place. Therefore, as one decodes meaning and translates this into interpretive text for a range of audiences, these processes of selection, translation and interpretation encode a new set of meanings.17 With an exhibition such as Digging Deeper, the poetics of exhibiting are of a complex nature - if only in relation to the myriad of texts dedicated - particularly by those involved in its genesis - to decoding the exhibition and its processes.18 In a sense, interrogating the poetics of Digging Deeper lies in the attempt to understand how, in the process of laying bare (and decoding) its curatorial and methodological processes, the Museum continues to encode meanings about its representations.


The Museum as 'voice'

The role of an emerging oral history practice in the Museum, as a means of preserving the memory of District Six, cannot be disassociated from the organisation's founding moments within the Hands off District Six (HODS) campaign. The organisation that emerged from the mandate of the HODS conference sought to work with the memory of the area, acknowledging the stories and voices of District Six, but at the same time seeking to establish a voice of its own. This institutional voice sought to entrench the struggle for District Six (through an anticipated restitution and redevelopment process) and to speak of the historical shaping of the Cape Town, thereby acting as the city's historical conscience.19 Through this role, the Museum undertook to negotiate the historical and dynamic links between Cape Town's apartheid past and what it termed its post-apartheid present and future.20 As a space and institution which spoke for the broader symbolic role of District Six in highlighting forced removals, it is primarily through its interpretive displays and research drawn from family, institutional and documentary archives that the Museum as the voice of 'the people' was created. The manner in which this intention was sustained was primarily through its displays which stimulated the articulation of voice but also took on the embodiment thereof. The creation of the Museum as voice or as a voice is linked to ways narration and memory has been stimulated and visuality has been deployed in the Museum. Charmaine McEachern, in her observations of ex-resident interactions with the exhibitionary elements of Streets - in particular the floor map - notes how the institutional narrative of the Museum is entrenched with how people remember and verbalise their remembrances.21 In the act of walking over the map and remembering, the performance of memory as McEachern has proposed, was 'on behalf' of the Museum itself - part of its display - and entrenched in the 'narrative of itself'.22 With Streets, orality took precedence over the written word, and as McEachern notes the 'graphic minimalism' - the lack of written texts to depict factual information and experiences of District Six - provided a space for this orality to take form.23 McEachern's observations rest on the notion of oral acts of remembrance as 'oral cultural representation'24 which is enabled by the aesthetic framework of Streets and its ability to evoke memory and narrative through fragments. As she notes ex-resident (verbal) narratives were anchored around these visual fragments. That ex-resident narratives told in the space of the Museum contributed to the layering and filling out of the graphic representations of District Six further helps to provide a basis for looking at the role oral history representations play within Digging Deeper. The link between oral acts of remembering and the role of the Museum's visual strategies in stimulating these and shaping the notion of a living Museum remains key to understanding how oral history practice emerged in its spaces. As the Museum progressed away from the 'graphic minimalism' of Streets to the intense graphic layering of Digging Deeper the emergence of a sound archive alongside this process further cemented its institutional identity and voice.25


Oral histories and the sound archive

In their draft proposal for the use of the Buitenkant Street building as the site of the proposed museum, trustees and project managers emphasised the Museum as being a receptive space - one which was determined by responses to its activities, its potential role as a museum, and the needs and desires of visitors.26 While it derived authority for this voice from the active voicing and inscription of ex-residents within the exhibition space and, therefore, their shaping of the exhibition27, this voice also functioned in ways that became increasingly institutional and archival - being expressed in the Museum's own need to collect and oversee the safeguarding of those objects and documents collected from donors in its early years.28

Early tendencies towards collecting and archiving were seen to exist as separate from, yet necessary for, the function of the Museum.29 The Museum envisioned its role as not being archival and seeing itself rather as a generative space for working with and interpreting memory. The establishment of the sound archive in the Museum in 1997 and the fundamental role it played in oral history research for Digging Deeper brought about a productive tension where the relatively spontaneous oral acts of reminiscence which would accompany visiting ex-residents in the Museum's early years - and which marked it as a living Museum - became part of a proactive research approach where voices were recorded, transcribed, archived and displayed. The tension lay in the use of these recordings and transcripts as extracts, captions and audio installations, and the challenges it brought for the Museum as it became a more formal, systematically engaging space where memory was both facilitated and collected.

The inauguration of a Museum sound archive was premised on that of a living archive - one wi