For almost 40 years, they stood half naked under glaring lights in a museum of fossils, whale skeletons, and stuffed animal specimens. The exhibit on Southern Africa's first human inhabitants, the "Bushmen," was testimony to the long-held belief that blacks were subhuman, no more advanced that the antelope in the next room.
The removal last April of the controversial "Bushman diorama" from the South Africa Museum in Cape Town signals the transformation of this nation's museums in the seven years since the end of apartheid. Once shrines to white achievements and superiority, museums increasingly reflect the ideals of this diverse and newly democratic nation.
"Most museums are in the process of rewriting their exhibits," says Mauritz Naude, deputy manager of the National Cultural History Museum in Pretoria. "The boundaries have moved. And in some respects, there are no boundaries anymore." In this new climate, museums are examining subjects formerly forbidden. African art, history, and culture are finally receiving serious attention. Museum texts are printed in African languages - something unheard of during the apartheid years, when English and Afrikaans were the rule.
These new exhibits are giving South Africans their first uncensored look at themselves, and in the process, rewriting this nation's history. Mr. Naude's museum traded whitewashed apartheid-era exhibits on Southern Africa's first European settlers for displays on the tragic experience of a black community through colonization and white rule. Another exhibit challenges South Africans to take a fresh look at the ancient rock art found throughout the region. It draws comparisons between rock paintings made by Bushmen (also known as San people) thousands of years ago and Leonardo DaVinci's "Last Supper."
"Of course, we get some complaints about that comparison," says Naude. "Some people from the older generation are shocked."
The transformation has been so dramatic it is little wonder ordinary South Africans are astonished. Museums are completely rethinking not only their research, collections, and displays, but also their purpose. "We come from a past where we were told what we should look at and how we should understand it," says Naude. "Now we minimalize the text. We give people the basic information and let them draw their own conclusions."
Hence, an AK-47 seized from black freedom fighters and displayed in Johannesburg's South African Military Museum decades ago is no longer labeled a "terrorist weapon."
Under apartheid, museum exhibits were divided into two categories: "Own affairs" focused on European culture and history. Its poor stepsister, "general affairs," included natural history, animals, and black history and culture. Such thinking produced the Bushmen display in 1960, which became the most popular - and later the most controversial - exhibit in the museum.
By the 1980s, many curators and artists were subtly challenging apartheid, says Rochelle Keene, president of the South African Museum Association and director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery. During the apartheid years, for example, Ms. Keene's gallery acquired a portrait of a black man murdered by the apartheid regime. Showing the painting was bold, though visitors probably didn't notice. Political pressures meant the piece, titled "Altar Piece for Thomas Kasire," was displayed only as "a portrait in a landscape."
"We couldn't say who the portrait depicted, and we couldn't explain why [he was an important figure]," Keene says. "Now, we display the correct title on the painting and an explanation of the work."
Perhaps the greatest change in cultural institutions here is the explosion of new museums that have opened since the end of white rule. A museum in Nelson Mandela's birthplace opened in February 2000. Robbin Island, the prison off Cape Town where Mr. Mandela and other antiapartheid activists were jailed for decades, was opened as a museum in 1997. In November, a museum dedicated to the history of apartheid is scheduled to open in Johannesburg.
"There's a part of our history that we've overlooked deliberately," says Patricia Davison, director of social history collections at the South Africa Museum. "With regard to our recent history - lest we forget - we need to make sure we have this on record."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor