Decolonising South African museums in a digital age
: re-imagining the Iziko Museums’ Natal Nguni catalogue and collection

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy

Abstract

This PhD thesis investigates the relationship between decolonisation and digitisation in South African museums. Focusing specifically on the Iziko South African Museum and the material culture collection previously classified as Natal Nguni and Zulu, this thesis interrogates how knowledge about Zulu culture was systematically constructed by the museum through its cataloguing, classifying and collecting practices, and so imbued with colonial and apartheid ideologies. Accepting that decolonisation demands changes at the museum’s permanent knowledge-production level, I consider how reconnecting descendent communities with their material culture facilitates alternative, multivocal narratives and whether digital tools can really play a role in this process as a step towards decolonising cultural heritage and ethnographic knowledge.

Through a combination of archival research, interviews with practitioners, and workshops with communities self-identifying as Zulu today, I address the following questions:

1. Did South African museums document ethnographic material culture in a way that constructs a specific narrative about Indigenous cultures? If so, what is this narrative and how is it constructed to the exclusion of others?

2. Is it possible to (re)construct alternative knowledge about Indigenous cultures by differently documenting this material culture? If so, how?

3. How could technology play a meaningful role in this process of decolonising knowledge production in South African museums?

The research findings expose discrepancies that reveal the folly of making digitally available existing museum records that are deeply embedded with unequal, yet normalised, systems; doing so risks uncritically perpetuating and reinforcing them. As well as proposing that serious decolonisation demands more nuanced decisions about the actual material and information that is digitised and made available, this thesis advocates further consideration of the digital landscape in South Africa. Based on fieldwork research, my argument is that digital tools have great potential for making information more easily available and participatory; however, digital divisions persist as a legacy of colonialism and apartheid in South Africa and so potentially disadvantage the same communities. Recognising and addressing this situation is a fundamental second step towards decolonising museum collections whereby descendant communities can access, engage and reconnect with their material culture.
Date of Award1 Jun 2019
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorSimon Tanner (Supervisor) & Sheila Anderson (Supervisor)

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