MuseuMAfricA, the cultural keystone of Newtown, is facing the shutdown of many of its most valuable collections due to a failure by the City of Joburg to fill vital positions, some of which have remained unfilled for 18 years.
According to heritage activist Flo Bird: “It is shocking what this disgusting council has done in failing to fill any professional posts. What kind of mentality have they got to imagine that this enormous building with fantastically huge and extraordinary collections can function without staff?”
The museum’s current curator of collections, Diana Wall, who is 63, has, despite several letters to her executive manager, not received approval to continue working till the age of 65, without which she will be forced to retire at the end of this month.
There has been no word on who will replace her and, with no succession plan in place, the public-enquiries arm of the museum will in effect be lost. This will mean that vital collections of photographs, ethnographic material, costumes, furniture, architectural drawings and ceramics will be closed and inaccessible to the public.
The loss of research material to universities and history institutions such as the Johannesburg Heritage Foundation would be massive.
The museum is currently lacking more than eight vital positions, including a costume curator, curator for the traditional black cultural collection, history curator, image curator, conservator, a building manager and educators and a schools specialist.
It has been 18 years since the last costume and black cultural collection curator left, 13 years since the last history curator left, and three and a half year since the last image curator left.
Additionally, the loss of its primary curator poses a huge security risk to the extremely valuable artifacts inside. In mid-2013, hundreds of thousands of rands’ worth of gemstones, a sample of fool’s gold, and an old diamond-head drill bit were stolen from the premises.
The pictures collection, which happens to be the museum’s most requested and contains rare portraits of lesser-known South African figures and towns around the country, will no longer be open for access by historians, researchers, and the public.
“The picture collection is unparalleled in South Africa,” says Ann Wandess, who worked in the museum for 15 years. “It’s used by everybody, and when Diana [Wall] leaves there will be nobody to access that collection. Furthermore, there’s an ethnographic collection of about 26 000 objects that includes the biggest and most comprehensive collection of Khoisan material in the world that will be closed.”
The fact that there are no staff to do the work of cataloguing means the museum can receive no new artefacts.
Renowned South African theatre manager Pieter Toerien recently offered an exhibit on the Alhambra Theatre to MuseuMAfricA, as well as much of his personal collection, but with no one to oversee these artefacts, it could not be taken in.
In response to questions, the City of Joburg’s spokesperson, Nthatisi Modingoane, wrote in an email: “The City has expanded the museum service beyond what is was prior to 1994. It has, in addition to Museum Africa, the Roodepoort Museum and the Johannesburg Art Gallery, added the Hector Pieterson Memorial Museum, the June 16 Interpretation Centre, the Kliptown Open Air Museum and the Alexandra Heritage Centre, which is in its final stages. Consequently, this means some form of thinking has taken place on merging collections and identifying which critical positions are to be filled.
“In the next month or so, the City will be filling a number of critical positions at Museum Africa and the
James Hall Museum of Transport.
“Public programmes involving schools are currently managed by a member of staff employed at the museum. The meeting mentioned in your query, it turns out was held without the knowledge of the City and the Museum management, including experienced members of the staff who have been with Museum Africa for more than 10 years. Building management is managed through the Facility Enhancement Unit and all capital projects have been realised without fail in the last three years.
“It is not true that Wall has no successor and it is equally incorrect that an institution will not be able to function without one individual. The City’s talent-acquisition plan allows for the position to be either circularised or advertised. There are a number of capable candidates within the city who will compete for the position.
“The use of titles ‘traditional black culture’ and ‘history’ ‘image collection’ is a subject of transformative reflection, as they represent an artificial division born of the ‘own affairs’ culture of the past.
“Another member of staff deliberately left out of this meeting is Zola Mtshiza. An impression is deliberately created that he has a degree in visual arts only without acknowledging that it is compulsory for those qualified in visual arts to study art history, which is of course another branch of history as a discipline.”