Place and Authenticity

Posted: March 26, 2012 by tupakkat in Mar 28

In “Mapping the Memories: Politics, Place and Identity in the District Six Museum, Cape Town” Charmaine Mc Eachern reminds the reader that diasporicness need not result from leaving one’s country. Rather, one can be diasporic just a few miles outside their former place of residence. Another example for this kind of diasporicness being the village and former artist colony of Ein Hod whose Palestinian inhabitants were displaced in 1948 and now continue to live in the diaspora, just a few kilometers away.


The author describes how former District Six inhabitants reclaim the space from which they had been dispelled and turn it into ‘place’: People who had suffered under apartheid’s spatial policies repossess history through auto-ethnography by writing themselves on a map and by engaging in conversations with museum officers, who are themselves District Sixers. Walking the museum becomes an act of political resistance and an interrogation of apartheid rather than a mere consumption of memory work prepared and fed by others.

This particular way of ‘experiencing the museum’ places the former inhabitants of District Six at the center. It does not exclude other possible audiences but it does not make them the primary target audience, does not cater exclusively for the outside gaze.


On first sight the District Six Museum may appear to be a successful instance of what Anna Catalani in “Telling ‘Another’ Story: Western Museums and the Creation of Non-Western Identities” describes as source communities reclaiming the ownership of their material culture, or in this context better, their history. On closer examination, however, there appears to be a great difference between European museums exhibiting African artifacts and the District Six Museum. While the former -despite a handful of “Europeans of African descent reclaiming …” (Catalani, 2010:8)- still cater to a mainly white European audience, to the descendants of the former colonialists and their desires of exotic entertainment, the latter is a product of political struggle by the same people who are now at the center of presenting as well as visiting the museum. It therefore overcomes what Catalani calls “too artificial … industry of memory” (ibid. :4).

Being in the very location whose history the District Six Museum attempts to resurrect, allows for an undramatic authenticity that cannot be matched by any London museum exhibiting African treasures. The two articles describe two fundamentally different kinds of museums and related experiences: On one hand, the museums described by Catalani make “histories and memories consumable” (ibid.:3)  for an outside audience, lately spiced up with real Yoruba presence who serve as an exotic bonus to the European target audience and who allow for a more authentic feeling. The District Six Museum, on the other hand, is a site of memory, which allows those directly involved to come to terms with the past while simultaneously allowing tourists to learn about the history. Here, however, the people whose history is exhibited are actively involved agents who use the museum as a “strategy of identity construction” and creation of “morality tales” (Mc Eachern, 1998:511).


Mc Eachern’s notion that “identity and history are space” and Heumann Gurian’s proposal that the essence of a museum is not found in its objects but “in a place that stores memories” (Heumann Gurian, 1999:165) give the ‘space’ or ‘place’ a particular meaning. I am wondering whether it is the location itself that makes the greatest difference for the ‘authenticity’ of a museum experience, as one could conclude from the two above mentioned examples (African arts in Western museum vs. site of memory in South Africa) or whether it may be the context. If, for example, the District Six Museum was operated and administrated by a white elite and catered for a mainly white tourist audience while on the other hand an African and a European country would exchange arts and artifacts within the frame of an arts-exchange program, I believe, notions of ‘authenticity’ would change due to the agency of the people involved. What do you think?

  1. mahmerkhan says:

    Interesting question, I am presenting this week I will definitely fit it into the discussion. See you soon!

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