Museum of conscience
When a prison becomes a museum, the process of remembering becomes the process of healing.
Coming to terms with the past: The Men's Jail.
THIS museum maps the collective memory of a nation. And its setting is a former prison. Its cell walls do not exhibit antiquities of beauty that highlight the aesthetic tradition of the place, rather they portray life histories of struggle and suffering that unravel the saga of the country's transition from a culture of apartheid to a state of democracy.
This is South Africa's Constitution Hill Museum in Johannesburg. The evolving institution is housed in the defunct Old Fort Prison, which included the notorious Number Four (men's prison) and the Women's Jail. Built in 1892, the jailhouses closed down in 1983 and lay abandoned until the late 1990s, when the new government decided to turn the complex into a platform for justice and a museum of conscience. It's the place where, among thousands of others caught in the web of colonial and apartheid oppression, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela were detained. A place that has been renamed Constitution Hill because the country's new Constitutional Court stands at its core.
Creating the museum was tough, said Churchill Madikida, the museum's exhibitions curator. There was no collection that the curators inherited as in a conventional museum space. The ruins of the prison buildings were their only exhibit.
"Where were we to begin?" muses Madikida. "The history of the prisons had neither been recorded nor archived. There were only three archival photographs of Number Four and two paintings of the Women's Jail that were done in secret."
The curators' first intervention was to find those who had been locked up there and coax them to unlock their memories. The next was to get them to work with their memories to produce objects for display that would tell their stories to visitors in direct and cogent ways.
Some ex-prisoners were located with difficulty as there was no register of prisoners. The team of researchers met political prisoners to begin with because they were the easiest to find. Then came those who had violated petty apartheid laws and committed common crimes some 200 people in all. Many were black, some were white. But not many were willing to get involved in the project.
The ex-prisoners were at first loath to re-visit the past. Some refused to even approach the gates of the Old Fort, others simply shook their heads in remembered horror. But when they opened up they held little back. The sessions were fraught with emotion, naturally.
After all, many of them were victimised, as Madikida observed. A case in point is Nikiwe Deborah Matshoba, a political activist who was arrested on the way to her own wedding. Her husband was also detained at the same time, leaving their one-year-old son virtually orphaned. Her wedding dress hangs in a solitary cell in the Women's Jail Museum today.
"We heard tales of woe. But we also heard stories of solidarity," added Madikida. "About how, in spite of the cruelty they had to endure, they put up informal forms of resistance. They would, for instance, reject the rotten food they were served, sing political songs, play games, form debating clubs, smuggle in newspapers."
Free, at last
Inevitably, the sessions proved cathartic for the ex-prisoners. As one-time political prisoner, Joyce Seroke, who now works in the Gender Equality department right there, put in, "it felt lighter in the head after letting it all out": the remembered violence of communal cells, the sadistic and systematic humiliation by the wardens, the desolation, the paper-thin mats and the awful smell of the cell. As Nikiwe Matshoba added, "one felt a sense of closure".
The curators then took the project one step forward: "We asked the interviewees to take photographs of the jail, to draw their experiences, to think of objects associated with their memories. We believed that these techniques would provide powerful physical prompts facilitating the exchange of knowledge and empathy. We anticipated that, through this process, memory would be given a unique form, determined by a strongly autographic process."
At first the participants were intimidated by the idea. But as the process went along, these barriers receded. They saw that the creation of drawings and the deciphering of objects could be an effective way to understand the past for themselves as individuals, as well as for the group. "In the end, using drawing, painting or sculpture to explore memory gave both connection and distance," according to the curator. "Connection because these were memories closely known and distance because the act of learning a new language diverted attention from what was being said to how it was said. The physical act of making something functioned both as defence and means of exposition. The unfamiliarity of the medium acted as a buffer between the traumatic experience and its confrontation." Objects started to trickle in.
One man offered a sketch of his favourite figure of hate: the guard who used to routinely whip him. Jeannie Noel produced a shabby birthday card, preserved for 30 years, "revealing how depressed she had felt on her birthday until the women in her unit burst into her cell wearing nighties and singing." A young man brought in the shopping bag his mother was carrying when she was arrested a reminder that black women without a pass were often arrested while they were out to buy some food in white city-centres.
"And one fellow, a conservative Afrikaaner, returned a bunch of punitive instruments (shackles, hand-cuffs, torture trestles), confessing that he had looted the instruments from the jail and displayed them in his showcase at home," said Madikida. "Another fellow returned Mandela's manuscript of the Long March to Freedom."
All this oral history, these drawings and objects have become valuable recordings for the museum. Some life histories are written on the walls within which the person did time. Some objects hang in the owner's former cell. Many objects have gone into the permanent collection and some have even come up for "social tagging" a project wherein visitors are invited to study and comment on the objects.
And so it carries on: the painful process of remembering, the slow process of healing, the rewarding process of producing objects. "Constitution Hill is a site that's constantly evolving; it's not a project that's ever finished," Madikida remarked. "It's a project that will grow as our nation develops as a democracy."
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