As I write, the Jack Ginsberg Centre for Book Arts is under construction and close to opening, at the WITS Art Museum, or WAM. The Centre offers various threads on the conversation around museums. Obviously it talks to the need for private financial support, in particular philanthropy – of which Jack Ginsberg is one of South Africa’s true art philanthropists. The Centre promises a collection of some of the world’s finest Book Arts – books fashioned and interpreted by artists, both locally and internationally. The works, which Ginsberg has donated to WAM, are an astoundingly diverse collection, highlighting the ornamental to the instrumental, and promise to be an extremely valuable resource for academic research and cultural tourism.
Having seen the Centre, I am struck by the importance of museum spaces as a site for deep interrogation and rigorous debate. The recent partial re-opening of the Syrian National Museum, after seven years of intense conflict and civil war, in which close on half a million people have died, and which saw the devastation of heritage objects and sites nationwide, is considered a step towards some kind of ‘normalisation’ in the country. That it comes after the 2015 brutal beheading of antiquities scholar Khaled al-Asaad, 82, by ISIS, after he refused to reveal where precious artefacts from the ancient site of Palmyra were hidden, talks to the power, the passion and the personal will to protect what is a nation’s DNA (both good and bad).
Against this backdrop of the role of historical artefacts, of ancient heritage, comes the burning down and total destruction of the 200 year old National History and Science Museum in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil. According to the Guardian newspaper, Marina Silva, a former environment minister and candidate in October’s presidential elections, said the fire was like “a lobotomy of the Brazilian memory”. Perhaps this is the best way to describe the power of a museum – it’s importance in housing national memory, a country’s psyche, and even sense of self.
As historian Dan Snow said in a BBC article on Syria, “If Syria’s soul is to be healed, it needs its treasures, and if Syria’s wrecked economy and impoverished people are to recover, its magical sites, and the tourists they attract, will play a central part.”
And so too in South Africa the urgency of the preservation, and protection of diverse sites, treasures and objects is one that should not go forgotten in the devastating hierarchy of needs in our country.
Recently the US Ambassador’s Fund for Cultural Preservation announced a grant for the digitisation and preservation of the FUBA (Federated Union of Black Artists) Archives, to the Friends of the JAG. The Archives, which are housed at the Johannesburg Art Gallery, offer a 40 year old history of our cultural activism – FUBA was created on the 29 October 1978. That we are not celebrating an organisation and also the museum space which houses the work, is problematic. If we are going to ensure that memories of a difficult history are not reversioned, and even revisioned, we need to fight for all these narratives to be protected, proudly and with passion.