Artifact Vomit

Johannesburg, Day 1

After sleeping 11 hours, John and I woke up to the busy morning sounds of Saxonwold, the tree-lined suburb where we are staying in Johannesburg. After a languorous coffee with our AirBnB host, we walked to the nearby South African Museum of Military History. The museum, ensconced in a stanchioned concrete barrier, does not feel out of place among the fortress-like walls and electric fences in this residential neighborhood where each house feels like a secluded compound. Occasionally, glimpses of follie roofs or flower gardens peak tantalizingly above a roll of razor wire or through a gate. Cameras and guard dogs are ubiquitous, and full-time security guards are not infrequent. During daylight hours, the streets are relatively devoid of pedestrians, besides the occasional jogger or household staff member commuting to or from a job.

Dutch-inspired rooflines above an electric fence. Photo by SR. 

The Museum of Military History is situated next the Johannesburg Zoo and a World War I memorial designed by Edwin Lutyens (blog post on British colonial architects coming soon!). Inaugurated in 1947, the original building is long and warehouse-like, punctuated by three square towers. The structure feels overtly and purposefully militaristic, as if the tropes of army engineering (watchtowers, fences, etc.) have been co-opted into the standard corporate architecture of the period (buff brick, well-proportioned casement windows). Beyond the original building sprawls a variety of newer structures—partial sheds to cover the outdoor artifacts and industrial-sized exhibition halls with trussed metal roofs. As we browsed outside, the participants in a conference on corrosion milled about on the lawn, eating their sandwiches amidst a dozen WWII tanks.

Main building, Museum of Military History. Photo by SR.

And the exhibits themselves? This museum suffers from what John astutely termed “artifact vomit.” This is an affliction that many history museums suffer from, but especially those focusing on periods after the industrial revolution. A few years ago, I attended a talk by a curator from an agricultural history museum discussing the particular challenges of managing an institution where everyone wants to give you their grandfather’s tractor. But each mass-produced tractor doesn’t have the same “aura” (paraphrasing Walter Benjamin) as a single, original artifact such as an oil painting. And unlike other reproducible objects (think prints and photographs), things like tractors take up a lot of space. The curator has to make the charged decision if one tractor reveals something more than another, or whether twenty tractors tell a better story than one tractor. The sheer burden of stuff starts to overwhelm the narrative – as each artifact is asked to speak for itself without interpretive context. The weight and size of the items renders it difficult to easily reconfigure the exhibition space to accommodate new narratives, so artifacts are frequently clustered by type, or sometimes with little taxonomic justification at all. And although true aficionado of tractors (or in this case, tanks) might find iterations of nearly identical artifacts fascinating, an observer without previous expertise quickly experiences fatigue.

John ponders a long line of artillery. Photo by SR.

The few moments of genuine interest among innumerable machine guns, regiments of costumed mannequins, and glittering fields of field medals were those that honed in on a unique, immediately graspable story. For instance, there was a small exhibit of art produced by Italian POWs held in South Africa, who were given art supplies to keep them busy (though I have to wonder what happened to the POW who made an oversized bust of Mussolini). And, despite being told with an overwhelming amount of text, a few captivating panels revealed the history of South African anti-war activists, many of whom were motivated more by hatred of the British than by ideological pacifism? These are both stories that relied on text and carefully curated object groupings, rather than arrays of nearly identical artifacts. Critically, these were also stories that conveyed a sense of place, capturing the unique experience of South Africa and its people, rather than lumping it in with Britain and the rest of WWI or WWII.

All of that said, this is a museum that has existed since 1947, since which time history museums and their curatorial standards have changed radically. Managing a growing collection of massive artifacts while incorporating stories of more recent conflict (and ways of telling those stories) is undoubtedly an ongoing challenge. And fortunately, there are now examples that prove the possibility of curating mass-produced military goods in a meaningful way, by using those artifacts to illuminate and vivify human stories. As a first visit to a museum in South Africa, this experience raised many provocative questions about curatorial storytelling in a post-colonial, post-industrial context that I look forward to exploring here over the next six weeks.

4 thoughts on “Artifact Vomit”

  1. Pioneer Village in Minden, Nebraska…they have embraced this approach, advertising themselves as “truly America’s attic.” It too is an artifact of a certain era, and in fairness, I have not been back in decades. Based on the website, I suspect little has changed. Might be time for a Nebraska road trip. (I can’t believe I just wrote that.)

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