Does Public History Mean Every Public?

For the second of my mini road trip posts this week, I wanted to address a question that has come up frequently in my explorations of public history so far—that is, does public history necessarily have to try to address every public? Certainly, a public history institution should be accessible to every public, but does it necessarily need to treat the needs of every visitor demographic equally?

The South End Museum in Port Elizabeth makes a compelling case that public history, in some cases, can and should serve the needs of a particular community before addressing the interests and concerns of the public at large.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the historic South End neighborhood of Port Elizabeth was systematically razed and its residents relocated in accordance with the Group Areas Act of 1950, the apartheid law that decreed different racial groups (black, Indian, coloured, and white) must live in segregated locations. In the early twentieth century the South End was a dynamic working class, mixed-race community, where multi-racial cricket teams and jazz bands proliferated. With the advent of apartheid, those networks were disbanded, as residents were evicted and dispersed to new, northern townships. South End families lost their houses (some paid-off in full), and ended up living in marginal, overcrowded conditions. One of the only surviving remnants of the neighborhood that was is a massive fig tree, which was somehow spared in the demolition.

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The fig tree of the old South End (at far right), now at the intersection of two highways on the sea coast of Port Elizabeth. Photo by SR.

The South End Museum, which stands at the corner of a busy intersection across the street from the historic fig tree, keeps the memory of the old South End alive. After spending about an hour touring the small, two-story museum, it was clear that this was less a museum for outsiders like John and me, and more a tool of memory and reconciliation for the local community it serves. Rather than trying to tell the story of the South End chronologically, the narrative is piecemeal, thematic, and largely oriented around individuals’ stories and family traditions. But it’s the space itself that hints at its purpose within the community. It houses a large community gathering space, as well as upstairs galleries for recent exhibits that can change as more oral histories are collected and transcribed. Most recently, the South End Museum played host to a 2016 reconciliation event in which members of a nearby church (ostensibly with a mostly white congregation) apologized formally to members of the former South End community on behalf of all of those who had orchestrated and carried out apartheid laws. The gathering involved hearing several former South End residents recount their experiences, and the ritual washing of feet by members of the local church as an act of humility and repentance. A community artist drew rapid, interpretive sketches to capture the mood and content of the stories shared that day, which are now on display in one of the upstairs galleries.

This was decidedly not a museum that was out to explain the vast injustices of apartheid to foreign visitors, or even to capture or create some sweeping, master narrative about the legacy of the South End. Instead, it clearly identified the actual and real needs of its stakeholders in the community, and prioritized those, becoming a repository and safe place for individual experiences of dislocation and disenfranchisement.

The restorative truth the South End Museum is providing for its community outweighs, I think, the need to cater to outsiders. I certainly came away with a lot to think about, and new knowledge about a particular experience of apartheid, but the most powerful and enduring thing I took away was the model this museum provides for public history as a catalyst for communal healing. As John put it, institutions like the South End Museum can “rekindle the spark of pride in place” that makes neighborhoods and communities like South End cohere. It’s helping a fragmented community to once again put down roots, and providing the next generation (those called the “born-frees”) to maintain a critical link to the past.

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