5 Lessons for Public Storytelling from Singapore

Over the last several days, I’ve been exploring Singapore as part of a short layover before arriving in Tokyo. This brief stopover was largely organized by John, who designed this as an “eating vacation.” But between meals (which were universally superb, inexpensive, and filling), we managed to venture into Singapore’s vibrant heritage/tourism scenes. After six weeks in South Africa, where the lack of funding at important sites is almost universal, and many museums are further hampered by inadequate staffing, it was inspiring to see all of the ways in which Singapore has really made heritage preservation a national priority. With a very different history, geographic scope, and economic present from South Africa, Singapore has a lot going for it in terms of capital and resources that can fund these kinds of projects. Still, there are lessons in some of the curatorial decisions that I saw over the last three days that might be implemented across a diversity of museum contexts and budgets. These aren’t particularly new or innovative ideas, but just ones that were really brought to life by my experience in Singapore.

  1. A strong, cohesive curatorial vision can make a museum experience hang together. This was glaringly obvious at the Heritage Museum of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a recently opened institution designed to interpret the larger history of the landscape (which is the island’s only inscribed UNESCO site to date). Within a relatively small square footage, this museum was informative without being overwhelming, and adeptly used visual cues to direct the reader from one sub-section to the next. Digital interactives were polished to a high degree of resolution and invited deeper visitor engagement without forcing it. One example, a map that showed how the garden changed over time in response to the visitor turning a dial, was haptically fun to use, fascinating to watch as a graphic device, and layered with just the right density of historical information. All of these elements fit together into a well-tailored and complete curatorial vision—it was clear how the whole related to the sum of its parts.
  2. Engage the five senses. Next to the Heritage Museum, the Botanical Gardens also featured a new building (the CDL Green Gallery) with an exhibition devoted to the broad family of gingers. The plants themselves are grown in a separate “Ginger Garden” a few hundred meters away, so this exhibition had the challenge of making ginger relevant and interesting while not actually showing any live ginger plants. It did so effectively by creating a multi-sensory experience. One notable section included a “Stop & Sniff” station that invited visitors to take a whiff of turmeric, common ginger, and cardamom (all, it turns out, members of the ginger family). The sharpness of the spices and the clear difference between them made an important illustrative point. The exhibition’s parting shot continued this theme—a recipe for gingerbread, printed at such a scale and ratio such that it could be easily photographed on a smartphone and taken home. This trend, towards encouraging rather than discouraging photography of the exhibit, is something I’ve seen elsewhere—in South Africa and in the U.S. Museums seem to have caught on to the fact that visitors won’t stop taking surreptitious pictures, and are starting to turn that proclivity into another moment for visitor engagement. Even “Museum Selfie Day” has the potential to elevate digital narcissism to critical thinking about representation and the reproducibility of images.
  3. Make exhibits accessible to all visitors… while you’re at it, make the rest of the site accessible too. Check out that picture of the “Stop & Sniff” station again… another thing that I loved about this installation was that there was a short shelf so that even really little kids could get in on the action without having to be lifted up by a parent. This attention to the needs of different kinds of visitors was echoed in the restrooms of the gardens, where short sinks were provided for children, and ample area was provided for families with nursing infants or rambunctious toddlers.
  4. Designing a site as “Edutainment” is a recipe for vacuousness. As part of Singapore’s continuing drive to become a “city in a garden,” more “living” attractions have sprung up in the wake of the original Botanical Gardens. One of these is the Gardens by the Bay, a phantasmagoria of botanical “edutainment” complete with heavy sculptural adornment, man-made clouds, and lavish landscaping. The highlight is a seven-story tower of ferns and foliage meant to evoke… a rainforest? In addition to theme zones devoted to Alice in Wonderland and the Wizard of Oz, and numerous fairy gardens, there are also exhibits about the water cycle, geological formations, and global warming. I would have been much more sold on this whole affair if it had just been advertised as “art”—admittedly the arrangements were technically and visually impressive, and it wasn’t a bad way to spend a rainy, hot afternoon inside a climate-controlled environment.
  5. Let heritage be… everywhere. Embrace the mundane and the monumental in the everyday streetscape. The final thing that really stood out about Singapore was the sheer amount of historical signage on the outside and inside of buildings, and throughout various parks and precincts. Some of this signage told the story of former land use (the clove and nutmeg plantations, for instance, that were later replaced by Chinatown). Some of it spoke to the role of colonial legislation in shaping the built environment of the city, such as Sir Stamford Raffles’s mandate that every building’s second story have a five-foot overhang, creating a shaded arcade between the frontage of the ground floor and the street. Though building styles differ between various precincts, these walkways are everywhere, and serve to create architectural continuity across the city. Notably, Singapore’s signage wasn’t just about venerable architects and major monuments, but about the landscape of the everyday as well. The hawker stalls, that are today still such a prominent and important part of Singapore’s food landscape, have received their own heritage research and interpretation. It’s hard to find a hawker stall in the city that doesn’t have a plaque about the building’s history. Additionally, throughout districts like Chinatown and Little India, heritage trails create networks of related signs and string them into large narratives that can be picked up over the course of a casual, touristic meander through the streets. For a city whose past has been so heavily colored by colonialism and violet occupation, these markers are a reminder of the diversity of cultures, actors, and factors that contributed to the city’s vibrant makeup today. While Singapore might be known for its skyscrapers and multinational corporate prowess, it’s really the fabric of the old city that gives continual life and architectural interest to the experience at ground level on the streets.

In other news…

My first SAH blog post just went live! You can check it out here.

South African Architectural Kaleidoscope

After six amazing weeks, John and I have finally departed from South Africa. Currently, I’m sitting in the lobby of our hostel in Singapore, ludicrously jet-lagged and reeling at the thought of writing something substantive. Instead, I thought I’d share a little creative side-project that I made as a retrospective of South Africa. Part of my process on the road has been finding interesting visual tools and different media to express what I’ve been seeing. One of the apps that I’ve most enjoyed has been the Adobe Capture app for iPad, which allows the user to create vector graphics, custom color palettes, and brushes that can be used in other Adobe workspaces. It also has tool for creating tiled, kaleidoscopic images based on photographs. The creative challenge here is to try to capture the character, texture, color, or unique details of various buildings, monuments, etc. with an economy of means. Below are a few of my favorites – please feel free to appropriate them as desktop, tablet, or phone backgrounds!

#1 Cape Dutch Roof Curves on Blue Sky

#2 Art Deco Ceiling Fixtures in the Old Mutual Building, Cape Town

#3 Spiral Staircase at the South African Jewish Museum, Cape Town

#4 Original Stained Glass Window at McGregor Museum, Kimberley

#5 Nelson Mandela Statue in front of Union Buildings, Pretoria

#6 Interior roof shot from Zeitz MOCAA

#7 Exterior Pillow Windows at Zeitz MOCAA

#8 House and succulent in the Bo-Kaap district, Cape Town

Women’s Spaces, Women’s Business

This week, my dear friend Devon has been exploring Cape Town with us. Because John and I have another week here after her departure, we’ve prioritized the must-do tourist itinerary, which has meant putting some of my more industrial sites on the back burner.

For obvious reasons, the relationship of race and space has occupied a lot of my thoughts here. But during Devon’s visit this week, I’ve also been seriously considering how gender enters the equation as well. A striking number of tourist spaces that we’ve experienced have been operated by men. 100% of our Uber drivers have been men, as have most of our tour guides (excepting the few that I specifically sought out and hired for private tours). There have been some exceptions, such as the reception center at Kruger National Park, which was staffed exclusively by women, or our guide at the Gold Reef City mining experience. But on the whole, tourist-oriented spaces have felt very male-dominated, and I’ve been surprised at the either casual or implicit sexism I’ve experienced on multiple occasions. The most frequent experience is having a third party address John rather than me, even in circumstances where it’s clear that I’m the one with the professional interest. However, traveling with my male partner has, I think, also shielded me from the kinds of experience that, Devon, traveling alone, has had—overly friendly or inquisitive drivers, street harassment, etc. While I don’t think these experiences dampened either of our experiences significantly, it has been interesting to note the respect and veneration accorded to historical women heroes who fought in the Freedom Struggle, versus the way women are treated here on a daily basis, and the persistent disparity between the opportunities accorded to men and women.

On Tuesday, Devon and I explored Long Street, which cuts through Cape Town’s CBD, mingling Victorian architecture and trendy new shops. On a whim, we ducked into WAG Fashion, a boutique owned and operated by Sheray Goliath, a woman born and raised in Cape Town. An explosion of bright, African patterns and modern, flattering cuts, WAG felt like the first space by women, for women that I’ve experienced in South Africa. Up front, the owner/designer and a team of stylists oversaw the try-on process, helping clients achieve the desired look. In a sunken area towards the back, the seamstresses could be seen making more garments and tailoring existing apparel. The fact that the means of production were on display, and the other women working there at least seemed content and not overworked, made this space even more attractive. Like many stores on Long Street, WAG resides in a repurposed Victorian building, part of old commercial stock that has been updated to serve the influx of hip shops, cafés, and restaurants. In contrast to Jo’burg, a city marked by its rapid development since the 1880s, Cape Town’s architecture has felt a lot more layered. Stately Beaux-Arts classicism mingles with whimsical Cape Dutch gables, International Style and brutalist high-rises cutting sharply towards the sky.

The paradox of Cape Town is that the feeling of downtown is a fluke of geography and apartheid-era planning. Unlike Jo’burg, Cape Town is able to hide its townships and rougher neighborhoods from the view of mainstream tourists. Thus, the experience that many visitors have of Cape Town is a but a narrow slice of all that the city has to offer. The townships that lay on the periphery still face an inordinate stigma, as we discovered later in the day after our dress-shopping escapade was complete. In the evening, Devon, John, and I caught an Uber to a restaurant called Mzansi in Langa, one of the oldest townships on the outskirts of Cape Town. Our Uber driver was initially suspicious (“Are you sure you want to go to Langa?”), but eventually relented and took us there. On Harlem Avenue in Langa, we rolled up to Mzansi Restaurant, which stands out as a double-storied, brightly-illuminated beacon amidst single-story shacks. Once inside the orange, red, and yellow walls of the restaurant, we were treated as guests in the home of Nomonde Siyaka. A buffet of traditional !Xhosa dishes and township food had been laid out for the guests, a mostly vegetarian feast full of spice and texture. In one corner, a band comprised of three marimba players, a drummer, and a saxophonist belted out African music and jazz standards. At the meal’s conclusion, the owner and head chef emerged from the kitchen to tell her story—how she came to operate the #1 ranked restaurant on TripAdvisor in Cape Town, and how, even as business has grown dramatically, there are still nights when she struggles to fill the restaurant, due to the lingering bias against townships.

“Mama” Nomonde tells her story at the end of dinner. Photo by SR.

This experience also reinforced for me the importance of oral storytelling as a key facet of public history in South Africa. Over and over, the power of the first-person testimonial has proved a critical aspect the tourism experience here, serving a critical role in helping outsiders to understand apartheid and the changes that followed in the wake of democracy.

For Nomonde (who goes by “Mama” in the restaurant), Mzansi struggled along, barely breaking even for seven years, until a group of international students fell in love with the restaurant and set it up on TripAdvisor. Thanks to the free advertising the restaurant has received through the ranking system on the site, business has improved over time. Playing at Mzansi has become the primary employment of the band we heard, though they still struggle on nights when the restaurant receives few visitors. Local teens gain employment and experience serving, busing, and washing dishes. Extra food goes to the needy in the surrounding community. What started as a three-room township house has expanded to accommodate the growing business. The original doorway of the house still connects the dining room to the kitchen area, a visible reminder of how the house has changed over time. And all this because of the vision of one woman, who was supported through the hard times in her early business by the constant moral support of her mother and the financial support of her sister, who freely shared meager earnings from occasional domestic work in Cape Town.

I was struck at both Mzansi and at WAG Fashion by the design choice of the proprietors to reveal the workings of their businesses—these were women who were proud of how hard they were working, and rather than try to downplay those accomplishments or make it seem easy, both spaces were really designed to show the work necessary to be a successful woman entrepreneur in South Africa. By revealing process and labor, these women are not just ideals or abstract inspirations for the next generation of women, but practical role models with business plans and growth strategies. I hope that the next time I visit Cape Town, these two businesses will still be going strong, joined by another thriving crop of woman-owned enterprises. These women are remaking the city, tearing down racial and gender boundaries as they do.

Too Late for the Gold Rush: Pilgrim’s Rest Part 2

Missed Part 1? Read it here first…

Driving away from Pilgrim’s Rest last week, I had little inkling that this little historic town on the geographic and economic margins of South Africa could be positioned at the nexus of so many shifting and competing heritage ideologies, local and global. As John and I have worked our way south and west, through more mining towns, port cities, and finally to the Cape Winelands, I’ve spent a lot of time considering the place and function of heritage sites in South African society. In South Africa, the idea that heritage can and should have a function (more so than being some mimetic record of the past) seems particularly pressing.

With the end of apartheid in 1994, the newly democratic South African government faced the task of not only planning for the country’s future, but reorienting towards a troubled and tangled past. “Heritage” under apartheid, insofar as it can really be termed as such, constituted narratives invented and controlled by the National Party (NP), the white minority party in power from 1948 to 1994. This approach to heritage particularly valorized the Boer’s intervention in South Africa, coming out of the NP’s history origins as an Afrikaner ethnic party. The NP sought to celebrate the “purity” of their Dutch ancestors, who ventured inland in the 1830s to escape British rule, and ostensibly seek religious freedom (also, the right to freely oppress the indigenous population without British meddling). If this approach to “heritage” sounds eerily familiar, it should come as no great surprise that certain radical factions of the National Party were inspired by the Nazi regime in Germany that had just been defeated in World War II. Indeed, resentment of South Africa’s involvement in the war and widespread anti-British sentiment eventually were what enabled the NP’s rise to power in the election of 1948, without winning the popular vote.

When John and I rode the Gautrain from Jo’burg to Pretoria a few weeks back, we had the chance to see the vestiges of the apartheid-era “heritage” preservation in action. The Kruger House Museum is an uncritical paean to the (in)famous early president of the Transvaal. Constructed in 1884, the house in its essence is a grander, more permanent version of many of the buildings at Pilgrim’s Rest. Dimly-lit period rooms with peeling wallpaper pay homage to “Oom Paul” and his family, focusing on the pleasant mundanities of daily life at the presidential residence. Halls of artifacts connected to the Boer leader’s political and personal life are accented with delicately cherry-picked quotes from contemporaries and modern scholars praising Kruger’s character and exploits. It is a relic of another time, a fabricated national mythology designed to legitimize the hegemony of the white Afrikaner minority. The nature and quality of the interpretation was really not that different from Pilgrim’s Rest, and are perhaps even more mired in the past. But centrally located in the major urban hub of Pretoria, and with the indubitable name of Kruger attached to it, this house’s persistence as a viable tourist site seems much more assured.

The front porch of Kruger’s House with its two lions. Apparently Kruger spent a lot of time hanging out on the veranda. Photo by SR. 

In 1994, as South Africa began its transition from apartheid minority rule to democracy, there came a moment of reckoning for “national heritage.” A government document, the “Report on Future Direction for Heritage Conservation in South Africa” (October 1994), situates heritage sites and their interpretation as key assets in accelerating the process of democratization, suggesting that “The conservation of our cultural heritage should be used to engender a multi-dimensional, democratic, non-racist and non-sexist national identity” (p.8). In this vision, heritage conservation and interpretation would have an active role in shaping the new nation’s identity, and providing healing and reconciliation in the wake of apartheid. This expanded articulation of national history stands in stark contrast to the previous construction of heritage as put forth by the National Party.

According to the aforementioned report, the state of heritage under apartheid created two primary imbalances. First, there was the inequality regarding which stories were being preserved and how. In the past, the document indicates, National Monuments typically highlighted and valued white contributions to South Africa. Sites marked as historically significant related to indigenous African cultures were, prior to 1994, typically paleontological areas dating to the distant past. As the report notes, “This assumption is based on the fact that African history is to be discovered in archaeological excavation and oral evidence rather than in architecture or the written record. Therefore, the extent of the South African cultural heritage needs to be redefined to make it more inclusive” (p. 7-8). The second disparity was geographical—as of 1994, about 3,000 declared National Monuments were located in the Western Cape region (i.e. the area surrounding Cape Town), while less than 1,500 sites existed in the rest of the country combined. Historically, the members of the National Monuments Council derived from a “white privileged social background,” which drove the “apparent preference for 17th and 18th century Dutch colonial buildings” of the variety predominately found in the Cape (p. 13).

Typical “heritage” in the Western Cape – the Drostdy Museum in Swellendam. Photo by SR.

The new National Monuments Council of 1994 (which also found itself considering a name change in light of how narrow and prescriptive “monuments” sounds) was thus faced with a double-headed challenge:

  1. How to include and incorporate more sites into South African heritage, reflecting the diversity of people and experiences in the fledgling nation.
  2. How to deal with existing sites, particularly those that were either selected as National Monuments or constructed during apartheid by the white minority government.

To address these concerns, the report suggests the following:

”The conservation of our cultural heritage must be made more representative of the aspirations and achievements of all the people. It must be non-elitist and non-sectarian. Therefore, the disproportionate bias towards Eurocentric values must be redressed. Any disproportion should, however, not be rectified at the expense of existing declared sites. Although deproclamation might help to redress an imbalance it would also denude the national cultural landscape.” (p. 9)


“Existing monuments, even those which may be regarded by some as disreputable, can be seen to have validity if presented as part of the history of the country, albeit a sad part of that history.”(p. 20)

What does all of this have to do with Pilgrim’s Rest? Pilgrim’s Rest occupies a strange position within the transformation of heritage interpretation and preservation. As an industrial site, it embodies certain aspects of the old vision of heritage and the newer, more progressive ones. Historically, it has been used predominantly to tell the stories a select group of white prospectors, owners, and soldiers. But, across its landscape— with its stores, houses, churches, bank, post office, printing press, cemetery, and the actual mine itself— it has the potential to tell a much wider range of stories.

Far from the picturesque white gables of stone Cape Dutch manor houses, Pilgrim’s Rest was not built to last. Its architecture was driven by expediency and the need for flexibility, intended to serve a mobile and itinerant labor force. As the town expanded and contracted alongside the oscillations of the gold mine and global gold prices, residents and mine managers were not looking to build a lasting edifice. Embedded in the built environment of Pilgrim’s Rest are bigger stories about the transformation of labor and capital that accompanied the consolidation and industrialization of mining in South Africa. As I’ve argued in previous posts, these processes—and the mechanisms of spatial control they entailed—set the precedent in many ways for the institution of apartheid. Given the right interpretation, Pilgrim’s Rest could function as the writers of the heritage report of 1994 envisioned, as an opportunity to redress the inequities through new public history and interpretation, incorporating but fundamentally transforming the heritage preservation that came before.

The old printing press at Pilgrim’s Rest. Photo by SR.

Yet Pilgrim’s Rest, like the Kruger Museum, remains very much rooted in the previous incarnation of “heritage.” Even the newest interpretive signage in the visitor’s center focuses almost exclusively on white stories: Transvaal soldiers minting coins during the Anglo-Boer War, high-stakes gold robberies, and so forth. The choice to retain this very narrow approach to public history, I would argue, has contributed to the town’s recent economic difficulties and the sense that preservation initiatives have started to pull away from the site rather than engaging with it.

Pilgrim’s Rest was declared a national monument in 1986, under what was still then an apartheid government. Since that time (I’ve been unable to determine exactly when), Pilgrim’s Rest was dropped from the monuments list and today retains only a provincial listing. Additionally, in 2004, Pilgrim’s Rest was added to South Africa’s “tentative list” of UNESCO sites. Inclusion on the tentative list is the first step a country takes towards an official nomination—a site must be on the tentative list to be eligible for later nomination. Pilgrim’s Rest was joined by several other significant industrial sites, including the Big Hole at Kimberley and related structures.

These industrial landscapes remained on the list until sometime in 2015, at which time they were suddenly excised without explanation. Preservation activists were angered and stunned, both at the abruptness of the changes and at the lack of public statements made about them. Today, only three modern cultural sites remain on South Africa’s list: the “Early Farmsteads of the Cape Winelands” (added 2009, updated 2015), the “Liberation Heritage Route” (added 2009), and a network of sites under the heading “Human Right, Liberation Struggle and Reconciliation: Nelson Mandela Legacy Sites” (2015).

An investigative blog post on The Heritage Portal, a site maintained by South African preservation activists, attempted to make sense of the removals. After interviewing several people familiar with the nomination process, Jacques Stoltz of the of the Heritage Monitoring Project identified several reasons that a site might be delisted, which I’ve paraphrased here:

  • Lack of human/technical resources – Pursuing a nomination takes a lot of time and skilled labor, which some nations simply cannot expend across too many different sites.
  • Lack of financial resources – The sites delisted in 2015 are located primarily in economically struggling provinces of South Africa that may simply not be able to bring the sites up to UNESCO standards and maintain them in the long term.
  • Degradation of listed sites – When a site sits on the tentative list for long enough, the site itself may physically deteriorate to the point of being no longer suitable.
  • Changing cultural norms – As we saw with the changing ideas about heritage at the end of apartheid, it may be that a site is no longer seen as representing a culture’s values.
  • Avoiding complexities of ownership – Some of the delisted sites are located in areas that have multiple and conflicting owners.
  • Refocusing national preservation efforts – With a smaller number of tentative sites, a country might be better able to hone its nominations and have a better chance of actually attaining UNESCO status.

I am still relatively new to the world of preservation, but it seems like there is vicious cycle built into all of these justifications for delisting a site, particularly in a place like South Africa where funding for heritage sites is decidedly limited. UNESCO status has the potential to attract tourism, but the process of attaining that status can itself be costly, enough so to dissuade regional or national governments from pursuing nomination for sites that would need substantial restoration or documentation. But without the international prestige (and increased visitor numbers) that come from a UNESCO listing, many of these sites simply do not have the human or economic resources necessary to maintain the physical structures and artifacts that make them unique. As Len Raymond, the Heritage Association of South Africa (HASA) spokesperson told Stoltz regarding the recent tentative list removals:

”…we are deeply concerned about the delisting of an entire group of highly significant industrial sites at Namaqualand, Kimberley and Pilgrim’s Rest – these sites we believe carry huge value to the peoples of Southern Africa and beyond – given the extent of the labour footprint we are talking about – the sites therefore undoubtedly deserve international recognition. We are also particularly concerned about the poor state of conservation at these sites – even the Public Protector stated that the management of Pilgrim’s Rest is shocking.”

As of now, Pilgrim’s Rest has a few valuable assets. It still has an excellent set of unique historic buildings that together form a larger, cohesive cultural landscape. It also has a municipal population that seems eager for employment, and given the right opportunities and education, could make significant contributions to creating a positive visitor experience. What the site lacks, however, is any kind of substantive curatorial oversight, which could insure that the architectural treasure of Pilgrim’s Rest was being leveraged to tell inclusive, nuanced stories about South Africa’s industrial past. And sadly, it seems that whatever resources existed previously to keep the buildings in relatively good repair may be substantially diminished. And without those buildings, the value of Pilgrim’s Rest as a historical site is severely diminished if not obliterated.

As of 2016, Pilgrim’s Rest ranked as one of The Heritage Portal’s most endangered historic sites in South Africa.

“If there is no intervention, further degradation of the site will erode the remaining tourism and other local economic benefits the site holds for the area. This will also threaten its existing Provincial Heritage Site Status and any future efforts to reconsider the site as a potential Unesco World Heritage Site… The town is neglected and is not being maintained by the Mpumalanga Provincial Government.”

Since leaving Pilgrim’s Rest, we’ve driven through Kimberley (another threatened industrial site), and along the coast to the Cape Wine region. Situated in Franschhoek, we are now at the heart of one of the three remaining modern cultural sites on South Africa’s tentative UNESCO list. The historic buildings here are immaculately conserved and restored with private money, and tourism is booming. It seems a million miles away from the quiet desperation of Pilgrim’s Rest.

Things will likely be a little quieter on the blog for the next few weeks as I write my longer posts for the Society of Architectural Historians and the National Trust. But John and I will still be keeping up our podcast, and our newsletter will be coming out as usual. Stay tuned.


Heritage Monitoring Project. “Our vanishing heritage – South Africa’s top ten endangered sites 2016.” The Heritage Portal, September 22, 2016. Accessed August 19, 2018.

“Report on Future Direction for Heritage Conservation in South Africa.” South African government document, October 1994. Architectural archives at the University of Witswatersrand.

Stoltz, Jacques. “SA removes sites from the UNESCO world heritage tentative list.” The Heritage Portal, October 25, 2015 (originally published July 24, 2015). Accessed August 19, 2018.

“There is no law here”: Pilgrim’s Rest Part 1

It doesn’t necessarily inspire confidence when the website for a heritage site boldly displays the disclaimer:

PILGRIM’S is ALIVE and WELL! (April 2016)

Despite all the recent media hype,


for business as usual.

But despite any qualms this disclaimer may have caused (or concerns I had regarding the website’s decidedly 1990s design), I nevertheless undertook the journey to this renowned historical South African mining town last week. What I found was a town that while technically “open for business,” was clearly on the decline, a near ghost-town. A half-dozen tourists trickled between the various preserved historical buildings of Pilgrim’s Rest “Uptown” and “Downtown,” and a small group of Afrikaner bikers congregated for a mid-afternoon tipple at the Royal Hotel.

Local kids hanging out near the Royal Hotel. Today, the Royal Hotel is one of the few businesses in Pilgrim’s Rest that seems to be doing a viable amount of trade. Photo by SR.

The residents we encountered seemed to be making a living in whatever way they could – we encountered a man herding cows along the road, several women hawking curios at roadside stalls, a few ticket-takers at town’s near-vacant museums, and a group of men engaged in the dubious tourist “car wash” business (your car is washed by the parking attendants without your permission while you are visiting the town, and you are charged for the service when you return). Although this racket is not unique to Pilgrim’s Rest, it seems to have taken off as a major income provider, given the large, official-looking signs explaining that we could be charged a “Maximum of 80 ZAR” (around $6), and the fact that our host in Graskop asked if we’d “had our car washed” when we returned that evening (we ultimately escaped with only a 20 ZAR window-washing). When I stopped to buy a pamphlet and some postcards at the gift shop, the lone staff member manning the entire museum, visitor’s center, and shop, seemed genuinely baffled at my request—I was evidently one of very few paying patrons in recent memory. However, despite the fact that the residents of Pilgrim’s Rest clearly were struggling to maintain steady employment, the buildings were largely in good repair, and at least in the main visitor center, and some portions of the interpretive signage seemed relatively new and up-to-date. In the visitor center, a new introductory panel proclaimed the mission of the preserving Pilgrim’s Rest:

The fundamental objective of the village is focused on the protection and management of this heritage resource to the benefit of the Pilgrim’s Rest community, the people of Mpumalanga and all South Africans, in order to conserve a vital and irreplaceable part of our history and its link to gold, for future generations.

It seemed there had been money in Pilgrim’s Rest, and recently. Equally clear, however, was that the industrial heritage of the town was not being managed in such a way as to act for the benefit of the community.

The Central Garage has been transformed into a small transportation museum. Photo by SR.

Pilgrim’s Rest is located in the Highveld region of Mpumalanga, the northeastern province of South Africa known for stunning scenery, Kruger National Park, and unfortunately, rampant political corruption link to NYT article on this topic. Beyond the larger graft described in the linked article, the mountainous region around Pilgrim’s Rest is notorious for fake “traffic police” stopping unsuspecting tourists and demanding an on-the-spot penalty fee (i.e. bribe). Pilgrim’s Rest lies adjacent to the Panorama Route, a sequence of scenic natural wonders, all of which charge a nominal fee for entrance. Between viewpoints, much of the landscape has been heavily impacted by the logging industry, which, in addition to tourism, has largely supplanted mining as the region’s major source of income. The Panorama Route effectively funnels tourists into very isolated areas where specific geological features or viewsheds have been preserved against the ravages of logging. Yet, the drive between interest points is dominated by the unnaturally straight rows of pine trees planted by the logging industry.

In 1873, a prospector named William Trafford ignited the first significant gold rush in South Africa when he announced his discovery of an alluvial gold deposit near the existing New Caledonia Gold Fields (also called the MacMac camp). Trafford’s announcement came in September, and by the year’s end, 1500 prospectors were mining in the area that would become Pilgrim’s Rest. Despite the discovery of other, competing gold deposits in the area, including those to the south in Barberton, and at Witswatersrand in what would become Johannesburg, Pilgrim’s Rest grew from a provincial mining camp into a regional commercial center. As was the case in Johannesburg, individual claims eventually became untenable as deeper excavations required bigger machines and more capital. In addition, the Transvaal government wanted to actively encourage industrialization, and so began a practice of granting major concessions to investors and corporations. David Benjamin, a London banker, gained a concession for the mining rights in Pilgrim’s Rest in 1881. Benjamin bought out other miners’ shares, and with the remaining small mining companies in the region, formed the amalgamated Transvaal Gold Mining Estates (TGME) in 1885. This marked the beginning of major institutional consolidation at Pilgrim’s Rest, and the end of the early days of solo miners working individual claims.

These economic and structural changes had significant consequences for the built environment of the town. As the official pamphlet notes:

“The histories of the Transvaal Gold Mining Estate and Pilgrim’s Rest are inseparably linked. Both shared the fluctuating fortunes of the mines”

Already by 1876, miners were upgrading from tents to permanent buildings. By the 1890s, the city was a major commercial center. Over the following decades, the town’s fortunes waxed and waned with the productivity of the mine, and in response to the vicissitudes of the national and global gold markets. By the 1910s, the Pilgrim’s Rest revenues were beginning to dwindle as gold became harder to extract. The unique geography of the region meant that the reefs were often thin and hard to track. Mines were constantly opened, closed, and reopened again (TGME opened thirty mines in all over nearly a century of operation). After WWI, a number of forestry experiments in the area proved so profitable that mining no longer seemed the only viable economic mainstay of the region. Fortunes for the town turned temporarily in 1932, when gold prices spiked, and for a short time, the town entered another “boom” period. But, by the 1950s, mining operations had reached their all-time peak and in 1968, TGME sold out to another mining company. In 1972, the last mine ceased function. TGME (now a subsidiary of another company) sold the town of Pilgrim’s Rest to the Provincial government as a heritage site in 1974. It was declared a National Monument in 1986.

The Information Center, complete with (often quite dated) posters and pamphlets for other area attractions and things to do in town. Photo by SR.

Even as the mining fortunes rose and fell over the last century, the architectural fabric of Pilgrim’s Rest has changed relatively little. One history of the town attributes the stagnant nature of the town to a proud and stubborn resistance to modernity. Purportedly, a new magistrate who arrived around the turn of the century was waylaid on his way into town by an angry villager who declared:

”You have come to a queer place! This is the Republic of Pilgrim’s Rest. There is no law here except what we make ourselves.”

However, more so than temperament, the preservation of Pilgrim’s Rest is connected to its history as a company town, owned in its entirety by TGME rather than by private individuals. The town expanded and contracted to serve the needs of the mine, and building stock was conserved rather than torn down and replaced with each boom-bust sequence. Due to its rural, mountainous location, Pilgrim’s Rest relied on the building materials that were simple to transport or could be acquired locally. As such, the town has a particular vernacular that unites many of its significant buildings. Corrugated iron siding forms the bulk of the walls and roofs, while carved wooden tracery and columns in a late-Victorian style lend ornament and articulation to the various commercial buildings. More permanent building materials, such as stone and brick, were typically reserved for structures such as the banks and churches. Still, most residences in the main part of town and the commercial buildings share the same basic grammar of sheet metal and carved wooden ornament, distinguished by fine-grain details, paint color, and ample signage.

The Old Bank is one of the few stone buildings in town, but its corrugated sheet metal roof and wooden ornament are typical of almost every historical building in town. Photo by SR.

After completing a circuit of the main town, John and I hiked up to the historical cemetery overlooking the town (complete with ominous squawking bird and creaky gate). By that point, I felt viscerally disconcerted by the tenor of the whole place. We’ve been to some pretty off-the-beaten track places here in South Africa, but this was the site that left me feeling the most on-edge.

We walked back to the downtown car park, past a row of former miner houses, the town’s elementary school, and its clinic. A pair of local boys raced past us up the hill, laughing and teasing each other as they ran—a blip of normalcy in what had been a truly strange experience. Returning to our rental car, its windows freshly washed, I felt an unmistakable sense of relief at the prospect of leaving. What had happened here? Why did the lived experience of this place feel so desolate? Was it merely a fluke of regional economic circumstance, or were there more global forces at play? The individual answers I’ve found are inconclusive but together situate Pilgrim’s Rest at the center of a debate raging in South Africa about how to manage the country’s historic sites, and the particular place and purpose of industrial sites as part of national heritage.

To Be Continued…

The infamous Robber’s Grave of Pilgrim’s Rest. On the day I visited, most other tourists I saw mostly went directly to the cemetery. Overlooking the rest of the town, the cemetery has a macabre ambience and several notable permanent residents. Photo by SR.


“Pilgrim’s Rest Home Page.” http://www.pilgrims-rest.co.za, accessed August 14, 2018. Last updated 2016.

Pilgrim’s Rest Museum. “Pilgrim’s Gold: A Humble Place That Made a Huge Constribution to South Africa’s Gold Industry.” Introductory museum text panel. Undated.

Pilgrim’s Rest Museum. “Pilgrim’s Rest: You are never too late for the Gold Rush.” Pamphlet from the information center. Undated.

Schultz, Judith. “The History of Pilgrim’s Rest.” Pamphlet from the information center. Undated.

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.

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.

The Fantastical Worlds of William Timlin

I’ve entered the “road trip” portion of my time in South Africa—a few weeks of being continuously on the road as we wind our way from Kruger all the way down to Cape Town. It’s been another big day of driving some 7 hours south to the Eastern Cape. In lieu of the discursive blog posts I’ve been writing, I thought it would be a nice change of pace to write a few “mini posts” over the next few days.

Part of the joy of travel is being surprised and delighted by unexpected discoveries. Yesterday, as part of a full day explore of Kimberley’s greatest architectural hits, John and I stopped by the William Humphreys Art Gallery (lovingly known here as the WHAG). In addition to a remarkable exhibit of powerful anti-apartheid art, and an excellent display of contemporary South African folk art, there was a show of the work of William Timlin (1892-1943) that completely caught me off-guard, and left me grinning, delirious, and enchanted.

Timlin was born in the UK, and did his architectural training in Newcastle. His parents relocated to South Africa during his schooling, and he followed them there in 1912. After establishing himself as an architect in Kimberley, Timlin contributed significantly the artistic development of the city, helping to found an arts chapter as part of the Kimberley Athenaeum.

His architectural work is very emblematic of the eclectic style of early twentieth-century Kimberley, pulling stylistic inspiration from across continents and periods. At its inception, Kimberley had been a rough and tumble pioneer town designed out of necessity to serve the burgeoning diamond mine. By the 1910s, the city had started to cultivate at least a veneer of respectability through the construction of permanent public buildings. Timlin’s architectural drawings shown at the WHAG were notable for their fine line work and their whimsical quality—no heavy, Beaux Arts classicism here, just well-proportioned masses gleefully blending Tudor and Cape Dutch ornament. Timlin’s artistic ouevre outside professional architecture was even more audacious and capacious, including several illustrations for two children’s books (one still in print, one left unfinished upon his untimely death), watercolor landscapes, countless oils, graphic design projects, and apparently musical composition as well. And his two-dimensional work was just as stylistically diverse as his architectural designs, pulling from art historical references past and contemporary.

Illustration from The Ship that Sailed to Mars, begun 1921

The only characteristics that seem to unite his paintings and illustrations are a telltale lightness of hand, vibrant color palette, and fascination with the fantastical in architecture. A moody nocturne of a bucolic Cape Dutch cottage in the style of Van Gogh hung next to luminous watercolor illustrations for the interiors of a fairy city pulling explicitly from Piranesi’s Prisons series. Prints of maidens with Pre-Raphaelite pretensions happily cohabited alongside Turneresque landscapes. Timlin’s work takes the wild, creative energy of an artist like William Blake and applies the rigor of architectural training and imagination of Boullée or Ledoux. His genius for architectural atmosphere might be taken as a precedent for work of late twentieth-century innovators like Lebbeus Woods.

Today we passed through Bloemfontein, birthplace of J.R.R. Tolkien (though he only lived there until age 3), before ending in Hogsback, a quaint fairy-idyll of a town full of mysticism and Celtic lore. The landscape on this drive has been rugged and unforgiving. It doesn’t feel surprising that colonial British settlers transposed their ideas of fantastical other worlds onto the strange, alien landscape of early twentieth-century South Africa in an attempt to make this land feel a little more familiar. How humans acclimate to new places through the use of storytelling and world building is a central concern to the field of public history, and Timlin’s work, though bound up in larger, more difficult narratives about colonialism and conquest, reminds us of the more optimistic, joyful aspects of inventing new worlds through art and architecture.