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3080 Tervuren - Belgium
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Norms in the Margins and Margins of the Norm

The Social Construction of Illegality


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Abstracts Panel 9

Panel organizer: Ciraj Rassool (University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa)

The New Museum

As part of a conference that is interested to explore 'norms and their codification' as 'central to the organization of human societies', I wish to convene a panel about museums, changing social norms and the politics of representation. This panel on The New Museum will reflect upon the changing nature of museums in different parts of the world. In these new times, the possibilities of a postcolonial and potentially post-ethnographic and post-racial world have begun to emerge, and increasingly, the 19th Century Museum, with its histories of collecting, classification and display has been called into question. Indeed we may be witnessing the end of the museum as we know it. Nevertheless new defences of an older order of the modern museum continue to express themselves, such as in the form of the Universal Museum. The repatriation of human remains has also seen questions posed about collections of artefacts, with the authority of these collections called into question. As older classificatory divisions lose their ability to contain meanings, new forms of museum are beginning to emerge that are not defined by collections or exhibitions. In this transitional period in the life of the museum, boundaries and margins are being blurred and even dissolved. Communities are mobilized through museums as social spaces. Even images and their meanings have been reconstituted as part of these processes. Through an examination of a series of cases, changing practices and new epistemologies, this panel will explore the contested norms of the new museum.


  • Leslie Witz, History Department, University of the Western Cape
    Observing and Disobeying the Signs: The Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum, a Heritage Park in Cape Town

    I first heard of the possibility of a museum in Lwandle in 1998 when a student of mine told me about where he lived and spoke of plans to develop a museum of migrant labour around the last remaining hostel. I must admit to being highly skeptical. Within the boundaries of historical narratives of South Africa and of the Western Cape that I had read and studied over the years, Lwandle, some forty kilometers outside Cape Town, a township designated for people classified under apartheid as ‘native’, did not exist at all. Almost a year after my student told me about the museum I kept my promise and set off to see the proposed museum. But after following his directions instead of seeing the sign to Lwandle I came across a large billboard on the left hand side of the road that read: THE FIRST SECURED TOWN IN THE WESTERN CAPE HERITAGE PARK. LIVE. WORK. PLAY IN SAFETY. This was a sign for a gated community, an enclave with all the accompanying accoutrements of fences, surveillance apparatuses and booms. This was not the type of migrant labour heritage that my student had spoken to me about the previous year and so I drove on for about 100 metres and on the right saw the sign directing me to Lwandle.  The student was waiting for me outside an ugly apartheid type 1960s structure, amidst what was literally a dust patch. This was not very promising and as he showed me around the interior of an old community hall, with an almost arbitrary set of photographs attached to the walls of the building, I could not see very much hope for a museum. I noticed that the student had affixed what he called the museum’s ‘mission statement’ to the wall on a laminated A4 sheet of paper: ‘To commemorate the migrant labour system and hostel life. Ukumbule ubugoduka nobeni behostele.’  Contained within this was a sign of intent and in spite of a lack of imminent financial support the museum officially declared itself open a year later on 1 May (Workers’ Day) 2000. What many of those who were in attendance might remember from that day was a sign that the residents of the hostel that was envisaged as a key component of the museum put up protesting against the use of their room for museum purposes as they required upgraded accommodation before they would vacate their residence. In this chapter I want to use the sign that was placed on the door of the hostel on 1 May 2000, the notice indicating Heritage Park and the piece of A4 paper attached to the wall to begin thinking through the history of the Lwandle Migrant Labour Museum and the struggles over the establishment and form of a museum community. The museum constantly negotiates its representations of itself and its diverse communities, encountering on the way a series of other signs that seek to direct it along specified paths. Sometimes the signs are observed, in other instances they are flouted, and then (which is mostly the case) ways are found to negotiate their meanings and prescriptions. The museum, of course, as an institution of display and collection, is also creating its own public notices, ascribing values and signaling directions through its design and inscriptions. In telling about the museum, its pasts and the pasts it seeks to represent I use these signs not to indicate a sense of resolution or arrival but the processes of moving between the signs, the constant shuffling back and forth, the changing directions and the re-makings of a museum community that always appears to be out of place.
  • Corinne A Kratz (Emory University, USA)
    Boundaries, Margins, and Blurred Genres

    Museum exhibitions embody and construct a range of norms that help define different genres of exhibition and institution, as well as various kinds of knowledge, modes of knowledge production, and scholarly disciplines. These include topical norms, communicative norms, and design conventions. At the same time exhibitions convey particular rhetorics of value that undergird various other social norms and relations. Curators and scholars alike have argued that exhibitions in recent decades increasingly combine and ignore these exhibition norms and conventions, blurring display genres particularly among exhibitions of art, history, and ethnography. Is this so? How do we understand the processes through which these boundaries and margins dissolve, whether new norms arise, and the implications of such blurrings? Which margins dissolve and which solidify?
  • Larissa Förster (University of Cologne, Germany)
    The Power of Bones: Repatriation and the Remaking of Museum Norms and Practices

    The paper will look at how museum collections (in particular anthropological collections) that were acquired around 1900 as part of the imperial/colonial project of constructing races, have resurfaced in German museums in recent years and have started to trouble these institutions. Without a legal framework or professional guidelines in place for repatriating human remains, German museums are struggling to negotiate norms and conditions for the return of such human remains with their African claimants. A case in point is the debate about the return of human remains from the Medical History Museum in Berlin to Namibia. This debate - and in particular current scientific attempts to identify the precise origin of these remains - raise critical questions about the history of collecting and classifying in (physical) anthropology and about how the bodies of knowledge shaped in comparative anatomy around 1900 and seemingly still underlying contemporary configurations of knowledge can be deconstructed in order to decolonise and deracialise museum practice.
  • Gary Minkley (University of Fort Hare, RSA)
    The Museum and the Image: Re-Looking at the Visual in Eastern Cape Museums

    This paper considers the changing indexes, mobilities and meanings associated with the photographic image and the work they do in four Eastern Cape museums. The four museums range from a provincial long-standing East London city museum, through an urban South End community museum, the post-apartheid Red Location museum and finally a small rural based Cata Community Museum. The paper will compare and contrast the ways that images work in these museums, explore the continuities and changes that have taken place after 1994, and account for how and why certain images have been constituted and re-constituted as iconic across these museums. This discussion will form the basis for a broader and wider discussion about the changing nature of museums, in terms of both the post-apartheid, and more widely in terms of the changing form and nature of the museum.
  • Susan LegĂȘne (VU University, The Netherlands)
    Tools of Empire, Tools of the Nation State?(or: the Old Museum…)

    Empire histories turn up in national historiography throughout Europe. Often such narratives of empire link the national past to global history, while obscuring European transnational dimensions of colonialism. On the other hand, grand narratives as in Tony Judt’s Postwar, A history of Europe since 1945 (2005), seem to underexpose colonialism, decolonization and postcolonial migration as constitutive elements in contemporary European history. ‘Provincializing Europe’ as Chakrabarty has proposed, requires a clearer picture of what has been (or what emerged as) European with respect to Europe’s colonial empires (MacKenzy 2011; Burbank/Cooper 2011). Discussing colonialism through its transnational moments as a "European history" may contribute to a better understanding of the dynamics within both pre-war and postwar Europe, both in political, social and cultural terms, and to the exclusive meaning attached to national citizenship in Europe. It has often been said, that museums were a tool of empire, both overseas and in the metropole. Both collection contents and their provenance are saturated with this European dimension, which often goes unacknowledged; Are the former tools of empire now just competitive tools for nation states?

Discussant: Ciraj Rassool (University of the Western Cape, Cape Town, South Africa)

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