Today we made several stops to different places, and they all ended up being interesting experiences. We travelled to Robben Island (a former maximum security prison), V & A Waterfront, the Slave Lodge, Bokaap neighborhood, and participated in a Malay cooking class. Out of all of these places we visited, I’d have to say the ones that got me thinking about my research question were Robben Island and the Slave Lodge.
Touring Robben Island was a very unique experience because we had the privilege of being guided through the former prison by one of the men who had been held prisoner behind its walls for a large part of his life – he was arrested at age eighteen and was in prison for eighteen years. I thought it was extremely brave and big of him to go back to the place where he was held captive and share his story with visitors. I can’t even imagine what that must feel like. That also made me think about the other prisoners who might have been approached to give these tours but couldn’t bring themselves to. Our tour guide/former prisoner (Peter) told us about his experiences in the prison with the other inmates and how they were able to talk politics without being discovered by the security guards (they were not allowed to discuss anything that had to do with politics). We got to see the way they lived, the beds they slept in, the fields they played sports in, as well as the jail cell that Nelson Mandela was held prisoner in for many years. We also got to ride around the island and learn about its many other parts, like the village and the school for children that ended up closing down.
Being on Robben Island and seeing how South Africans have decided to open up the space to allow visitors to come inside and learn the raw truth about what really went on behind the prison’s walls. This trip gave me insight into how South Africans choose to remember certain parts of their past – they aren’t afraid to share their experiences with others, no matter what those previous experiences or behaviors might have been. This is very unlike the United States, especially in relation to the institution of Slavery. Within the last couple of years, African Americans were finally given a museum to commemorate their past, their people, and their experiences. The Martin Luther Kind Jr. Memorial in D.C. was very recent as well. Even though Robben Island was turned into a museum recently as well, South Africans didn’t wait centuries and decades to decide whether or not they should share their experiences during Apartheid with the world. I really admire the people of South Africa for that, as it takes some serious courage and a desire to not repeat past mistakes made in history to realize that history needs to be shared rather than swept under the rug and avoided. Lastly, I found it very intriguing that Robben Island as a whole is considered to be a museum as opposed to only certain parts of the island being featured as more important or historical than others. It was also very nice to see that the former prisoners of Robben Island are considered to be a “living, breathing” museum within themselves – however, that can also be seen as a slight downside, as once all of the prisoners pass on, it would be up the South Africans here to continue sharing the stories to keep the history alive and spreading.
Visiting the Slave Lodge Museum was also a nice experience, as I really like visiting history museums – especially when they have to do with African or African American people. This museum was a bit different from what I’m used to back in America, but for different reasons than Robben Island. I noticed that the language used to explain what happened during the times of Slavery seemed to be a little more blunt and blatant as opposed to being more narrative-like. There is no cushioning given when visitors are reading the information. I actually thought that was a good thing because when horrible events such as Slavery are described, I feel like it’s much better to be cut and dry as opposed to speaking in a more narrative fashion – narrative language is more story-like, and Slavery is not just a story. It’s an important historical event that I feel like it much better explained here than it usually is in America. The new African American museum in D.C. isn’t too bad with their descriptions, but there was something about this particular museum here in Capetown that made me feel a little more interested while reading.
Another thing that made this museum different from what I’m used to was that there didn’t seem to be as much attention given to smaller details of the displays. I noticed that in the front entrance of the museum the chandeliers only had a couple of the lights glowing, while the others were blown out. The same happened with the spotlights in that area. I was a bit critical of this at first, because I’m so used to American museums where every detail in major museums have been attended to and everything seems to be placed perfectly. However, I realized I was being a bit critical and looked at it a different way: It seems as if South Africans are more concerned with sharing the historical information clearly and plainly to help people better understand the material. In American museums, so much attention is paid to details and displays that I feel like sometimes people end up being more in awe of the displays than the actual information that’s bring presented in front of them. For example, when I hear people talking about the new African American museum in D.C., I never hear anyone talking about what they learned. People talk about how nice the displays looked and how big it is, or how long it took them to get through all of the information. So it doesn’t seem like American museums are always trying to educate their visitors as much as they’re trying to impress everyone with how much effort was put into making the museum look presentable. In essence, I thought the contrast between the Slave Lodge and American museums was pretty interesting.
I’m interested to see how the other excursions we have planned will further expand my research.