The Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative

The Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative was established in 2009 to grapple with critical questions about history, memory, identity and the public sphere in South Africa. Funded by the National Research Foundation and based at the UCT’s Historical Studies Department, this inter-disciplinary research project explores the workings of the archive in contemporary culture.


Researchers engage with theoretical ideas about archive and public culture, while giving close attention to the record. The project brings together scholars from across the humanities and social sciences, while also supporting research on archive in the fields of science, law and medicine.

National Research Foundation (NRF) Chairs are charged with nurturing a new generation of high-performing researchers and academics. In an effort to vivify this vision of human capital development, the Initiative is structured around intensive post-graduate engagement, mentoring and support for junior academic staff, underpinned by sustained pedagogical reflection and experimentation. As part of UCT’s drive to enhance the quality of post-graduate training, it assembles emerging researchers and students alongside well-established thinkers, providing a supportive space for the testing of ideas

The development of an active inter-disciplinary research group comprising senior established scholars, new academics, post-doctoral fellows, doctoral, masters and honours students, as well as research-active professionals in cognate institutions and practitioners in public life, underpins a collaborative approach to developing an active teaching and learning environment within a research context.

The Research Initiative promotes a number of pedagogical innovations designed to build research capacity and to foster critical, independent enquiry. These include introducing students to relevant theory,  encouraging a breadth of familiarity and depth of systematic engagement through careful reading of selected works, developing analytical skills, honing methodologies and driving processes of writing up and publishing research.

The research programme is structured around regular research development workshops;  ad hoc reading groups; research labs; monthly supervision meetings, with systematically generated supervision records; structured co-supervisions; multi-year core funding and independently raised top-up funding; conference attendance assistance and publication support.

Networks are developed and sustained through the participation of national and international honorary research fellows who are regular visitors, research partners on sub-projects and student consultants. In these ways the Research Initiative welds graduate students and advanced researchers into a mutually supportive, diverse but focused research group - an active community of practice, breaking the research isolation often typical in the Humanities.

'Having just completed another three-day Archive and Public Culture workshop, I'd like to applaud its character. It struck me as being a kind of "republic" in the sense that the space is democratic, but also one that blurs the boundaries between the arts, humanities, public and private life, since some of the students and faculty come from civil society (working for the city on heritage, having former lives in poster art/struggle politics, art writing...). To achieve this level of cohesion and focus among a group of students coming from such diverse backgrounds is impressive.

Professor David William Cohen, Honorary Research Fellow

‘I have been privy to many ongoing seminars in my time, including the one I run at the Michigan Institute. I have never seen a more free, non-hierarchical space than this. African graduate students feel utterly free to think out loud, everybody talks, and talks on point, there is a sense of comradeship in mission while also plenty of argument, controversy, difference in position… The point is to make work in progress better, to have it progress. And I think, around the table, this happens for all….Here both advisor and student seem to share a pact that thinking out of the box deepens the message, that writing is something to be pored over by many different kinds of readers, that freedom of thought is a good thing.’

Professor Daniel Herwitz, Honorary Research Fellow

Research Terrain


As contemporary South Africa negotiates its many pasts - violent and racialised, entangled and divided - inherited notions of archive and inherited archives both constrain and nurture interrogations of the past and imaginings of the future. Likewise, fresh ideas of archive and novel archives impose new limitations and suggest exciting possibilities.

The Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative is an enquiry into these inheritances and their significance today. It is a trans-disciplinary endeavour hospitable to all fields where archive presents itself as a subject of enquiry. The Initiative actively embraces material culture, visual forms, sonic objects, landscapes, bodies, cultural repertoires and everyday practices, opening to the recognition of archive beyond documents, and in places seldom deemed 'archives'.

In contemporary South African political and cultural life there are at once intense longings for a rich and fulsome knowledge of the ancient past, but also profound suspicions about the collections of the colonial and apartheid eras, which speak to the distant past. Recognising these currents, one of the focus areas within the Initiative concerns the southern African past before European colonialism.

Our work accords critical attention to how that past was captured in colonial and apartheid scholarship in the early racial sciences - in Philology, Linguistics, Anthropology, Bantu Studies, Archaeology and Ethnomusicology - and what evidentiary bases were marshalled in support of the findings of these disciplines. It actively seeks out other forms of evidence as well as alternative historiographies and concepts.

We pay close attention to the role of material culture and visual renditions in underwriting knowledge about the remote past. Colonial- and apartheid-era scholarship had its own conventions for the collection and interpretation of objects. A marked feature of these conventions was the interpretation of objects as cultural items. Their assignment to museums without attention to their provenance and their utilisation as testimony to societies without history, along with the early evaluation of oral materials as unreliable, rendered those societies effectively archiveless. Our research actively positions the object and visual collections held in museums, heritage sites and elsewhere, as archives, thereby enabling the museum collections to speak to the past and not simply to a timeless tribal present. The projects on material objects offer accounts of the circumstances of collection, the history of the migrations of collections, and their current conditions of existence. This research reminds us that the various elements of tainted colonial and apartheid-era collections have distinct provenances and life stories of their own that need to be known in order for their potentially rich postcolonial archival possibilities to be realised..

The many kinds of materials described as “oral traditions” are similarly a focus of our interest. We unpack this portmanteau term, identifying political discourses, concepts and conceptual apparatuses and alternative historiographies.  We pay attention to the custodial practices involved as well as to how these materials and ideas change over time.

In post-apartheid South Africa, the concepts of intangible heritage, tradition and indigenous knowledge have entered official discourse in significant ways, highlighting many kinds of contemporary inheritances which trace roots to the distant past. These include inheritances found in landscape, in everyday practices, cultural repertoires and cosmologies. The Research Initiative investigates these currently valorised and officialised inheritances, interrogating their archival aspirations and public lives. Certain inheritances are ignored by contemporary officialisation, consecrated nowhere in the colonial and apartheid museums and archives, and held outside of institutions. All of these inheritances, the conditions of their valorisation, officialisation, discounting or neglect, and the archival notions, which are at play in and around them, are subjects of the enquiry.



'I posit the contemporary as the past arriving at knowledge, and as the present unfolding, indefinable, yet begging to be understood. The contemporary frees us from the past through our ability to transform that past into knowledge. It is this knowledge that has the potential to free us from any obligation to relive the past each time it is recalled. There is no imperative to relive the past, but an absolute, ethical requirement to know it. This seems unavoidable. The value of the contemporary is in the knowledge of the past that it allows us to contemplate. It is also about the suspension and even the avoidance of judgment. In the contemporary the inherited categories melt and are reformed in new ways.'

Professor Njabulo S Ndebele

The archives, epistemological and material, that impose themselves on, or lend themselves to, such negotiations of the past are the focus of the APC enquiry, as are the mutually constituting roles of the epistemological archive and the storehouses of archival materials. Our project resonates in global discussions of memory, trauma, social justice, imperialism, indigenous rights, and the practices of history, examining how those discussions connect with local developments, and suggesting what local developments may connote for those discussions.

Our project marks a moment of urgency in contemporary South Africa, one that is linked to issues of restitution and redress. The ways in which we think about and engage with the past play a critical part in shaping the present and future. This socio-political urgency at once shapes our endeavour and is that from which we also seek critical distance.