Posted on April 24, 2013
As Nazi soldiers started shipping Jewish residents of the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka during World War II, David Graber deposited this haunting statement in an archive buried underground by activists in the Ghetto:

"I would love to see the moment in which the great treasure will be dug up and scream the truth at the world. May the treasure fall into good hands, may it last into better times, may it alarm and alert the world to what happened. May history be our witness."

The residents of the Ghetto knew that without their own intervention, their stories would be lost and perhaps not believed. They dug up the archive after the War, at a time when Germany was still in denial over what had happened, at a time when the diaries of Anne Frank were still considered unworthy of publication.

The stories we tell about the past, and the artefacts we mobilise to do this, have a powerful influence on the present. Debates over the politics of representing the past - about populating the archive with diverse voices - have been very important in South Africa's human rights discourse. There were many exciting initiatives and a wide range of activism in the South African archive and heritage sector during the 1980s and 1990s. Although after 1994 conservative, apartheid-era representations and staffing profiles still dominated in many cultural institutions, the transformatory approaches promoted by government in the 1996 White Paper sought to reconfigure the landscape of archives and heritage in the country.

The work of government in arts and culture should represent an effort towards the stated Constitutional goal of building a just and equitable society. This does not just mean aiming for greater racial equality, but also gender equality and equality of access to education and healthcare for example. The government's arts and culture agenda was part of a 'nation-building' project that had its political and financial limitations, however. As in many other countries, government funding and attention tends to be focused on (a) creating the narratives of the past that those in power want to tell now, (b) benign neglect or discrediting of those artefacts and narratives they want to forget and (c) maintaining those traces of the past that confer international status or would cause too much political trouble to ditch.

There has been some success. Nearly twenty years after 1994, the South African archive is able to offer some degree of witness to the stories of those who fought apartheid as well as those who put it in place. Oral history projects have abounded. At Robben Island Museum in the exciting early years of the museum we had long debates about how to transform the historical narrative, how to represent the past. Some struggle leaders received more attention than others of course, and many stories of ordinary hardship and triumph under apartheid have gone untold. Some archives, such as those of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, remain difficult to access. Non-governmental organisations like community museums and archives still therefore have to play a role in representing alternative perspectives.

Yet it is important still to ask the question, for whom does the archive sector today actually bear witness? If we take a cross section of our galleries, museum exhibitions, archives or national heritage listings at present, for example, whose stories do they tell and to whom? If there are imbalances in our National Estate or collections, how have we dealt with them? What new heritage forms have we acknowledged, and why?

These are of course very large questions to address; some have begun the task already. In this blog I will highlight some issues in the archive and heritage sector that may deserve further consideration on human rights grounds.

Extending the heritage landscape in South Africa has been acknowledged as important, but much of the rebalancing to date has been focused on telling the political story of the anti-apartheid struggle. Given the importance of 'social cohesion' in South African government programming for arts and culture today, I find it curious that more attention has not been given to creating a national archive of personal experiences of petty apartheid, racism and discrimination, setting up interpretive entry points into this data and using it to help address problems of racism today.

The rebalancing efforts of government have also not actually rebalanced the heritage lists that represent the National Estate. The Inventory of the National Estate in South Africa still consists predominantly of sites listed under apartheid. While transformation projects are currently underway in the sector, there has been no significant rebalancing of the National Estate in the last 20 years. The UNESCO World Heritage List is similarly dominated by European castles, churches and cathedrals, something that will take time to change. In the UK, the National Trust (although admittedly not government funded) still mainly manages the grand houses and castles of the aristocracy, with a few nods to the working class as servants.

Of course, not all apartheid-era collections or heritage sites are racist or only about white South Africans: rock art sites on the National Estate are one example of an exception. Also, collections and sites can be reinterpreted to redress biases and past prejudices. Yet lack of financing for new exhibitions and the amount of effort in managing existing collections and inventories effectively limits the finance available to extend and rebalance them. The danger is that the nineteenth century colonial-style house (or collection) remains normative simply because it still dominates the high status heritage landscape of the National Estate.

South Africa has one of the highest rates of violence against women in the world so gender equality and gender issues should also be high on the agenda in the cultural sector. Yet although women are employed in increasing numbers in our institutions, they are underrepresented as historical actors - (mainly white) male artists, architects and historical figures still tend to dominate the story. Efforts have been made to rebalance this, notably in the case of Sarah Baartman and women struggle leaders. But in the sector we should constantly be asking ourselves whether because of historical collection strategies and biases we are allowing (mainly white) male dominance of the sector to remain normative simply by failing to comment sufficiently on, highlight and collect female (and black) artists and historical actors.

This problem still needs to be quantified in South Africa but it is very evident elsewhere - most shockingly in contemporary art collections and new heritage listings such as the UNESCO Intangible Heritage Lists where intangible heritage performed by men still predominates. Of the Tate Modern's entire collection in 2009, only 12% of the art was made by women. In the 1980s, activists in New York protested that women had to be naked to get into the art museum: only 5% of the artists in the Metropolitan Museum of Art were women, while 85% of the nudes were female. In the UK in 2009, the National Gallery had just four paintings by two female artists among its 2,300 works on show. (1)

Working class struggles over health, education and access to local services have remained key areas of human rights activism even after 1994 in South Africa. Yet probably for precisely this reason they remain underrepresented in government heritage projects, archives and other cultural institutions. For example, South Africa has one of the highest rates of HIV infection in the world. Activist organisations like the Treatment Action Campaign have deposited archives to tell the stories of their struggles for human rights in regard to HIV and AIDS. However, given the history of tension between activists and government over AIDS drugs, it is not surprising that the Museum of AIDS in Africa, still a rather small enterprise, is not a government-funded project.

To whose stories will our archive be witness? As activists in the archive sector we need to be vigilant that we are not simply burnishing the vanities of the current status quo and dusting those of the past.

(1) 'Stealing the show', The Guardian, 10 Jul 2009.

Harriet Deacon is a correspondent for the Archival Platform in the UK. She has worked at a World Heritage site (Robben Island) and been involved in the development of capacity-building materials for the Intangible Heritage Convention.