OPEN AIR MUSEUMS: A Critique of Current Policies

Franco Frescura


The idea of a "museum" as a building dedicated to the specialised storage, preservation and display of natural and man-made curiosities is peculiar to European and western society. Although the noun itself can lay claim to ancient roots, being derived from the greek "mouseion" meaning "seat of the Muses", the practice of opening collections of ancient artifacts and faunal and floral remains to public scrutiny did not become widespread until the nineteenth century (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1947). However when in more recent times curators and conservationists have attempted to apply this concept in an African context, most particularly in the preservation of the indigenous built environment, they have been presented with a number of practical and moral dilemmas. Despite some initial set-backs encountered at Eiland, near Tzaneen, and Botshabelo, near Middelburg, both in the Transvaal, museum organisers in South Africa have consistently refused to heed these obvious lessons. To date they continue to promote a policy of "ethnic" open air museums which, at best, is misrepresentative of the people and the culture they purport to promote. At worst, the results are demeaning to visitors and visited alike.


The current white perception of the indigenous built environment of southern Africa as something picturesque-but-not-quite-architectural has, in many ways, been inherited from attitudes and events dating from some two hundred years ago. Visitors to these shores during the early decades of the nineteenth century were still imbued with Rousseau's ideal of the "noble savage" and tended to view the indigenous cultures they encountered with a measure of mild tolerance and curiosity. Lichtenstein, Dundas, Barrow, Burchell and Campbell all made favourable references to dwellings which could not "be excelled by any, in neatness and in the cleanliness and good order of every part." (Burchell, 1953: 315,316), leading Lichtenstein to remark in 1805 that "The commodiousness and durability of the houses was what struck us most at this first visit." (1812 and 1815: II: 373-379)

Burchell, in his turn, was greatly interested by the Tswana capital town of Dithakong which he visited in 1812, describing it thus:

"... part of the town of Litakun now appeared before me. As we advanced nearer, and gained higher ground, the multitude of houses which continued rising into view as far as I could see, excited astonishment;   while their novel form and character seized my whole attention ..." (1953: 360-372) (Illustration 1)

Not all subsequent travellers to the interior were to express such enthusiasm for local vernacular architecture. Casalis, for example, complained in 1833 that "The huts are everywhere primitive and inconvenient to the highest degree" (1861), probably because, unlike Burchell, he often had to reside in them. A significant change in White attitudes however began to emerge from the 1840's onwards and was to coincide with the spread of immigrant settlement into the southern African interior. Not unnaturally the indigenous population resisted the growing incursions upon their living space leading to a number of regional conflicts taking place between 1849 and 1883 (Frescura, 1985). As a result we find that White perceptions of local cultural values undergo a radical shift during this period as the dispossession of Black-occupied land becomes increasingly justified by them in terms of a "White civilizing mission". Missionaries were to play a strong propagandist role in this process and opinions such as those expressed by Harvey Wilkinson who, in 1898, claimed that:

"We are surrounded here by a dark dense mass of heathenism. Scenes new and strange to us meet our view every day. The country is densely populated, and these Pondos are low down in the scale of civilisation. Their bottomless superstitions, their vile habits and heathen customs ... present a terrible barrier to the spread of Christianity and civilisation." (Wilkinson, 1898)

were by no means unique of their time. However matters were already changing and within one generation of Wilkinson's writing, such thinking was already becoming obsolete. The responsibility for this lies mainly with a small group of academic anthropologists whose research for the next forty years was to document the lives and behavioural patterns of most of the region's cultural groups. Although they were also concerned with the built environment, in the long run this played a relatively minor role in their considerations. It was left for an educational officer from Lesotho called James Walton to restore academic respectability to our indigenous architecture when he published the first major book on the subject in 1956.


By that stage a number of artists and academics had also found themselves attracted by the rich textures and colours they perceived in the rural buildings of the Transvaal highveld about them. This was most particularly true of the sculptured architecture and decorative wall motifs of the South Ndebele living north of Pretoria and in the Bronkhorstspruit/Groblersdal districts whose polychromatic wall art began to blossom from the late 1940's onwards. Artists and architects such as Barrie Biermann, Constance Stewart-Larrabee, Alexis Preller and Dick Findlay all conducted regular forays into the Transvaal countryside and returned with sketch-books full of excitement and colour.

In the early 1950's Anton Meiring, professor of Architecture at Pretoria University, documented with his students the extended homestead of the Msiza family, a South Ndebele clan living on the farm Hartbeesfontein, some 10km north of Pretoria (Meiring, 1955: 26-35) (Illustration 2). When this group was forced to resettle at the site of their present village near Klipgat, in the district of Odi, (now renamed kwaMatabeleng by the locals), Meiring assisted them in their relocation, their choice of new land and the reconstruction of their new homes. He also obtained for them from the local Native Commissioner the promise of an annual grant of thatching grass, a practice which was maintained until the area fell under the newly-established Bophuthatswana regional authority in 1977 (Frescura, 1981).

It is a matter of some doubt today whether Meiring's assistance to the Msiza was philanthropically motivated or whether it represented a conscious attempt on his part at establishing their village as a tourist draw-card, thus effectively turning it into southern Africa's first open air cultural museum. Regardless of his motives however, once the Pretoria Tourism Board placed this location on their tour map, the photogenic architecture of kwaMatabeleng became one of the best documented in the region, appearing in an impressive array of architectural and geographical journals as far afield as France and the USA (Frescura, 1982). It would be true to say therefore that this stream of publicity did much to popularise the South Ndebele's unique and highly graphic style of polychromatic wall decoration, giving it a measure of recognition as one of the world's more picturesque folk arts (Illustration 3). It is also conceivable that Ndebele artists were not unaware of this attention and responded to it with ever increasing flamboyance and colour of design. The implication therefore is also that current Ndebele wall art is, at least in part, the foster-child of a mass media based upon western values and culture.

This picture however has a further and perhaps less palatable aspect which underlies the philosophy of open air museums in this country as a whole. Despite its subsequent tourist function, kwaMatabeleng began as and, to this very day remains, a viable and economically active community which retains the integrity of its cultural and architectural traditions. However during the 1960's and early 1970's current political conditions and the availability of gullible tourist money brought about certain attitudes and social conditions in the village which, rightly or wrongly, often left the western visitor with a thoroughly unpleasant impression of its inhabitants. Fortunately the national economic downturn of the late 1970's and the subsequent creation of industrial work opportunities in nearby Pretoria had the positive effect of bringing the formerly migrant male worker population of the village back home on a more permanent basis, thus allowing them the time to re-establish traditional male parental control over their own family homesteads. Also the onset of Bophuthatswana regional government had the effect of removing kwaMatabeleng from official tourist itineraries and today it may be said that the community has once again achieved a measure of normality and social stability.


Despite Meiring's efforts at kwaMatabeleng, it was to be nearly a quarter of a century before South Africa's first official open air "cultural" museum was formally opened to the public. This project was initiated by the Transvaal Museum's Services who, in the mid-1970's, reconstructed a traditional Tsonga settlement at Eiland, near Tzaneen, in the northern Transvaal (Illustration 4). The work was directed by anthropologists and archaeologists who were also responsible for the preliminary research and supporting documentation. Despite a number of perceivable flaws in its make-up, the most prevalent being the accusation made by overseas visitors that its inhabitants are being made to act like "monkeys in cages", Eiland must be considered to be one of the more successful experiments of its kind in this country to date (Transvaal Museums Department, c1979).

However, any reservations which may have been entertained about the Tsonga open air museum must surely pale into insignificance when it is compared with the project erected by the Middelburg Municipal Museum at Botshabelo, site of Alexander Merensky's old mission station. The buildings purport to illustrate an evolutionary pattern in traditional South Ndebele dwelling forms and decorative motifs which are credible only to the uninitiated or to the most obtuse. The settlement follows no recognisable traditional ordering and although each square centimetre of wall space has been dutifully decorated in careful emulation of South Ndebele art, the total result lies closer to a tourist-orientated pastiche than it does to the reality it claims to represent.

It could be wished that a lack of architectural integrity is all the criticism that need be levelled at the Botshabelo project. Regrettably it is the least of several. It would appear that when the Middelburg Museum builds, it builds forever. Thus, when the organisers of the project first erected their homestead walls, they dispensed with the traditional clay-and-cowdung mix (which requires regular maintenance) and opted for a cement plaster (which does not). However even their sensibilities must have been upset because within a couple of years all the surfaces had been replastered in a traditionally more acceptable material. The next problem they encountered lay in the fact that the South Ndebele "traditionally" inhabit their homesteads and that the ones at Botshabelo were singularly bereft of signs of human habitation. This dilemma was compounded by the fact that Botshabelo has now become a "White's only" holiday resort and lies in a region notorious for its political conservatism. The problem was rapidly resolved however and nowadays the Botshabelo South Ndebele Open Air Museum is inhabited on a daily eight-to-five basis by a group of women (only some of whom are South Ndebele) who bus in and out and who wear traditional garb during the daytime but otherwise prefer designer jeans and mock-leather handbags.


While many may smirk at the tragi-comedy of Botshabelo, its lessons ought not to go unheeded for it encapsulates within one project most major practical and moral dilemmas which confront the proponents of a "cultural" open air museum policy in this country today. The major points of conflict include the following:

  1. Indigenous vernacular architecture is not an end-product unto itself but belongs to a continuing social and environmental process. The rural dwelling is built as part of a social interaction between man and woman and between the individual family and the community they belong to; its walls are decorated as a statement of regional identity, political rights and female fertility; it is maintained on a daily basis as part of a dynamic interaction which exists between man, his built forms and the physical environment about him. As such therefore a well-painted South Ndebele homestead without children is about as meaningful as a hospital without patients or a school without pupils; a cooking hut without a fire in the hearth will be habitable for only as long as it takes for a variety of insects to infest the thatched roof; a well-maintained homestead bereft of human habitation will be a travesty of everything that rural habitat stands for.
  2. Owing to this country's peculiar and objectionable racial prejudices, the question of populating an open air museum raises a number of further considerations. A homestead lacking signs of daily human occupation runs the risk of being relegated to the ranks of a Disneyland fantasia; one occupied on a part-time daily basis is artificial and borders on the farcical; the viable home of a rural family however may be viewed by overseas observers as a side-show which de-humanises visitor and visited alike. The first was the choice made by the Natal Museum at their Ulundi project and, under the circumstances, is probably the one with the greatest merit and integrity; the second is part of the fraud being perpetuated at Botshabelo; the last is the one major flaw in the make-up of the Tsonga museum at Eiland.
  3. Populated open air exhibits, particularly if they fall under the control of a museum authority, are not, by their very nature, autonomous and economically self-sufficient entities but are forced to rely for their living either upon the passing tourist trade or upon museum hand-outs. Both are equally objectionable. The latter however also implies a measure of museum control over people's lives and daily behavioural patterns and therefore borders upon the monstrous.
  4. Museum exhibits, almost by definition, tend to sketch out idealised scenarios, to freeze in one moment in time a tableaux which incorporates in itself the essence of that era, its artifacts and perhaps also its values. To put it plainly, they create stereotypes. This may work well in conventional western environments - museums are, after all, a European concept - but local open air museums invariably also have a "cultural" tag attached to them. As most people have now come to realise, culture is not a finite and stagnant concept. It is vital and alive and, above all, in a state of perpetual flux. This is particularly dangerous in a society such as ours where cultural stereotyping is tantamount to promulgating ethnic and hence socio/political schisms in our national make-up - a concept which lies at the base of most of racist legislation in South Africa. Let us also not forget that the Verwoerdian vision of our Black citizens as an illiterate class of land-based peasants is not so far removed as to be entirely dead.

These therefore are the objections which must arise, not only to the comical Botshabelo or the academically-correct Eiland, but to the concept of "cultural" museums as a whole. Seen in these terms, open air exhibits can only be perceived at best as the inappropriate application of a set of eurocentric concepts and values. At worst they stand accused of being the perpetuators of racist ideologies whose roots are deeply founded in our colonial and Victorian past.


Western attitudes towards the preservation of old objects, books and buildings differ markedly from those found in African society. The former has a deep sense of historical precedent and devotes a great deal of space, time and effort to the preservation of old records and antiques. The latter, on the other hand, takes a more pragmatic view of its own material culture, regarding its objects as manipulative and functional whilst they are still useful, and discardable and transient when they cease to be so. Thus, whilst the one may be seen to be making constant reference to its own past, the other firmly believes that each era has its own problems and that no generation has the right to impose theirs upon the next. This difference is nowhere more marked than in the two culture's attitudes to books. Many Africans perceive these to contain the thoughts, and hence the problems, of previous generations. Hence the western concept of storing books in specialised buildings is, in some African eyes, somehow unhealthy, like the stacking of human skeletons in a mausoleum. Artifacts are similarly perceived of as symbols of eras long past and whilst a person may be remembered for a time by the immediate family, after a while he or she joins the ranks of a larger and amorphous group of ancestors whose religious role is to guide and protect but not to impose. Artifacts have a material presence and, by their very nature, tend to "impose".

Viewed in these terms, it will be seen that the traditional European concept of the "museum" as a place where antiques are carefully stored and exhibited, can find little parallel application in an African context. On the other hand if it were possible to extend its functions to include a wider interpretation of the term "education", then it becomes possible to conceive of the museum as a structure aimed at fulfilling a variety of community needs, only one of which may be concerned with the exhibition and storage of artifacts. Although to date no such project has been commissioned, in this country, the feasibility of constructing a "cultural" centre in the wider sense of the word was explored on behalf of the Ciskei regional authority in 1982-84.


In 1983 the Centre for Housing Research (CHORE) at the University of the Witwatersrand was commissioned by the Ciskei regional authority to research the concept of a "Cultural Museum" for that locality. Although the brief was kept relatively open, the client had already developed a vague preconception of what the project ought to look like based largely upon the Eiland and Botshabelo precedents. Following field research into current and historical cultural patterns and architectural traditions of the Ciskei and southern Transkei region, an idealised model of the project was evolved. A number of suitable sites which met with such criteria as accessibility, infrastructure and development potential, were also suggested (Frescura, 1983) (Illustration 5).

As the result of this preliminary report a site near Keiskammahoek was chosen for further analysis. At the same time the Ciskei Tourism Board requested that a conservation impact study be done in this village in order to assess its tourist potential. The resultant combined report presented to the two bodies concerned recommended that:

  1. The idea of a conventional open air cultural museum was unfeasible in isolation of other proposals of a wider educational and developmental nature.
  2. The architecture of the village of Keiskammahoek was of sufficient charm and character to warrant its conservation as a historical tourist centre. It was endowed with a number of unoccupied and unused churches which might be revalidated to new craft manufacture and marketing functions. It also had an established infrastructure with an existing residential management component (Illustration 6).
  3. The village was situated in the heart of an economically depressed region supporting a large number of unemployed persons. A suitably programmed project located there would provide both immediate and future employment opportunities for local residents in the area as well as a constant market for local handicrafts and cottage industries. (Frescura and Radford, 1984)

It should also be recorded here that, for reasons of their own, the Kaffrarian Museum in King William's Town and the Albany Museum in Grahamstown both opposed this project at various stages of its development. In February 1985 control of this project passed to a newly reconstituted Ciskei Tourism Board whose directorate chose to opt for a conventional open air museum concept in the style of a "Botshabelo". This is currently being constructed at Thaba kaNdoda, a site some twenty-five kilometres from the nearest major population centre.


Despite the availability of sufficient documentation in this field, southern Africa's museum directorates today persist in pursuing an Eurocentric and outdated policy of open air museum development in the short-sighted and optimistic belief that the solutions which have been previously tried and tested in White-orientated cultural exhibits will apply equally to rural indigenous examples. Their failure to successfully implement a single such project to date must be seen as a serious indictment of such an approach. Open air museums involve in their planning make-up such diverse components as architecture, technology, economics, environmental planning, developmental planning and historical conservation as well as the more conventionally-applied disciplines of archaeology and anthropology. Yet this is an area of cultural activity which, to date is often still being serviced by personnel untrained and unskilled in the most basic elements of architecture, economics and developmental issues. Until such a time as professional architects and planners are involved more intimately in the design and planning process of open air museums, such conditions are unlikely to undergo radical revision.


This paper was originally published in the South African Journal of Cultural and Art History, 1988, 2(2): 77-82, under the title Open Air Museums - A Critique of Current Policies.


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  1. "Houses at Litakun", recorded by Burchell at Dithakong, in the northern Cape, in 1812.
  2. The original Msiza homestead at Hartbeesfontein, recorded by Meiring in 1953. SA Architectural Record, April 1955.
  3. kwaMatabeleng: Msiza residences documented by students of Architecture, University of the Witwatersrand, in July 1981. Drawings by Themba Mtetwa.
  4. A schematic representation of a Thonga extended homestead as recorded by Junod in 1912. The Open Air Museum at Eiland bears some close similarities to this plan.
  5. Ciskei Cultural Centre proposed site: Keiskammahoek village plan, 1876.
  6. Keiskammahoek Conservation Study: Structures documented by students of Architecture, University of Port Elizabeth, July 1985.
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