A Place that Matters Yet: John Gubbins's MuseumAfrica in the Postcolonial World
Sara Byala, University of Pennsylvania
Thursday, October 3, 2013
4:30pm – Classroom 2, Penn Museum
Booking Signing and Reception to Follow
A Place that Matters Yet unearths the little-known story of Johannesburg’s MuseumAfrica, formerly the Africana Museum, from its founder, John Gubbins’s, arrival in South Africa in 1902 to the near present – that is, in the eras before, during, and after apartheid. This uniquely long time frame allows the book to make connections between what are often seen to be distinct eras, thus throwing twentieth century South African history into new relief. The story told begins with the colorful biography of the museum’s eccentric founder, recreated in part through thirty years’ worth of his previously unused personal letters. Here Gubbins’s personal notion of “three-dimensional thinking,” or thinking beyond binaries, is seen as the primary impetus behind his creation of first a library and then a museum. As a philosophy aimed explicitly against racism, three-dimensional thinking – and its products – suggest alternative histories that may have emerged – but did not – in the years preceding the rise of the apartheid state. The book then follows the museum’s narrative from 1935 (and Gubbins’s death) while it was subsumed under the Johannesburg Public Library, through its reimagining as MuseumAfrica in 1994 to coincide with the birth of the post-apartheid state, and into the post-apartheid era. In the end, it asserts that this largely overlooked museum matters yet, that its store of Africana, once properly understood as part of a rich, if problematic archive of both material culture and ideas about material culture, could go far towards a project that is as germane now as it was in Gubbins’s time: the creation of a unified South Africa. Moreover, by laying bare the set of tools capable of rendering this space relevant, this book provides a paradigm for similarly embattled spaces the world over.