‘Civilised off the face of the earth’: Museum display and the silencing of the /Xam
Author: Pippa Skotnes
Publication: Poetics Today (2001) 22 (2): 299-321
The end of apartheid in South Africa initiated a period of intense analysis of historical and contemporary questions of identity. In the Cape, people who had been classified as “coloured” or “other coloured”began to reclaim their precolonial identities. This process has been made difficult by wide-scale language death during the twentieth century and the accompanying death of cultural traditions. In the case of the first people of South Africa, the bushmen, this process was further complicated by their depiction in museum exhibits and displays as “living fossils,”alienated from history and culture. This article examines these stereotypes and the historical circumstances that gave rise to them. As a counterpoint it looks at an extraordinary archive of nineteenth-century folklore that was created through a unique collaboration between settler and native. Finally it examines an exhibit mounted in 1996 at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town in which bushman identity was held up to scrutiny and the prevailing stereotypes confronted.