October 5, 2010
The Company Gardens are located in the center of Cape Town and are surrounded by museums, which has become to be known as museum mile. Depending on your museum style you could spend the entire day here going to all the museums thoroughly or you can dash through 2 or 3 quickly and combine it with your city tour. I chose to go to the Slavery Museum, the Jewish Museum, the Holocaust Museum (which is in the same complex as the Jewish Museum) and the South African National Museum, which is a museum of Natural History.
I started at the Slavery Museum, which is just outside the gardens and a very nice place to start. Again depending on your museum style you could spend 30 minutes or 3 hours here. The museum is two floors and separated between the history of slavery and the history of apartheid in South Africa. Since I had already spent a lot of time in the Apartheid museum in Johannesburg, I moved through this area pretty quickly. My favorite room that I spent the most time in on that side was a big room with political cartoons all over the walls about apartheid and Nelson Mandela, I found them quite entertaining and definitely worth a read. After a while all the facts start to feel very dry and its easy to think of it as “history” without real context within our lifetimes, and cartoons remind us of the personal element to it. The other side of the museum is dedicated to the history of slave trade in Africa. Being American, I found this really interesting and particularly liked a room with a big map in it that lit up and showed where the slaves were coming from and where they were going. In the main room of the museum through which you enter and exist is a sign reminding visitors that slavery is not a thing of the past and by UNICEF estimation 1.2 million children are trafficked worldwide each year in slave trade and 300,000 child soldiers are serving in conflicts worldwide. The museum is quite sobering and provides an important experience to remember the sordid history of SA.
After leaving the Slavery Museum I walked through the company gardens to the Jewish Museum. While walking I passed the art museum, which I intended to come back to, but I ended up spending too much time in the Jewish Museum and ran out of time. The Jewish Museum is in a complex with the old synagogue, the museum, and the holocaust centre. There is quite a large Jewish population in South Africa who came from the shtetls in Eastern Europe in the mid 19th Century. Many Eastern European Jews went to other countries during that time, including my own family who came to America from Russia and Poland. There is an actual life size replica of a shtetl from Lithuania on the bottom floor of the museum that you can walk through. The top floor is made up of permanent exhibits on the history of Jews in Africa and their rise in industries like diamonds and the sale of Ostrich feathers before WWII. Jews had a very important role in South African history and at the museum you learn about Helen Suzman, a white Jewish woman who was an advocate against apartheid in the South African government. Also at the museum is the old synagogue, which is small, but beautiful.
The bottom floor has an exhibit of Japanese miniature art that used to be part of a private collection of the owner and was then donated to the museum. The rest of the downstairs area is dedicated to temporary exhibits, which while I was there was on 10 famous Jewish rugby players known as the Rugby Minyon. The manager told me the next exhibit coming in was on a Jewish photographer, so the exhibits are very varied.
Directly across from the Jewish Museum is the Holocaust Centre, which is worth a visit if you haven’t been to many holocaust museums, but can be skipped if you’ve been to others around the world. The museum was very standard and featured the same basic information and exhibits that I’ve seen in Los Angeles, Berlin, Amsterdam, Israel and all the other holocaust museums I’ve been to. The one feature that I liked was a wall right before the exist that had pictures of about 30 concentration camp survivors who moved to South Africa all taken by a photographer a few years ago and a few words about their lives post holocaust. As you exit there is a quote by Desmond Tutu on the wall that reads, “We learn about the Holocaust so that we can become more human, more gentle, more caring, more compassionate, valuing every person as being of infinite worth so precious that we know such atrocities will never happen again and the world will be a more humane place.”
The last museum I went to was the SA National Museum, which again can be done in 20 minutes or 4+ hours depending on how in depth you would like to go. The museum in many levels and features exhibits on both South African people and animals. When you first enter the museum you encounter dioramas depicting South African Bushmen life. These displays often come across very racist as the imply that this is how all native South Africans live and there is actually a sign a the back saying that these displays are a bit out of touch as they were made in the 70’s and we should not take them as modern truths for how Africans live. I liked that the signs were there, but it’s kind of sad that they are really needed- are people really that out of touch?
The rest of the museum is dedicated to natural history of animals and is a combination of plastic models of animals and some stuffed ones. If you have been to major natural history museums with large fossils and skeletons in the states you may find it a bit lackluster, but it’s worth a quick walk through. There is also an interesting section on evolution and Darwin’s trip to the Cape. I found it really interesting that in a place like South Africa that used to be rampant with racism Darwin is so highly lauded as he was the person who showed the world that we really are all connected and the difference in skin color between the races are mere adaptations that occurred over time through the process of natural selection. I guess most people don’t look at it that way, but it was just something I thought about.