History Postgraduates excel at 3rd “What’s in the box?” presentation

Posted on July 09, 2021

The History Honours students in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies (DHHS) were once again the proud presenters of the annual archives project that forms part of one of their core research and methodology modules.  

The project, which is run in collaboration with the University of Pretoria Archives (UPA), gives the students the unique opportunity to work first-hand with primary archival material that has never been used or inventorised before. The project provides students with a chance to get hands-on experience in working with some of the key elements of historical studies. 

In his opening of the online event, the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Prof Vasu Reddy, referred to how the archive was “loaded with memory” and how one had to always “dig deeper for more memory”. The Dean also congratulated the Department on this innovative teaching method, which he believed was unique to the Faculty of Humanities.

The archival documents that are used for this project originated from the Museum of the Transvaal Education Department and cover the period from the late 19th century through to the late 20th century. They include a whole range of different types of material and documents pertaining to policies, lesson plans, newspaper articles, media requests, information on specific schools all pertaining in some way to the history of education in South Africa. These education sources do not form part of the national historical inventory and are therefore a valuable and rare collection of archival information. 

The presentation was held online on 1 July 2021. The honours students, who were divided into groups, presented their findings by outlining the context and nature of their respective boxes’ content, as well as the access status along with the research potential. The students were also tasked to draw up an inventory of the contents of their boxes that will then form part of the collection in UPA. The highlight of the project presentation was when each student had to select and describe a “gem” document in their box explaining why they chose it, when it was created, what it referred to and what it’s historical significance was.  

This year’s “gems” included the treatment of left-handed learners as well as the punishments wielded; an inquiry about Dimitri Tsafendas; feeding of  poor whites; handwriting lessons; a “cigarette-box” history; exclusion of learners from private schools; indoctrination; religion and education; the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek; memory theory; and teaching of special needs learners. 

Again, both the staff of the DHHS and the UPA regard the project as a huge success. Not only were the students exposed to the rigours and intensity of the workings of an archive, but under Covid-19 regulations, they were able to work together and even on occasion, access the UP Archives under strict social distancing regulations, to work on their documents.

The students indicated that they appreciated the opportunity this project had given them and found it interesting and enjoyable, with one commenting that the project had made her realise “the kind of historian she would like to become”.

History postgraduates conducting research at the University of Pretoria Archives


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