Sian Tiley-Nel interviews Christopher Till as outgoing Director of Javett-UP
Briefly describe your entry into the museum world in South Africa, first impressions and how things have changed? After completing my master’s degree in 1976 at Rhodes University with a thesis on African Art, I applied for a curatorial job at the National Gallery of Rhodesia. I moved to Rhodesia at the time of the country's independence in 1977 and in 1980 was appointed Director of the renamed National Gallery of Zimbabwe. In 1984 I returned to South Africa having been appointed Director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery (JAG). Through my experience working with black artists within a democratic Zimbabwe and collecting traditional and contemporary black art, I was able to bring programs and a collecting policy to the JAG with a new focus on exhibiting the art of Africa. Such exhibitions included the The Neglected Tradition: Towards a new history of South African art (1930-1988), Art and Ambiguity which opened in late 1991, and the securing of the Brenthurst collection of traditional African Art for the JAG. At the time, these were seen as radical but are of course now a primary focus of the post-colonial moment and very much part of the mainstream discourse and re-focusing being undertaken by galleries and museums worldwide.
Describe your first introduction to Mapungubwe and your initial impression on seeing the Mapungubwe Gold Collection? An introduction to the Mapungubwe Gold collection is thrilling and was certainly in keeping with my interest in African Art and traditional historic material. The Mapungubwe site with its connection to other sites such as Thulamela and Great Zimbabwe piqued my interest, I was excited to discover more about these national treasures. The mystique of the iconic gold rhino figurine, sceptre and bowl were an obvious attraction since they are national icons. To see the depth of the collection and the hundreds of items, as well as the extent of the research that has taken place over many years and continues, was an eye opener.
Back in 2000, what was your curatorial intention when you decided to bring the Gold of Africa, Mapungubwe Gold and Thulamela Gold collection under one exhibition in Martin Melck House in Cape Town? The opportunity to engage directly with the collection and put it into its cultural and artistic perspective, juxtaposed with the Anglo-Gold Barbier Mueller collection of West African gold, was realised when I was approached by the Marketing Director of AngloGold Ashanti, Sarah DaVanzo. AngloGold Ashanti had secured the collection and asked my advice on what to do with it. I saw this as the moment to create the nucleus of the Gold of Africa Museum, looking at the continent and its highly-developed technical, artistic and design talent and to situate this within the historical and cultural context. In addition, we aimed to present the collection as inspiration for contemporary design. The University of Pretoria was approached to include the items on temporary loan from the Mapungubwe collection and then later the Thulamela gold collection to set out to extend the gold footprint of the continent.
When you first met the Mapungubwe Curator, Sian Tiley in 2000 and were then introduced to the Mapungubwe Gold Collection at the University of Pretoria, what were your initial thoughts of this young 23 year old? Sian’s reputation preceded her and she is synonymous with the Mapungubwe collection and its curation, conservation and public persona.. As a long-standing colleague in the museum fraternity, we had engaged frequently at several conferences over many years. The opportunity to work together in a less abstract, and more focused way through our collaboration with the presentation of the Mapungubwe exhibition at the Javett-UP has been a greatly rewarding experience and we are both proud to bring National Treasures to the wider public, cementing two decades of working together.
Fast forward nearly two decades later - bringing the Barbier-Mueller Gold Collection and the Mapungubwe Gold collection into a single exhibition - what was your inspiration? The energy, effort and satisfaction of developing the Gold of Africa Museum in the historic Martin Melck House in Cape Town and operating this jewel of a museum came to an end after thirteen years with the recall of the collection by AngloGold Ashanti to Johannesburg. The invitation to take on the establishment of the new Javett Art Centre at the University of Pretoria in a purpose-built space, which included a wing to house the Mapungubwe Gold collection reignited the excitement of re-creating the magic of a Gold Museum around the extended Mapungubwe gold items and the Barbier-Mueller collection in a dramatic space. This was coupled by the satisfaction of making both collections more accessible to the public.
How did you experience co-curation on the exhibition of National Treasures of the Mapungubwe Gold Collection at Javett-UP, particularly when not many curators are fortunate to work with valuable and priceless gold collections? The secret to unlocking the power and aura of the Mapungubwe collection in the new exhibition was Sian Tiley-Nel's deep knowledge and curatorial passion for the items to bring them to wider cognisance for society. By advising on select items from the Mapungubwe collection to juxtapose with the Barbier-Mueller collection, she shared my passion for the project. This was the underlying principle for the successful joint curation and we both agreed to focus on the indigenous materiality of gold as an iconic precious mineral from the African continent. There is no other exhibition like National Treasures in South Africa.
What advice would you give younger generations about art curatorship and leadership within the museum sector? I have enjoyed a long career curating and facilitating the creativity of the art of Africa. This remains a cause which brings great reward when the value and possibilities of these inanimate objects are creativity applied to tell wonderful stories, provide lessons and raise questions to current society. The possibilities are endless and the extent of these diverse elements are a gold mine for a younger generation to take the lead by allowing their imaginations to explore the intersection of historical and future narratives.
How would you like to futurise museums or what would a museum in 2065 look like in South Africa? The trajectory of museums has a long, complex and in recent times controversial history with the first example dating back to 530 BC with the display of antiquities from Mesopotamia! Recent calls for the redefinition of the role of museums in a changed world by the International Council of Museums (ICOM ) are contested and museums need to reinvent themselves or face the very real possibility of disappearance. Societies are being rebooted. We are questioning how we will live, interact and experience life going forward. This, coupled with technological advances and the world of virtual reality presupposes the abstract idea of the replacement of reality with a virtual space making for an 'Star Trek' experience. The form which museums of the future will take has yet to be charted and even popular films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Game of Thrones repeatedly look back to the future. The motivation which gave rise to Ennigaldi-Nanna's Museum circa 530 BC, and ongoing present-day archaeological activity assists us with understanding the past. Revealing this evidence to humanity provides us with the clues to the altered form of future museums.