Interview with Dr Sian Tiley-Nel Head of UP Museums: Celebrating International Museum Month and 100 years of collecting [1922-2022]

Posted on June 27, 2022

“We are trying to get as many students, employees, and members of the UP community as possible to promote IMD2022, which includes visiting scholars and academics. The museums want the backbone staff of Professional Services such as Security Services, Cleaning Services, Administration, Finances, and those staff that don’t often leave the office, to come through the museums. The university museums are incomparable places and spaces of discovery; they educate us about the past and open our minds to new ideas - two essential steps in building a better future.” – Dr Sian Tiley-Nel, Head of UP Museums

The University of Pretoria (UP) Museums celebrate 100 years of collecting in 2022, and are also promoting awareness about International Museum Day in May (#IMD2022). The International Council of Museums (ICOM) was established in 1977 to increase public awareness of the role of museums in the development of society. This year’s theme is, The Power of Museums, an opportunity to explore the potential of museums to bring about positive change in our communities and the importance of cultural exchange, enrichment of culture, mutual understanding and peace among all peoples. As places of discovery, homes of knowledge and havens of history, university museums play an essential role in society and, in a UP context, provide an enriching learning, research and social experience.

Dr Sian Tiley-Nel, Head of UP Museums, sat down with the team at Tukkievaria to unpack the role and value of UP Museums within the university art landscape and their contributions and impact on civil society for both themes of IMD month in May and the UP Museum centenary of 1922-2022.

The first artwork acquired by the University of Pretoria was in 1922 by a South African iconic female artist and painter, Maggie Laubser (1886-1973), titled Arum lilies. Since then, the task of UP Museums has been to manage, conserve and curate a wide diversity of invaluable museum collections and associated archives, comprising over 100,000 objects, on behalf of the institution’s stewardship. ”What is unique about these university collections is that they are curated across eight different campuses, within two historical buildings which are national monuments, including the Old Arts Building, which is the architectural icon of the Hatfield Campus, and the Old Merensky Building, which houses the sculpture and some of the art collection,” says Dr Tiley-Nel. Included is the UP Museum’s 90-year curatorship of the world-renowned Mapungubwe Collection, both at the UP Museums and in the National Treasures exhibition.  There is also the Museums Beyond Walls initiative, which incorporates all the sculptures that UP students and staff see dotted across the campus landscapes and in gardens.

In outlining the multiple purposes of UP Museums, Dr Tiley-Nel explains: “The reason we do this is fourfold: to sustain the university museums nationally and globally; to engage our communities to increase access and inclusivity; to invest in university museum collections, archives, under responsible curation, preservation and conservation and finally, to contemporise curatorship with quality exhibitions and services. This active, dynamic transdisciplinary role serves the past, present and future institutional memory of the University of Pretoria since its founding in 1910 when it was still the Transvaal University College.”

However, she points out that even though a university-based museum benefits education, teaching, training and research endeavours, it is also for the individual and community at large. “It's very important that we don't have a myopic scholarly approach where we are an exclusive university museum reserved only for academics, researchers and students,” she states. Instead, university museums should benefit the social well-being of all people as they preserve and tell the story of various identities within wider communities beyond the university, serving the City of Tshwane, being proudly South African, while also supporting our continent and international museology. 

In addition, UP Museums are actively working towards becoming socially responsive to our UP community. Dr Tiley-Nel explains, “A lot of people have the perception that museums are only Western constructs or colonial constructs from Europe. But in fact, one of the first museums and archives in the world was actually in Alexandra in Africa. African museums and university museums on the continent have been neglected and there are many shining world-class examples in Africa. The UP Museums, like many museums, have inherited colonial, nationalist and orphaned collections, but we are growing our South African identity and engaging with our local collections by making them available online, anytime, anywhere. The UP Museums have changed fundamentally over the past ten years, through refurbishing and modernising our galleries away from the traditional western view of what a university museum is.” The museums aim to be multi-purpose, transdisciplinary, moving towards the decolonial, polyphonic and engaging with challenging collections – a critical future focus is on not shying away from ethical and moral responsibility.

Part of the move towards social impact is increased accessibility and expanding the technological and digital programme of the UP Museums. During the Covid-19 pandemic, Dr Tiley-Nel and her team moved the university collections onto the Google Arts and Culture Platform in partnership with the Google Cultural Institute. Currently, with 750 digitised works and five online exhibitions or stories, they have made the experience of a museum more accessible, locally and internationally. Dr Tiley-Nel also highlighted that in recent years, museum staff have served on international research platforms and boards. Creatively and with fluidity, the university museums have increased their social media efforts and their impact on students has exponentially increased - serving the UP community with exciting, modern, social and pleasant experiences as part of the life-long learning process and appreciation of museums; and having a say in how they envision a future for the university museums and future graduates.

To learn more about UP Museums visit:   e-mail: [email protected]

- Author Puno Selesho

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