Tuks opinions: Preserving and Promoting Heritage at UP

Posted on September 23, 2013

Like many other elements of the new South Africa, Heritage Day was inaugurated in the year of our democracy as a kind of a compromise to facilitate the promulgation of the Public Holiday’s Bill. In order to appease the absence of a Shaka day, Heritage Day was introduced to “celebrate the rich cultural heritage and the diversity of our rainbow nation”. It is one of the twelve public holidays now officially determined by the Public Holidays Act number 36 of 1994.

For former South African President Nelson Mandela, Heritage Day was approved by parliament because of the belief that “our rich and varied cultural heritage has a profound power to help build our new nation”. This perception has been sustained and was again recently underscored by the Minister of Arts and Culture, Mr Paul Mashatile, when he launched the theme for Heritage Month in 2013, as Reclaiming, restoring and celebrating our heritage. Minister Mashatile also maintains that heritage, along with arts and culture, is the so-called new gold as they create job opportunities and have now been included in the economic cluster of all government departments. Besides the Department of Arts and Culture (DAC), the National Department of Tourism (NDT) is also involved in the promotion of heritage which is currently rated internationally and locally as one of the fastest growing sectors of the tourism industry.
Yet given all these attributes, heritage remains a complex and often contested concept. While it is essentially understood as referring to things of value that are inherited from the past, the question is who attributes the value and whose past? Heritage can be family or personal heritage, communal or national heritage, tangible or intangible heritage, and natural or cultural heritage. As a result, it is a term that can include a vast range of objects, sites, structures, images, sentiments and practices. In the context of Africa it has been argued that the intangible aspects of heritage predominate and include elements of traditional culture, such as language, music, dance, rituals and cuisine. Whatever dimension it is, it is generally perceived as being worthy of preservation and protection.  In South Africa, with our multi-cultural society, heritage is said to provide a valuable platform to help us to understand and respect other cultures.  At the same time it also contributes to the creation and maintenance of an identity at the various levels.
At the University of Pretoria the preservation and protection of heritage is a priority. According to Sian Tiley-Nel, Chief Curator of Museum Governance at UP, the University’s museums reflect the heritage, history and cultural standing of the University. It also holds in trust a diversity of national collections for the benefit of future generations. These museum collections are irreplaceable archives of both the present and the past and, by their intrinsic nature, represent an important part of the intellectual integrity of the University. The University museums curate the art and heritage collections, and the cultural, educational and research potential that they represent to a campus landscape.
At the level of teaching, the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies in the Faculty of Humanities offers both undergraduate and postgraduate studies related to the field of heritage. This includes the three year BHCS degree – Bachelor of Heritage and Cultural Sciences – which essentially focuses on heritage and cultural tourism and also includes studies in history, archaeology and anthropology. With heritage forming the basis on which tourism is focused, this qualification equips the student with the knowledge and skills to enter into the developing and thriving realm of heritage and cultural tourism.
The Department also offers an Honours degree in Heritage and Cultural Sciences in which the students are afforded the opportunity of, amongst others, actually running a simulated campus tour agency focusing on the rich heritage of the University. These postgraduate students acquire a range of skills related to heritage practise including doing primary research in the University Archives, devising campus tour itineraries, managing the administration and marketing aspect and practically conducting tours across campus highlighting the University’s kaleidoscope of architecture, culture and traditions.  
This year marks the 10th anniversary of the success of UP Campus Tours and besides organising a reunion of these postgraduates during Heritage month, the 2013 Honours group will also be hosting a Heritage Day Campus tour early in October. These graduates are therefore   afforded the opportunity to develop an intrinsic appreciation of heritage and what it implies, while at the same time equipping them to take up professional positions in the broader South African society to further preserve and promote our rich and diverse heritage.
Opinion piece by Prof Karen Harris, Director of the UP Archives, Professor in the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies in the Faculty of Humanities. She is an expert on the Chinese in South Africa and was just re-elected as the African representative on the executive board of the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas (ISSCO). Prof Harris is also responsible for the establishment of the UP Campus Tours with which the heritage and cultural treasures of the University on campus are showcased. 

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