Who we are as humans

Posted on September 10, 2019

Who we are as humans, as Africans, as global citizens, is etched in the many forms of tangible heritage across time: from the Timbuktu manuscripts that reveal knowledge from several centuries ago to Dumile Feni’s charcoal drawing, African Guernica, which interrogates the insanity of human oppression, to Pinnacle Point Cave in Mossel Bay where, 164 000 years ago, early humans first made shell necklaces and used ochre for adornment and painting, reflecting an awareness of self and others.

Tangible heritage refers to that which is concrete and can be touched, felt or heard. It is as much about art, language and literature, as it is about archival manuscripts, ancient artefacts, oral histories, the built environment, the land, the marine environment … all of this has something to tell us about the diversity of our entangled heritage. The diversity is what makes us human.

The challenge of tangible heritage is its complexity. It requires of us to address contestations about heritage, defined differently according to who and where you are at a given period in time. How, for example, do we recover the lost or silent voices of black artists and bearers of heritage? On top of this, the meaning of artefacts and objects also changes over time, which requires of us to engage with politics, science, philosophy, history and sociology in addressing the question ‘whose heritage?’

Central here is the urgency to preserve all the cultural artefacts of South Africa and Africa. Sites and works of enormous cultural and heritage significance have been or are being destroyed, have disappeared, or are deteriorating through vandalism, climatic influences, a lack of maintenance and natural ageing.

We need the requisite skills and expertise to protect, restore, repair, conserve and preserve them, to build conservation capacity in our museums, libraries, archives, and other cultural entities, and to contribute to building and protecting our heritage no matter how contested it might be.

In response, the University of Pretoria has developed and launched Africa’s first Master’s Degree in Tangible Heritage Conservation. It’s about training a new generation of conservators and cultural custodians for South Africa and Africa, and it is as much about the conservation of the present and future as it is about the past.

The programme accepts a maximum of eight Master’s students a year; starting with the first three Master’s students in 2019. It’s a pioneering qualification combining curatorial and conservation capacity and intersecting the sciences (mainly chemistry) and the arts. The skills required range from scientific research of areas of natural significance that require protection, the spectrographic and microscopic examination of artworks, the artistry required in restoration and creativity – essential to both the scientific process and the artistic method.

There are huge career prospects for students trained in this highly specialised field and we’re attracting students from the arts, social sciences and natural sciences.

The Master’s is led by Maggi Loubser and Isabelle McGinn, lecturers trained in the Natural Sciences (chemistry and anatomy respectively), and draws on expertise from the Faculty of Science, the Faculty of Humanities, as well as from Yale University, Iziko Museums, National Archives of South Africa, the Brenthurst Library and the SA Post Office Museum.

Today, we have the expertise, techniques, technology, digitisation and 3D modelling to restore and record things in the present and things from the past. The University of Pretoria is fortunate to have the facilities for tangible heritage conservation, and we have had considerable support internally and from the Andrew W Mellon Foundation in developing the Master’s, acquiring the new equipment we need and assisting us with international cultural heritage expertise.

Our conservation laboratory in the extraordinary new Javett Art Centre at UP officially opening on Heritage Day, 24 September. The Master’s students can do their practical restoration exercises in the laboratory where visitors can see conservators at work and make the connection between the works and the conservator’s scientific and artistic skills.

The beauty of the Javett Art Centre at UP is that it is all about the art and heritage of our country and continent, and how we define ourselves in the larger world. We want people to freshly respond to what art and heritage means and how we identify ourselves, and at the same to understand how heritage is culturally ingrained and deeply political in a country like ours.

An example is the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes from the University of Cape Town’s campus as a result of the #RhodesMustFall movement. The statue jars the emotions of different groups of people in different ways, and that is the nature of art. How we define what is heritage –  and what is not –  requires of us to constantly navigate our sense of the world. We need to question what our national heritage is and whether there is such a thing as a collective heritage or shared histories. The powerful aspect of heritage is that it is always under discussion, debate and negotiation. Always has been, going back 164 000 years when those early humans, eating lots of brain-enhancing proteins from the tidal pools outside their cave, showed signs of developing into thinking, feeling, conscious beings.

Professor Vasu Reddy is Dean of Humanities, University of Pretoria. This article was first published in City Press on 8 September 2019.

- Author Professor Vasu Reddy

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