“What’s in the box?” – A collaboration between the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies and the University of Pretoria’s Archives

Posted on July 10, 2020

“What’s in the box?” is a project that forms part of the Department of Historical and Heritage Studies honours students’ coursework for their theory and methodology module. The project started in 2019 where, for the first time, history students could study primary documentation from the archives of the Museum of the Transvaal Education Department. For the students involved, this was a very exciting project because it allowed them to work with what the history department terms the “inner workings” for a historian, something that very few postgraduate students have had the opportunity to do in the past.

This coursework is done in collaboration with the UP Archives, a project that has come about through the Faculty of Humanities “Mellon Archive and Counter-archive project”. The UP archives serves as the memory bank of the university, providing researchers with documentary and photographic materials. Professor Harris who is the Head of the Historical and Heritage Studies Department, is also the director of the UP Archives. She believes that the project gives students a chance to get hands-on experience in working with some of the key elements of historical studies.

The module that this forms part of is GES 713. The students are asked to sort the documents, analyse them, appraise them and contextualise them. The documents are from the Museum of the Transvaal Education Department, and are unordered, un-inventorised documents that pertain to education between the late 19th and 20th century. They consist of curriculums, lesson plans, newspaper clippings, reports, class and teacher lists and budgets as well as other sources that provide insight into the history of the South African education system.  Not only are these documents a unique collection, but there is no prior research that has taken place on the contents, which ensures that the students take up the role of true archivist, a skill that very few people learn.  As part of this course, the students have to analyse the contents of their boxes and present their findings at a colloquium. Here, they practised the skill of presentation, and had the opportunity to encourage other potential researchers to take interest in their “discoveries”.

The addition of this component to what many may consider a fairly pedestrian subject at the honours level, has received only positive reviews and comments. The students have enjoyed the project and external reviewers have pointed out that the project addressed the gaps left in traditional studies where students do not receive hands-on experience until after they have completed their studies. For some, it is projects like these that allow history students to become historians, to discover something by themselves and practise in the art of history. The Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Professor Vasu Reddy, referred to the “insightful and intelligent work being done by the Department” as a “testimony to the kind of teaching and training which produced solid scholars”.   

This year, the study had to take place during the lockdown. As a result, the students only had limited sessions in the archives with the full contents of their box and then received a digitalised selection of the contents. This gave the students a unique opportunity to work with the different dimensions of the archive. They presented their findings at an online colloquium on the 29 June 2020 and, although the study was very challenging for the students, they exceeded expectations and did a thorough job of analysing their boxes.

This project was only possible thanks to the dedicated effort from the archives staff and Prof Harris and her teaching team who ensured that the coursework remained on track.

For those interested in the University of Pretoria archives, you can find all the information about them on https://www.up.ac.za/up-archives/article/258324/up-argief-kontakbesonderhede or contact them at [email protected].

- Author Andrea du Toit

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