Tangible Heritage Conservation

The programme was developed in 2016 and the first cohort of students entered the programme in 2019. It is based in the School of Arts, Faculty of Humanities, which offers training in Tangible Heritage Conservation. Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, Professor Vasu Reddy, explained the concept of Tangible Heritage as:

“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”. 

Prof Reddy explained that protecting the country and the continent’s heritage is the primary motivating factor, which is why the degree is important.

“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“.

Conservator and lecturer in Tangible Heritage Conservation and Museum Studies, Isabelle McGinn, further explained that the urgency also comes from there not being enough qualified individuals for the job.

“The degree will address a lack or shortage of skills in the sector as most current practitioners face retirement in the next five to 10 years and [outside of this degree] there is no training offered locally”.

While the degree will solve some problems relating to heritage conservation, there are still some issues that the sector faces, that can be addressed by multi-pronged solutions.

“Some of the issues the sector faces include a lack of adequate government support and allocation of funds towards heritage conservation, both in and out of museums; [and] recognition of the special skills and knowledge required to do the work which is currently seen as nothing more than a technical post. Accreditation and recognition of qualifications is also an important challenge”.

The solutions to these problems, according to McGinn, will come from a change of attitude and an effort being made by all sectors of society to fight for our collective heritage.

“Advocacy for what we do, by conservators, and [the] realisation that our heritage is deteriorating – by all of us – is important. We also all need to realise that inappropriately trained personnel can cause irreparable damage to our heritage, and that will lead to us losing this finite resource,” Mcginn said.

The degree programme will equip prospective students with analytical skills such as materials analysis, understanding degradation processes of heritage 'objects' and materials, and understanding how to mitigate these risks through preventive conservation.

- Author Masego Panyane

Published by Xolani Mathibela 

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