The University of Pretoria’s Tangible Heritage Conservation programme has graduated its first cohort of master’s students. The degree is a first for sub-Saharan Africa and was launched by the Humanities Faculty in 2018 to support the heritage conservation efforts of the country and continent.
Emilia Zambri, Mabafokeng Hoeane and Salome le Roux were the programme’s inaugural intake in 2019 and represent a new generation of conservation professionals who can lead the profession of heritage conservation across the African continent.
Professor Vasu Reddy, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities, 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.”
The Tangible Heritage Conservation programme, which was made possible with the support of the Andrew W Mellon Foundation, has a strong focus on the sciences and analytical techniques that will serve to build the research capacity of a new generation of conservators and diversify the demographics in the current conservation profession, generating new knowledge on southern African heritage materials, their manufacture and decay.
The programme has been developed in collaboration with heritage institutions such as museums, universities, libraries, archives, corporate bodies, private practice conservators, indigenous knowledge practitioners and the South African government. It equips 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.
The Javett Art Centre at UP houses a conservation laboratory, which is where students can do practical restoration exercises. It is also where visitors can see conservators at work as well as make the connection between the works and the conservator’s scientific and artistic skills.
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.”
Zambri, Hoeane and Le Roux’s studies were severely impacted by the lockdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic as access to study objects, museums, libraries and archives were all limited. In early 2020, Zambri and her husband emigrated to Australia, where she accepted a position at an architectural heritage company, but when lockdown hit, she was retrenched and had to cope with unemployment in a new country on top of everything else. Yet they persevered, and all three passed well, Le Roux with a distinction.
Their research topics were diverse and covered various aspects of heritage conservation. Le Roux’s project – ‘A technical survey of Lucky Madlo Sibiya’s (1942-1999) materials and techniques employed in his carved and painted wood panel artworks’ – was overseen by supervisor Maggi Loubser and co-supervisor Gerard de Kamper from UP Museums. Hoeane’s topic was ‘The spiritual significance and conservation of Dinkho tsa Badimo at the Ditsong National Museum of Cultural History’, and was completed under the supervision of Isabelle McGinn; while Zambri found a relevant topic in her new home. Titled ‘Heritage and reconciliation within a post-colonial society, Cockatoo Island as a case study’, her dissertation was completed under the supervision of Maggi Loubser and co-supervised by Johan Swart from UP’s Architecture Department.
The programme’s 2020 intake grew to five students, and the 2021 intake exceeded expectations, with nine students accepted.
“African heritage desperately needs conservation professionals. The hope is that students who enrol in this programme are given the professional status they deserve,” Prof Reddy said.