The art of nation-building: (re)presenting political transition at the South African National Gallery
AbstractThis paper examines the relationship between museums and representations of national identity in South Africa. From their early development in Western Europe in the nineteenth century there has been a close relationship between museums and other exhibitionary spaces and the production of national identities. In South Africa, museum displays have historically supported colonial and apartheid ideologies, but with the transition to a post-apartheid society museums have reassessed their divisive roles and repositioned themselves within South Africa’s contemporary nation-building project, organized around building unity from diversity. The development of this new relationship between museums and democratic nation-building is examined here through discussing the attempts of South Africa’s museums to become more inclusive in their exhibitions, and analysing debates in the museological community concerning the challenges facing museums in a post apartheid society. These issues then inform an analysis of an exhibition at the South African National Gallery titled Contemporary South African art 1985-1995 . The exhibition attempted to use art to document the political transition and contribute to building national unity. However, by discussing the political operation of classification in museums I argue that the exhibition ultimately fails to represent this period inclusively, and I question, more generally, the possibility of art museums engaging in a properly inclusive nation-building project.