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Let’s step out of the museum box and transform the way we see our African past

By Amanda Esterhuysen

Imagine a venue where the sight of chanting Tibetan monks creating a sand mandala is as natural as the sight of San hunter-gatherer rock art. A place where contemporary artworks commenting on our colonial past rub shoulders with ancient engraved rock fragments. A hive of activity where children learn about dinosaurs and how to recreate Stone Age ochre paint, and where fascinating books on art, travel and history are introduced to the public.

Origins CentreIt’s not a gallery; neither is it a theatre or a book store – it’s Joburg’s very own Origins Centre. 

Our museum on the edge of Wits University’s east campus is more than just a showcase for rock art and ancient artefacts – it’s a living, breathing, dynamic community space where the exhibits are merely the jumping-off point for stimulating conversations about our complex African heritage.

Origins is a place where prehistory meets history-in-the-making as we seek to interrogate who we are, where we come from and how our self-knowledge as a people is often shaped by the contested and subjectively framed narratives of the past.

As we know, much of what has been passed down about the origins and development of Africans and our art, cultural practices, symbolism, indigenous knowledge and spirituality is still portrayed as it was originally seen by outsiders: through a myopic Western lens. 

The appalling Eurocentric stereotyping of Sara Baartman as a museum specimen is a famous case in point, but there are many other problematic and, quite frankly, patronising framings that still have the potential to skew how we and the world view our African heritage.

The Origins Centre provides a platform for open and frank discussion in order to expose and dispel such scientific racism. We’d like to be a space to air fresh perspectives and new insights, as we begin to reconstruct and take ownership of our own history. We want to, in our small way, help create a deep appreciation for South Africa’s and Africa’s rich and varied contribution to humanity, art, language, ideology, science and technology.

Our centre may be an important educational resource for information about palaeontology, archaeology, geography and the environment, butOrigins Centre logo we also want it to be a bustling and invigorating marketplace of ideas. We want it to be a meeting place for students, tourists, academics, scientists, teachers, children and members of the public – from the curious to the learned to the fun-seeking.

We’d like to hear from you: what’s your unique experience of being South African? In addition to our tours and workshops, we have several interesting events lined up to coax out these conversations. Come and visit us to talk, explore, discover and seek new ways of transforming the way we see our past – this time, through an unapologetically African lens.

  • Amanda Esterhuysen is an associate professor in the School of Geography, Archaeology and Environmental Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand