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Into the Archive: Unpacking the Collections

Into the Archive: Unpacking the Collections

The air is heavy with the smoky scent of suede emanating from one of the items that has been momentarily taken out of its consigned conservation cabinet for my research. A pungent smell of warm leather fills the air. The room—a windowless, air-conditioned, temperature controlled, and state-of-the-art environment on the third floor—encapsulates the Iziko Museums of South Africa’s ambitious plans to combine the sartorial collections of the former South African Museum, South African National Gallery, and South African Cultural History Museum into the much-anticipated textile store in the Social History Centre.[1]  An anthropology collections expert, a retired South African Museum conservator, and two collections assistants accompanied me on this day’s foray into the storeroom. The move, to physically integrate the various material collections of the previously segregated museums in the new storage facility, follows the Iziko Museums’ objective to break down the barriers between the objects previously divided and defined by their disciplines, resulting in an ongoing process of “unpacking boxes.” The merging of the separate museum collections is ambitiously aimed at exposing the material archives to new opportunities for research and potentially for revived discursive interrogation and interpretation, engaging with alternative histories and interdisciplinary dialogues.

There is much to be said about the unpacking of boxes. In an essay titled Unpacking My Library…Again, postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha describes how chance “encounters” produce “dialectical tension[s] between the poles of order and disorder,” and suggests that we momentarily acknowledge, and participate in, these tensions.[2] Walter Benjamin—the cultural critic, eclectic thinker, and key philosopher of the early twentieth century whose work informed this essay by Bhabha—ascribes this “dialectical tension” to the life of a collector claiming that the act of ordering engages with the chaos of remembering.[3] On this day, accessing the objects of my research, I too note the tensions, disjunctures, and idiosyncrasies of finding three pairs of highly decorated, beaded trousers, or ibulukwe, belonging to pre-initiate male adolescents aged between fourteen and eighteen from the Eastern Cape[4] lying on the table, with the other objects of the day’s unpacking-in-progress. The trousers, showing signs of wear, carry the traces of their owners and their cultural expression, in their move from their storage where they have been individually placed between sheets of white, archival tissue paper.

Taken out of the silent layers of their cabinets for my research, they now share their histories with other sartorial objects on a long white table. On this day, the careful, systematic unpacking of the collections saw eleven very large boxes of christening gowns and baby wraps in all shades of white, cream, off-white, beige, and very light brown being unpacked, sorted, photographed, and processed for continued archiving in their newly allocated spaces. These decorative, delicate, and carefully protected artifacts in cotton, lace, anglaise, and linen store in their folds[5] memories of colonial practices, childhood innocence, familial treasures, and heritage moments. The rituals and realities of the African rural experience of the beaded trouser youths stand in stark contrast to the cocooned and colonial nostalgia of the christening gowns. The different registers of tradition and childhood richly illustrate Benjamin’s dialectical tensions in this research moment. Sentiments of loss and displacement are unmistakably palpable in both artifacts. I am reminded of Svetlana Boym’s reference to nostalgia as “a romance with one’s own fantasy.”[6]

The textile storage space is a place of gentle, gloved movements and careful, reverent handling of myriad artifacts.

The textile storage space is a place of gentle, gloved movements and careful, reverent handling of myriad artifacts. It’s a place where, currently, conservation tasks lag and preservation is maintained at a bare minimum, aimed to suspend time and deter the real world practicalities of change, decay, and age. The large and labelled, flat, brown cardboard boxes from the cultural history collections (some packed more than 30 years ago, some packed more recently for the merger) are surrounded by more boxes of various shapes and sizes, as well as tissue paper, cabinet drawers, textile wrapping ephemera, a small filing catalogue cabinet[7] and work desk, chairs, cardboard rolls, tape, gloves, and three white work tables. Here, one finds oneself temporarily suspended inside a large, white cube that appears to be frozen in time.

To assess the collections meaningfully and strategically, I chose to focus my attention on a single type of object: pants. In doing so, I hoped to investigate the dispositions, histories, classifications, and representations that surrounded these individual artifacts, as well as tracing the critical, disciplinary differences across the various collections that are now being assimilated into a single social history archive. This process of research—tracking objects across disciplinarily silos—aims to draw comparisons between the objects’ conservation, classification, and display tropes, as well as to identify absences and analyse patterns in the museum’s records. In doing so, I am hoping to expose the socio-political and cultural entanglement of their backstories, definitions, classifications, and museological values. As a particularly contested sartorial item, pants (or ibulukwe, broek, trousers, leggings, shorts, or culottes) present a dress/fashion history that is notably divided across gender, culture, class, and religion. The French Revolution witnessed the wearing of trousers as the political symbol of the proletariat. The wearing of pants by women is still seen as problematic in some professions, religions, and cultures—having only recently become acceptable in western fashion.

The use of terms “dress” and “fashion” has persisted in museums as the binary divide between the notions of tradition and modernity, local and global, and timeless and contemporary.  Recent critical and postcolonial thinking has begun to challenge the way these terms are applied and understood, where their distinctions are becoming more blurred. In this research, I am using dress/fashion as a compounded word-form to trouble and disrupt the ideological framing that aims to segregate these terms.  

The focus of the Iziko Museums’ merger has been largely about unifying the disparate collections into one comprehensive, albeit interdisciplinary, collection of social history; in this case the “dress” artifacts in the ethnographic collections, and the “costume” or “fashion” objects in the cultural history collections. This merger is not only taking place in the storeroom with objects coming together, but also in the classification and cataloguing systems with their entangled taxonomies.[8] The integration of the collections prompts the necessary act of re-configuration, as the merger aims to reverse the division engineered in the 1960s to split and divide the collections with those “classified as ‘ethnological’ (relating to the indigenous people of South Africa) separated from those classified as ‘historical’ (relating the colonial settlers).”[9]

The possibility to work with the museum’s sartorial collections lends itself to engage with multiple interpretations of past and present dress/fashion practices in a postcolonial South Africa.[10] The selected items for the day’s research are laid out on the table like emptied sartorial skins. Were they discarded or abandoned by their owners, or were they bartered with or taken from their owners? As material artifacts, the imprints of the now-absent bodies remain as ghosts of the individuals who once wore them. Peter Stallybrass identifies the “two almost contradictory aspects of [clothing’s] materiality: its ability to be permeated and transformed by maker and wearer, and its ability to endure over time.”[11] It is the association to memory that makes dress/fashion objects in museums so haunting; when “a person is absent or dies, clothing can absorb his or her absent presence.”[12]

As material artifacts, the imprints of the now-absent bodies remain as ghosts of the individuals who once wore them.

I am interested in the ways in which identity and notions of the self (gender, class, culture, subjectivity) are accomplished through the rituals or practices of dress/fashion. The garment becomes the site upon which a host of social, cultural, and professional identities are enacted. The material surface supports (and sometimes denies) attempts to fit into required and embodied socio-cultural rituals. Now, I search these silent material surfaces in the Textile Store of Iziko Museums, their imprints, shapes, marks, and textures, for signs of the individuals who once wore them, and for the cultures and social practices they formed, and were informed by.

The notion of the garment as imprint also brings into question what physical traces are in fact left in the garments, such as scent, sweat, hair, skin, and even blood. Concerning ongoing debates surrounding the use of body-casts in the South African Museum[13] and the broader questions of what constitutes human remains, the study, collection, and display of dress/fashion could be complicated further. In the Draft National Museums Policy of the Department of Arts and Cultures of the Republic of South Africa,[14] it is recognised that artifacts made from or including human remains should be afforded the same dignity and respect as human remains, which would include issues of restitution and repatriation. This presents a number of very critical questions in the ongoing collection, conservation and exhibition of these sartorial artifacts, which I will interrogate in more depth as I continue my forays in and out of the archive.




[1] Twelve museums officially merged in 1999 to make up Iziko Museums, with a mission to promote a unique combination of South Africa’s heritage collections, sites and services for the benefit of present and future generations. (accessed 11/11/16).

[2] Homi Bhabha, “Unpacking my library...again” in Iain Chambers and Lidia Curti (eds.), The Post-Colonial Question: Common Skies, Divided Horizons (London and New York: Routledge,1996),199.

[3] Ibid., 200-201.

[4] Beadwork collector, Stephen Long bought beadwork from the region of King Williamstown in the Eastern Cape, from cultural groups such as the Thembu, Fengu and Xhosa, and from the mid-seventies to late-nineties sold these to various museums and galleries. These trousers form part of a selection bought by the South African Museum in 1994. Personal interview, Stephen Long  (11/16/2015).

[5] Ulrich Lehmann, Tigersprung: Fashion in Modernity (MIT Press, 2000), 211-213.

[6] Svetlana Boym, “Nostalgia and its Discontents,” The Hedgehog Review, Summer 7 (2009), 7.

[7] Considering the importance of this catalogue cabinet as the prime archive of information of the objects in the collections, it is a surprisingly unpretentious and simple item of furniture, reminiscent more of its past setting than befitting this custom-designed environment.

[8] Sarah Nuttal, Entanglement: Literary and Cultural Reflections on Post-apartheid (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2009).

[9] Patricia Davison, “Redefining Relevance: Museums for a New Millennium: The Role of Museums 2000,” South African Museums Association Bulletin, 25 (2000), 3.

[10] For examples of essays that explore the diversity and complexity of dress/fashion as lens in critical studies, see essays collated by Relebohile Moletsane, Claudia Mitchell and Ann Smith, (eds.) Was it Something I Wore? Dress, Identity, Materiality (Cape Town: HSRC Press, 2012).

[11] Peter Stallybass, “Worn Worlds: Clothes, mourning and the life of things” in Jessica Hemmings (ed.), The Textile Reader (Berg Publishers, 2012), 70.

[12] Ibid. See also, Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams (London: I.B.Tauris & Co, 2010).

[13] For example, see ‘The Re-activation of Human Remains’ (accessed 13/03/2015).

[14] For the full policy see (accessed 20/03/2015).

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