Red and Gold: A Tale of Two Apartheid Museums

South Africa struggles to commemorate a terrible history.

Red Location Museum, Noero Wolff Architects. [Photo by David Southwood, courtesy of Noero Wolff Architects]

“I told you the Truth,” I say yet again, “Memory’s truth, because memory has its own special kind. It selects, eliminates, alters, exaggerates, minimizes, glorifies and vilifies also; but it creates its own reality, its heterogeneous but usually coherent version of events; and no sane person ever trusts anyone else’s version more than his own.”
— Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children

To many South Africans, the end of apartheid, in 1994, was almost unbelievable. After decades of racial oppression, white-only rule, begun officially in 1948, was gone. As the new political and spatial freedoms sank in, the nation began the important process of formulating how to commemorate and curate an era that will define all that came before and after.

The participation of museums in the memorial effort was not at first an obvious strategy: during apartheid a majority of the population was by law denied access to South African cultural institutions. Yet apartheid affected not only the oppressed black and colored population but also the ruling white Afrikaans and English; and more, it affected also the international communities that propped up the system and those who helped tear it down. This is a history that must be remembered, not only for its brutal repression but also for its insidious legalism and official lies. And so museums dedicated to apartheid are indeed being built — every major South African town is likely to have one — and already several community museums documenting local impacts have been established. In Cape Town the District Six Museum commemorates a vibrant neighborhood bulldozed in the 1970s to make way for new white development. That development was never built, and for years the land was a vast gap; more lately the area has been filled with educational, residential and public facilities. In Soweto, the Hector Pieterson Museum is named for the best known of the 200 students shot in the 1976 protest against the degraded education system. Also in Soweto, there was an impromptu community center/museum focusing on Kliptown (a few years ago this neighborhood was the location of an international architectural competition). But none of these museums attempts to take on the full scope of apartheid.

To date, only two museums are dedicated to the larger national narrative. The first opened near Johannesburg to great fanfare and critical acclaim in 2001, and has been mistaken by many South Africans and most foreigners as the “official” apartheid museum. This is not the case. South Africa has carefully avoided establishing any particular official project (although the National Museum, in Pretoria, is curating apartheid materials and mounting limited exhibitions); its leaders are perhaps waiting for time to heal the wounds. The second museum dedicated to apartheid, in a much less prominent place, is a radically different institution, both physically and culturally. It calls into question some widely accepted, by now practically naturalized strategies of presentation and commemoration, strategies embodied most notably in the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. Viewed together, these two museums tell us much about how spatial remedies — architecture and urban design — can help address the spatial consequences of apartheid.

Spatial Impacts

What do I mean by “spatial consequences”? Apartheid ended, legally and politically, in 1994; yet the extensive effects of its policies, spatial as well as social and economic, have not been so simple to undo. Apartheid means, after all, separation, and many of its laws formalized and extended an already long-standing racial segregation. Indeed, after the Nationalist Party came to power in 1948, the Parliament rapidly passed a series of laws that institutionalized segregation: the Group Areas Act, 1950; the Population Registration Act, 1950; the Bantu Authorities Act, 1951, which established the so-called homelands; the Natives (Abolition of Passes and Coordination of Documents) Act, 1952, which required passbooks for identification and movement. As Iain Low, professor of architecture at the University of Cape Town, has written: “Space is the construct that most effectively maintained apartheid’s grand plan and continues to ensure the endurance of its legacy.” 1

From the window of an airplane it’s all too plain that apartheid has been deeply written into the South African landscape. Even the smallest town appears as two distinct towns. One features a spacious grid of tree-lined streets and comfortable houses surrounded by lawns. The other, its shriveled twin, some distance away but connected by a well-traveled road, consists of a much tighter grid of dirt roads lined with shacks. Trees are a rarity, lawns non-existent. This doubling pattern appears no matter the size of the population: here, the white town; over there, the black township. And the implications of such separation are compounded in the cities: huge distances separate the black townships and the (still) white city, where the jobs are. While no longer prohibited from living in cities, few working-class blacks can afford the move, and many don’t want to leave their communities. So they remain in the townships, where commuting remains inconvenient, expensive, overcrowded and dangerous.

But this kind of separation was only the largest scale of the compulsive racist neatness of apartheid. Not only was dwelling separated; so were schooling, health care and other services and activities. No commercial facilities were allowed to service the townships without government permission. The pass laws required anyone of color to obtain permission to be anywhere outside his or her residential area. Access to a public library or museum was out of the question. 2

So this is a tale of two museums that represent extremes of possible responses to the cultural and political conflicts of the new South Africa. One is located next to Gold Reef City, the other in a place called Red Location. Their place names poetically foreshadow the contexts that shaped the projects. Gold is the shiny color of wealth and bedazzlement; red the color of blood and passion. The Apartheid Museum near Gold Reef is a private venture epitomizing a kind of international neo-liberalism. It is cloaked in political correctness and uses its well-conceived architecture as a theatrical device for narrating a singular history. The Red Location Museum is a community-based initiative framed by a radical rethinking of the project of memorializing. Its architecture is a container for illuminating the fractured qualities of memory and the imperfect distinction of victim from perpetrator.

Top: Gold Reef City. [Photo by Saffa_Aussie, via Flickr]  Bottom: Apartheid Museum. [Photo by Shi Zhao, via Flickr]

Tale One: Gold

The Apartheid Museum near Gold Reef is sited on the outskirts of Johannesburg — 15 minutes by car from the city center, 25 minutes from Soweto — on land reclaimed from a played-out gold mine — one of the mines that made the city a boomtown after gold was discovered in the 1870s. Johannesburg has many such old mines, and for years the city, along with Gauteng province, had been urging developers to fill in the gaps in the metropolitan landscape. Enter Abraham and Solomon Krok, scions of a wealthy family that made a fortune selling toxic skin-lightening creams in a nation where light skin was a precious cultural commodity. The Kroks proposed a casino/amusement park complex — Gold Reef City, with a 19th-century boomtown theme.

The city was happy to approve the proposal, but demanded a civic/cultural giveback. After a couple of banal conceptual misfires — the developers floated first a re-creation of tribal villages, then a “People’s Museum” focused on the various peoples of South Africa — the city and its development team agreed on a “museum to apartheid.” 3 Such was the inorganic process by which the Apartheid Museum ended up as a minor player in the vastness of Gold Reef City, isolated amid the endless parking lots of the gaming and entertainment venues that anchor this suburban project. Unsurprisingly, the museum is overwhelmed by the surrounding spectacle — the colorful signs, the Ferris wheel, the casinos, etc. Of course, the inevitable programmatic gap between an amusement park and a museum dedicated to the contemplation of serious history had posed an architectural challenge: how to separate the experience of the museum from its environs, and at the same time make it a legible icon for the regional landscape.

The Gold Reef development team chose the theme of an apartheid museum after a trip to Washington, D.C., to visit the Holocaust Memorial Museum. But the Holocaust Museum did more than inspire the program. It provided a prototype for how to deploy an architectural language to evoke the spaces of oppression — for how architectural effects can act in concert with curatorial content to generate an almost visceral experience of the history described in the displays. So at the museum at Gold Reef, as in D.C., movement up and down is used metaphorically. Ceiling height is deployed to create feelings of compression and release. Lighting is dramatic, and in some rooms sound is enveloping. Two-dimensional documents, along with photographs and texts, are displayed on and sometimes within a labyrinth of wire boxes intended to remind us of cages. These dramatic devices effectively evoke emotion. Yet ultimately they made me wary. Perhaps the theme park across the parking lot is hard to shake off. Perhaps we have become too sophisticated, in this age of ubiquitous media and special effects, and cannot so easily be manipulated. We wonder: What is the goal of this staging? What are we meant to believe? What has been excluded?

This kind of narrative curatorial style inevitably leaves much unsaid and many viewpoints unrepresented. The Apartheid Museum  has been criticized for incorporating into its displays only a few of the thousands of white members of the African National Congress and other anti-apartheid groups, and for an overly broad interpretation of the conflicts between the ANC and other black organizations. Its presentations eliminate almost entirely the role the Communist Party played in supporting and drawing suspicion to the ANC. Many black South Africans have described the exhibits as melodramatic.

Top: Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg. [Photo by ccarlstead, via Flickr] Bottom: Apartheid Museum, Johannesburg. [Photo by Carlos Reis via Flickr]

As a white American raised in the southern United States during the civil rights era, I found the opening gambit of receiving an entry card marked “white” or “non-white” particularly weak. During one visit a black African friend and I intentionally took on each other’s race and entered by separate gates. Alas, the impact of this faux apartheid is rapidly diffused: the spatial qualities of each path are almost identical; and after a disappointing 15 meters or so of photographs, wall texts and reproductions of passbooks, and a “confrontation” with cutouts of officials seated at a table, the two paths reunite and move together out onto a sunlit ramp. What exactly was the message? That apartheid was over and everyone happily out of that dark time? The exercise seemed trite, especially given the fact that many townships remain impoverished. Exhibits of passbooks can’t really convey the ongoing humiliation of routine inspections. A room hung with a grid of 121 hangman’s nooses (one for each political prisoner known to have been executed) can’t evoke the terror of midnight arrests, random imprisonment, torture and death. And the small room overwhelmed by the heavy metal hulk of an armored personnel carrier can’t transmit the unstable mix of fear and courage that marked life during apartheid.

The museum seems designed for those who never really experienced apartheid. It is an elegantly made container that emphasizes and sanitizes the violence and tension of decades. After some triumphant moments — the freeing of Nelson Mandela and his election as president are well handled — it stumbles. The broad-brush, theatrical strategy seems unable to confront the subtleties of the fact that the story has not yet ended. It doesn’t address the complicity of some blacks with the white regime, nor probe the complexities of continuing tensions between blacks and those designated as “colored” during apartheid. And the museum does little to move beyond the struggle, to describe the true miracle of South Africa: the remarkably peaceful transition from legalized racism to the current national ideal of a race-blind democracy. It doesn’t grapple with the uncertainties of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, nor take on the stories of white racists who have begun to understand the small mindedness of their beliefs.

Cultural and curatorial failings aside, the Apartheid Museum is a well-crafted and exquisitely detailed work of architecture. The skillfully arranged spaces help distract from the inappropriateness of the setting. After entry through the black/white gates, visitors take a ramp up onto a landscaped roof; here the bulk of the building and a high, well-placed wall screen out the theme park and casino, and you are offered a view across the reclaimed mines, Johannesburg in the distance. It almost works — until you hear the gleeful screams from the roller coaster riders. A long flight leads down from this almost contemplative (though artificial) landscape into the museum proper; then, after strolling through the exhibits that stretch along the spine of the narrow building, you re-emerge out into the landscape — where emotions are released and the fresh air is welcome. Here another wall blocks the theme park, the parking lot and the busloads of students and tourists. This is a generous gesture to the visitor — a moment of recovery before being flung back out into Gold Reef City.

Taking advantage of this, I stopped in the restrooms which, like the rest of the project, were beautifully and expensively detailed. As I washed my hands in a chic Kohler stainless sink, I couldn’t help but think of the poverty I had witnessed in the townships, and the remarkable dignity of the people who faced it daily. What could a Kohler sink buy for them? Yet here, at this new museum, 80 million rand had been spent on an elegant building that employs mostly whites and contributes nothing except tax revenue to the efforts to reconstitute the country’s social, political and economic fabric. As I left I fully registered what township residents had told me: the new threat to the stability of South Africa is the increasingly wide divide between classes.

Top: Red Location Museum, New Brighton, South Africa. [Photo by Rob Duker, courtesy of Noero Wolff Architects] Bottom: Red Location Museum, entrance canopy and pergola. [Photo by David Southwood, courtesy of Noero Wolff Architects]

Tale Two: Red

In striking contrast to the Gold Reef Museum and its theme park setting, the Red Location Museum is located in the heart of the black township of New Brighton, near the coastal city of Port Elizabeth. 4 One of the country’s most established black townships, New Brighton was the scene of early ANC civil disobedience (it was the home of Govan Mbecki, father of Thabo Mbecki), and over the decades it remained an active center of anti-apartheid activism. 5 The oldest part of New Brighton is a grid of unusual shacks made of thick, corrugated iron, rusted red with age — the remains of barracks constructed by the English to house Boer women and children imprisoned during the Boer War. The red of the iron oxide paint, now peeling and rusting, inspired the area’s poetic name. Most of the buildings, having become unsafe and barely habitable, have been dismantled and removed from the site. There is discussion of reassembling one in the future as part of the further development of the district around the Museum.

Post-apartheid, Port Elizabeth was the first city to install a non-racial local government, the “transitional local council,” which consolidated nearby communities and townships into the Nelson Mandela Municipality. In the late ’90s community leaders developed an ambitious scheme to preserve Red Location, with the goal of attracting tourists and their dollars to the still isolated township. In 1998 officials announced a national competition for the design of a town center precinct which would comprise restored iron houses, new housing, a library, art center, gallery/market hall, conference center and, as a centerpiece, an apartheid museum. The competition was won by the small South African architecture firm of Noero Wolff Architects, whose scheme envisioned a bustling precinct with bus and taxi ranks, open-air vending and informal trading along with more formalized shops and new high-density housing. 6

Top: Red Location Museum, eastern elevation. [Photo by David Southwood, courtesy of Noero Wolff Architects] Bottom: New Brighton, with Red Location Museum in the background. [Photo by David Southwood, courtesy of Noero Wolff Architects]

Three things stand out in Noero Wolff’s design. First, the proposal is sensitive to context; it is conceived as part of the physical and cultural fabric of New Brighton. At the time the former township consisted almost entirely of single-story houses or shacks on small fenced or walled lots. There was no formal public space, only unkempt land between house walls where, in the older parts of the town, there were common water pumps. For years the main road that runs alongside the food market has been the de facto social space, with the wide dirt strips along secondary roads providing areas for informal trading. Noero Wolff scaled the new public spaces carefully; the spaces are open, but not vast. The new two-story buildings along the street reinforce the urban scale while also incorporating shaded porches for sitting, talking and trading. At the taxi and bus ranks, the benches for waiting passengers are shaded by a metal armature that can become display areas for informal traders.

The second significant aspect of Noero Wolff’s design is its architectural language. The architects have deployed a straightforward, slightly industrial aesthetic, which recalls the ordinary materials that local people scrounged over the years to keep out the rain and hold their shacks together, and also the factories across the railroad tracks, where the ANC first organized among autoworkers. This industrial aesthetic implicitly acknowledges that the traditional architectural language of South Africa’s civic buildings, its museums and libraries and institutions, has little positive resonance with black and colored citizens. 7 The aesthetic is not new for Noero Wolff, who have often worked in the townships, using humble materials that locals procured. Jo Noero speaks passionately about wanting to show how modest materials — like corrugated tin and cement board — can be used in beautiful ways, and become materials of choice, not merely of making-do.

The third important quality of the winning scheme is its original spatial strategy for the apartheid museum. This is indeed the most moving aspect of the project. For while it’s clear that curatorial content can trigger memory and record it for the future, it is less clear how museum architecture itself can participate in the orchestration of memorialization.

Red Location manages to do just this — and as much for what it avoids as for what it achieves. When the project began, for instance, the architects realized that the community would be eager to fill the museum with records and documents of everything, the whole difficult history of apartheid. As cultural critic Kobena Mercer puts it: “If, after many years of struggle, you arrive at the threshold of enunciation and are ‘given’ the right to speak, is it not the case that there will be an overwhelming pressure to try and tell the whole story all at once? … What results is an overcrowded, chaotic narrative which inevitably tends to simplify what it seeks to describe and explain precisely because it is impossible to condense and contain such a rich and complex history in one brief outburst.” 8 Noero Wolff sought a strategy that would allow for the shifting content and evolving stories that inevitably happen with hindsight and new information. “It is apparent,” Noero wrote in the competition statement, “that it is very challenging and complex to give appropriate expression to the very palpable need to make monuments and museums to remember and learn from the apartheid past…. (H)ow does one deal with the exhibition of material … so that it does not become, in the words of Baudrillard, ‘a burial chamber for dehistoricized and frozen secrets.'” 9

Red Location Museum, among the memory boxes. [Photo by David Southwood, courtesy of Noero Wolff Architects]

There was also a danger, in the architects’ view, that museum content could devolve into a simplistic narrative: the victory of victim over victimizer. The urge to create such a narrative was certainly understandable; it is natural to want to declare victory, to erect monuments to the struggle and the fallen, to boast of success. But Noero Wolff understood that such monuments can cause bitterness years later, when society is ready to put the past to rest. James Young, in his scholarship on holocaust museums and counter-monuments, underscores this danger when he emphasizes that “public memory is constructed, that understanding of events depends on memory’s construction, and that there are worldly consequences in the kinds of historical understandings generated by monuments.” 10 At Red Location such “worldly consequences” are likely to arise from the fact that the dismantling of apartheid remains very much a work in progress. The efforts of South Africa to undo decades of race-conscious policies, to avoid the temptation to redirect racism toward the former oppressors (as happened in Zimbabwe), to ride out the AIDS epidemic, and to negotiate the political, economic, educational and social transitions of post-apartheid — none of these are foregone conclusions. Red Location has sought, then, to be not only about memory but also about the present, about current events and the history that is unfolding daily.

Noero Wolff had another large challenge: the firm needed to break new architectural ground, for there were no museums that seemed appropriate precedents. Paraphrasing the historian Andreas Huyssen, Jo Noero describes the inadequacies of memorial museums: “We should move beyond the museum’s present role as a giver of canonical truths and cultural authority, duping its visitors [and turning them into] manipulated and reified cultural cattle.” 11 Noero is referring here to the curatorial and spatial strategies of museums like the Holocaust Museum and the Apartheid Museum at Gold Reef, where a single narrative strain is coordinated with space, light, movement, texture and sound to provoke bodily experiences. When combined with disturbing content, the experiences can be powerful. Ultimately, however, they are theatrical; and it is hard to shake off the image of museum-goers moving cattle-like toward a trumped-up catharsis of simulated slaughter. What, then, is an appropriate architectural strategy for such museums?

In Matter and Memory, the philosopher Henri Bergson provides an opening: “Whenever we are trying to recover a recollection, to call up some period in our history, we become conscious of an act sui generis by which we detach ourselves from the present in order to replace ourselves, first, in the past in general, then, in a certain region of the past — a work of adjustment, something like the focusing of a camera … Little by little it comes into view like a condensing cloud; from the virtual state it passes into the actual; and as its outlines become more distinct and its surface takes on color, it tends to imitate perception. But it remains attached to the past by its deepest roots, as if, when once realized, it did not retain something of its original virtuality; if, being a present state, it were not also something which stands distinct from the present, we should never know it as memory.” 12

At the Red Location Museum. [Photo by Lisa Findley]

Bergson elaborates on the point that our present understanding always frames our memory — and that the present is also subject to shifting points of view. Noero Wolff Architects are keenly aware of how both past and present can be manipulated to reframe memory. It was a strategy of the apartheid government to do exactly that. “The Museum seeks to remember the past in ways that are both familiar and frightening,” says Noero, “One of the horrors of apartheid was the sense of normalcy — the ability of its perpetrators to shut out from memory the ghastly consequences of institutionalized racism. And yet, at the time, the sense of impending terror in the country was undeniable.” 13 While both Jo Noero and Heinrich Wolff have their own vivid recollections of apartheid, they are also aware that a new generation will have no direct experience of it. How to keep the weight of the era alive?

In his work on memory, Bergson emphasizes the connection between the body, the soul, and memory. “[T]he body, always turned toward action, has for its essential function to limit, with a view toward action, the life of the spirit. … [The body] is an instrument of choice, and of choice alone.” 14 So the body, while teaching the spirit the patience of limitations, also gives the spirit a physical form through which to act in the world. Choice and action are essential benefits of freedom and agency. The choice of action, of resistance to limitations on spatial freedom, was a primary tool in breaking free from apartheid.

Noero Wolff were clear that the Red Location Museum needed to honor, spatially, the accomplishment of the end of apartheid. But they also knew that South Africans have had quite enough of being told what exactly their history is; the new museum would need to avoid the narrative hierarchy that characterizes the Gold Reef Apartheid Museum. Just as important, any overly determined sequences of space and circulation would experientially deny the remarkable new spatial freedoms opening up after apartheid. Sensitive to such concerns, the architects’ solution presents multiple narratives. The centerpiece of the museum is a huge, undifferentiated space with no windows, only skylights. Within the space are twelve equally-sized rooms called “memory boxes,” each closed except for a door, and open on top to varying degrees to allow light to filter in. Each box offers a different perspective. Each tells its own story in its own language, and the stories are not narratives about victors or victims, nor focused on specific events; they focus instead on complex human experiences and memories. The content of each box, too, can be changed over the years, and together the boxes reinforce the idea that memory is unstable and variable. Noero Wolff’s competition statement ends with these words: “Visitors will be challenged to make their own decisions about how to make their way around and into the boxes — people are asked to confront their own readings and understandings of race, class and inequality.” 15

The apartheid museums at Gold Reef and Red Location encapsulate some of the critical challenges for architecture in a nation undergoing an enormous historical shift. They embody extremes of possible cultural strategies for the memorialization of apartheid, and raise an equally troubling questions of what might be forgotten, and how.

The political and cultural dynamics of South Africa are tense — far from resolved. The process of reorganizing space — in cities, landscapes, buildings — to reflect the new sharing of power is underway. In this charged context architecture carries intensified meaning and symbolism. All of which underscores the narrative and referential power of buildings, and the ethical and cultural role of architects and architecture.

Editors' Note

“Red and Gold: A Tale of Two Apartheid Museums,” will appear in South of Cancer, edited by Fernando Lara, forthcoming from Routledge.

  1. Iain Low, “Space and Transformation,” Digest of South African Architecture (Cape Town, 2002), 34.
  2. One government strategy of containing people deemed to be politically dangerous was “banning,” or confining a person to a given area and not allowing him to be in a room with more than one person. Defiance of banning was a popular strategy during the Struggle (as the movement against apartheid was known). Steve Biko, in particular, used this to great effect.
  3. The excellent design team hired by the city was led by Mashabane Rose Architects, in collaboration with architects Sidney Abramowitch, Barend Johannes (Bannie) Britz, and Linda Mvusi, with the corporate design firm of GAPP.
  4. Unlike most black townships, which were new communities plopped down on barren soil, New Brighton was an existing mixed-race working-class town. When the Group Areas Act, which separated people into living communities by race, was passed in 1950, the non-black residents of New Brighton were forced to relocate, leaving behind the remains of an already intact community. This history is often cited by the people of New Brighton to explain why the ANC got its start in the living rooms of the shacks of New Brighton.
  5. The legacy of segregation and forced removals go back to 1847 in Port Elizabeth. When Umkhonto we Sizwe launched its sabotage campaign in 1961, over one quarter of the sabotage attacks nationwide occurred in Port Elizabeth.
  6. Mashabane Rose Associates, part of the consortium of architects that designed the Apartheid Museum near Gold Reef City, were awarded second place.
  7. Noero Wolff put it this way: “The site is located alongside a large industrial area. It was the Trade Unions that largely shaped the internal struggle for freedom in South Africa. As a result many people tend to associate the workplace with civic virtue. This is important since most public buildings in South Africa were viewed with distrust since they were associated with the ruling Apartheid government. The language of the new buildings is utilitarian and industrial and it is hoped that this will act as a connection to a proud union past and seek to remember the labour of those people who gave up their lives for the Struggle.” Jo Noero and Heinrich Wolff, competition statement, 1999.
  8. Kobena Mercer, quoted in Mabel Wilson, “Between Rooms 307: Spaces of Memory at the National Civil Rights Museum,” in Craig Barton, editor, Sites of Memory (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2001).
  9. Noero Wolff , competition statement.
  10. James Young, quoted in Wilson, “Between Rooms 307; Spaces of Memory at the National Civil Rights Museum.”
  11. Noero Wolff, competition statement.
  12. Henri Bergson, Matter and Memory (New York: Zone Books, 1998), 133-134.
  13. Noero Wolff, competition statement.
  14. Bergson, 179.
  15. Noero Wolff, competition statement.
Lisa Findley, “Red and Gold: A Tale of Two Apartheid Museums,” Places Journal, February 2011. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Laurence Loh

    04.02.2011 at 23:07

    A very thoughtful and moving piece that compels the reader to examine the position of spatial freedom and cultural rights, the question of ownership and interpretation of personal stories and the limits of one's own actions. Thank you for sharing.