COVID may shutter South Africa’s ‘Beloved Heritage Museums’

by Lisa VIVES

POPULAR exhibits at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and other legacy museums are barely surviving and may close over funding shortfalls due to Covid-19.

A pair of boxing gloves worn by Nelson Mandela at the height of the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, one of the most popular exhibits, is now covered with dust in a darkened room, according to Mfuneko Toyana, writing for Reuters.

“We had to let go of all of the staff. About 30 people. There’s no one here to turn the lights on and off,” the museum’s Director Christopher Till said.

By March 2020, most cultural institutions across the world were indefinitely closed (or at least with their services radically curtailed), and in-person exhibitions, events, and performances were cancelled or postponed.

Among these were all museums in Morocco as of March 15 until further notice and cancellation of Mawazine – the world’s second-largest music festival – scheduled for mid-June.

In response, there were intensive efforts to provide alternative or additional services through digital platforms, to maintain essential activities with minimal resources, and to document the events themselves through new acquisitions, including new creative works inspired by the pandemic.

Hundreds of artworks and artefacts illustrating the history of the long struggle against white minority rule could become inaccessible to the public but “we can’t afford to lose this place,” Till said.

Over 1,000 visitors viewed the historic exhibits before the pandemic. Like other cultural institutions, it had to close its doors in March 2020 when South Africa imposed its first COVID-19 lockdown.



    The museum reopened in January 2021, Toyana reported, but having sold no tickets for 10 months and with visitor numbers very low due to the ongoing outbreak, it was too cash-strapped to operate and shut down again in March.

    The Fugard Theatre is also permanently closed as a result of the coronavirus in Cape Town. “We are not persuaded that the theatre will be Covid safe or financially viable to reopen as a theatre in the foreseeable future,” wrote theatre founder Eric Abraham.

    “The theatre will be handed back to the owner of the freehold of the building as a working theatre and we hope they will be able to use it for the benefit of the Museum and the community.”

    Other institutions facing permanent shutdown are the Johannesburg Art Gallery and Mandela’s house in the township of Soweto.

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