Representing the past in the present with the future in mind : a close reading of the ‘Cell Stories’ exhibition at the Robben Island Museum

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Robben Island was declared a museum with the understanding that it should not embody the suffering and adversity of the maximum-security prison, rather it should celebrate 'the triumph of the human spirit against the forces of evil' (Kathrada 1996:10-11; see also Deacon 1998: 163; Deacon 2000: 1; Coetzee et al. 1998: 10; Solani2000b: 6; Coombes 2003: 58) . Thus, the triumph narrative has become prevalent at the Robben Island Museum. This dissertation seeks to undertake a close reading of the 'Cell Stories' exhibition at Robben Island Museum, in order to explore if the exhibition has created a counter narrative to the dominant triumph narrative. The exhibition was established in 1999 and it consists of 38 cells in section A in Robben Island's previous maximum security prison, and visitors interact with the exhibition through a self-guided tour. In each cell there is a photograph of one of the ex-political prisoners, a locker which holds an object, a label explaining the object to a certain extent, an extract of an interview with the former political prisoners, and occasionally an intercom through which you can listen to the prisoner himself talking about a certain aspect of his experience at the Robben Island maximum security prison. It was set up in order to showcase other histories of former political prisoners and life on Robben Island, attempting to counter the triumph narrative.

Includes bibliographical references (leaves 89-98).