A Place That Matters Yet: John Gubbins's MuseumAfrica in the Postcolonial World

A Place That Matters Yet: John Gubbins's MuseumAfrica in the Postcolonial World

by Sara Byala

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A Place That Matters Yet unearths the little-known story of Johannesburg’s MuseumAfrica, a South African history museum that embodies one of the most dynamic and fraught stories of colonialism and postcolonialism, its life spanning the eras before, during, and after apartheid. Sara Byala, in examining this story, sheds new light not only on racism and its institutionalization in South Africa but also on the problems facing any museum that is charged with navigating colonial history from a postcolonial perspective.   Drawing on thirty years of personal letters and public writings by museum founder John Gubbins, Byala paints a picture of a uniquely progressive colonist, focusing on his philosophical notion of “three-dimensional thinking,” which aimed to transcend binaries and thus—quite explicitly—racism. Unfortunately, Gubbins died within weeks of the museum’s opening, and his hopes would go unrealized as the museum fell in line with emergent apartheid politics. Following the museum through this transformation and on to its 1994 reconfiguration as a post-apartheid institution, Byala showcases it as a rich—and problematic—archive of both material culture and the ideas that surround that culture, arguing for its continued importance in the establishment of a unified South Africa.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226030449
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/15/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

Sara Byala is a historian and senior writing fellow in the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania. 

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A Place That Matters Yet

John Gubbins's MuseumAfrica in the Postcolonial World



Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-03030-2



Two Worlds Collide: John Gaspard Gubbins in South Africa, 1902-1924

    Lived a woman wonderful,
    (May the Lord amend her!)
    neither simple, kind, nor true,
    But her Pagan beauty drew
    Christian gentlemen a few
    Hotly to attend her.

    Christian gentlemen a few
    From Berwick unto Dover
    For she was South Africa.
    And she was South Africa,
    She was our South Africa,
    Africa all over!

    —Rudyard Kipling, from South Africa, 1903

In December 1902, twenty-five-year-old adventure seeker John Gaspard Gubbins boarded the Union Castle Line RMS Kildonan Castle for Cape Town, never to return to England as anything but a visitor. From the boat, Gubbins described his fellow passengers, noting that "they consist[ed] chiefly of returning officers, people connected with various commercial and financial firms" and other bureaucrats. Traveling among the religious, financial, and administrative agents of imperialism who were busily taking up the white man's burden in darkest Africa, Gubbins felt a part of a great historical moment. Yet, it was finding himself in the company of the quintessential proponent for empire that stirred Gubbins's imagination most. "Rudyard Kipling his wife and children are on board," he boasted, "and I have had several long gossips with him." Beside his literary reputation, Kipling's experiences as a perennial South African holiday-maker and journalist covering the Second South African War intrigued Gubbins, heightening Gubbins's sense of timeliness. To be sure, Gubbins was like the men Kipling later immortalized in his poem South Africa: a Christian gentleman drawn to Africa. A rector's son with Cambridge pedigree, Gubbins epitomized late Victorian sensibilities. On the other hand, and as Gubbins would soon find out, the South Africa that he was to encounter was just as Kipling would describe it: a land anything but simple. Only years later, when Gubbins thought about the distance he had come from the day he stepped off the Kildonan Castle, of all he had come to see and learn in South Africa, would he fully realize the profundity of Kipling's pronouncement.

In this chapter I detail the time period from Gubbins's arrival in 1902 to the publication of his Three-Dimensional Thinking in 1924, tracing the arc of his intellectual breakdown and the concurrent birth of his novel manner of thought while highlighting the glimpses his story offers of South Africa along the way. I posit that Gubbins's tale is at once unique—the product of an overly sensitive man—and representative of larger processes evident in this era of South African history that have become obscured in hindsight. Specifically, I assert that it was the disconnect between Gubbins's late-Victorian education and the realities of South Africa in the early decades of the twentieth century that caused the very disintegration from which three-dimensional thought sprung. In this reading, both the nature and content of Gubbins's intellectual collapse shed light on the interplay between metropole and colony (and later fellow commonwealth members) in the years surrounding the Second South African War and World War I. At the same time, Gubbins's passion for historical inquiry—also depicted in these pages—reveals his generation's sense of the modern world and the embeddedness of colonial/metropolitan relations within it. Using Gubbins's narrative as he recorded it as a guide, I illuminate South Africa in these precarious decades, setting the stage for the creation of Gubbins's most important accomplishment—the Africana Museum.

From Where He Came

When John Gaspard Gubbins disembarked in Cape Town at the end of 1902, he carried with him an intellectual trousseau far more important than any physical belongings he may have brought. Born on 6 January 1877 at Upham in Hampshire, England, to the local rector, Reverend Richard Shard Gubbins, and his wife Ellen Gubbins, née Rolls (of Rolls Royce fame), educated at Cambridge, and reared in late-Victorian England, Gubbins personified the Western world's prevailing intellectual position. He was a God-fearing patriot, a proponent of science and rationality. Raised during an era when the chaos of the scramble for Africa was solidifying into a range of systematic colonial regimes, Gubbins was aware of the then-timely theories of social Darwinism and scientific racism. Educated while imperial Britain confronted its self-named other around the globe, Gubbins learned of newly rationalized disciplines like history and anthropology. Constructed as being mutually exclusive, he understood that history addressed change over time and progress and that it was the domain of the white peoples of the earth. Anthropology or ethnology, on the other hand, was about black peoples' worlds, those without change or progress, rationality or reason, those without history. Culture—to be cultivated—to progress through hard work over time toward something higher, something better—this was the goal of the era, the widespread metaphor. Culture was what distinguished those with history from those who were frozen in time. It was what justified colonialism. And Gubbins understood. He believed, above all, in the binaries that were laid out for him in church and library: us and them, heathen and saved, evolved and evolving.

The late-Victorian society from which Gubbins arose was a world in which the notion of the intellectual had newly emerged, and this too affected him. Not only did, in T. W. Heyk's words, "the dissemination of the scientific paradigm for intellectual activity" into the realms of emergent disciplines change the nature of what was knowable, but the sense that an educated person should know more than simply the classics and mathematics was coming into fashion. In particular, and again in Heyk's words, the "growth in university circles of the concepts of culture as a rarified activity" was to have particular importance for Gubbins, especially as culture related to history. For, as Carolyn Steedman reminds, "'History' is one of the great narrative modes that are our legacy from the nineteenth century." or, as Michel Foucault puts the same point, "the great obsession of the nineteenth century was, as we know, history: with its themes of development and of suspension, of crisis and cycle, themes of the ever-accumulating past, with its great preponderance of dead men and the menacing glaciation of the world." An outgrowth of the same logic of progress that concerned Darwin and Spencer, the notion of history as a story at once documenting progress and explaining the present achieved salience at this time. And it was this narrative structure—and the impact in had on intellectuals—that molded Gubbins's sense of place.

For Gubbins and many other similarly educated men of this time, history and culture found expression through the act of collecting. A way of, as Susan Pearce explains, controlling the universe in a general sense, collecting was also profoundly tied to the colonial endeavor. From the formalized study and collection of the other that attended the emergence of anthropology to the haphazard accumulation of colonial agents, collecting and colonialism compelled each other. As Tom Griffiths explains in his work on the antiquarian imagination in Australia, just as "history became a central paradigm for knowledge in the nineteenth century," so "the urge to classify and order the world of nature went hand in hand with the organisation and domination of far-flung human societies." Saul Dubow aptly states a similar point in relation to colonial South Africa:

The growth of expert knowledge about the land and its peoples was closely bound up with processes of colonial self-discovery and understanding. The urge to know about others was born of intellectual curiosity and the urge to constitute a sense of collective self. It also had a more instrumental dimension, namely the power to identify, pronounce upon, and control South Africa's indigenous inhabitants.

Under the banner of historical inquiry, collecting became a way to assert control over foreign environs, an expression of colonialism itself. It was a method to order the perceived chaos of colonialism, a manner to control the onward march of time and one's place in it. And as Jean Baudrillard describes, by suspending the collector in a world of his creation, the act of collecting always provides refuge from the world outside:

Doubtless this is the fundamental project of all collecting—to translate real time into the dimensions of a system. Taste, curiosity, prestige, social intercourse, all of these may draw the collector into a wider sphere of relationships (though never going beyond a circle of initiates): yet collecting remains first and foremost, and in the true sense, a pastime. For collecting simply abolishes time.

And this was acceptable, because, in Griffiths's words, "collecting was respectable." Completing his education at the dawn of the twentieth century, Gubbins had specific ideas about progress and history and his own civilization's place within it. Central to this position was a desire to collect what he encountered.

The Gubbins family's history of participating in British wars for empire suggested a ready outlet for young John to test his worldview. From the Crimean War to the War of New Orleans, the Gubbins name appeared on the rosters of those who proudly served the throne. But it was South Africa that caught the family's attention. Richard Gubbins, grandfather to John, was a lieutenant colonel in the second British occupation of the South African Cape in the early nineteenth century. A hundred years later, Richard Gubbins, brother to John, followed in their grandfather's footsteps and attained the rank of lieutenant colonel, this time serving the British in the Second South African War. Like his brother, John became enamored with South Africa through the elder Gubbins's wartime souvenirs. Moira Farmer, then librarian at the Gubbins Library of Africana, wrote in 1974 of how, as "the grandson," Gubbins "pored over the curios [his grandfather brought home] and immersed himself in books by Rider Haggard such as She and Allan Quartermain which were so popular at the time." Growing up during the heyday of the British empire, Gubbins was wooed by the romantic notions of otherness he read about in books, learned of in church, and perceived in his grandfather's curios. Once called to the bar in 1901 after finishing his education at Haileybury and Clare College, Cambridge, Gubbins was able to fulfill his childhood dream and journey to South Africa.

The South Africa Gubbins Encountered

Gubbins arrived in South Africa at the beginning of the century with countless possibilities ahead of him. Directionless, he wandered through Cape Town and Durban before temporarily settling in Johannesburg. Arriving only seven months after the Peace of Vereeniging put an end to the prolonged, destructive Second South African War, he entered during the pinnacle of reconstruction, in which mining interests sought to resume making money while labor unrest grew and imperial Britain—by way of Lord Milner—attempted to institute a stable government. Gubbins thought about practicing law—his trained profession—or experimenting with mining. He questioned whether farming would be right for him. He vacillated, sending home long letters of uncertainty to his sister, Bertha Tufnell. But all along he noticed what was going on around him. He traveled, watched, and wrote about what he saw, and eventually the complexities of South African life began to erode his certain belief system.

Johannesburg provided the first assault on his viewpoint. While Gubbins initially characterized the city as "not nearly so bad as it is painted" and "certainly the place to be at," it was not long before his fervor was tempered by the harsh realities of the dusty young town. Not only was there a shortage of money available, but unproductive farming in the countryside and ravaged infrastructure also meant that services and goods were exorbitant. Aside from financial woes, the medley population of financiers, opportunists, and criminals distressed Gubbins, just as the predominantly male society made him long for home. And the situation did not appear to be getting any better. After a respite in the country, Gubbins wrote in 1905 that "in Johannesburg ... the outlook is worse than ever." Bitterly, he recorded how everyone he knew was either losing money or leaving the country; he likewise noted that suicides were not uncommon. He bemoaned the ongoing labor problems, now manifest in strikes and layoffs. On a different level, the fact that Johannesburg was a city in the making and not an established town like London or Cambridge-with their attendant manifestations of high culture-displeased Gubbins to no end. "People do not read much here," he lamented, "and what they do is of the flimsiest and most sensational description.... [Moreover,] they never seem to talk of books.... This is a town of 70,000 or more and money to spend on pleasure is certainly not scarce yet there is no circulating library." Characterizing Johannesburg as but a rough, uncivilized mining outpost, Gubbins echoed outsiders' prevailing sense of the city just as he demonstrated the worldview with which he was raised. Unwilling to give up on South Africa, Gubbins set his sights farther afield. "of course this is a town," he told his sister, Bertha, "and I long to get away right into the country."

In the spring of 1903, Gubbins ventured to Marico District in the Western Transvaal. Unwilling to forego participating in what he termed "the biggest game going," he used his sister's financial backing to invest in a small mining syndicate. Seeking to take advantage of the release of digging restrictions that came with armistice, Gubbins and company focused their attention on the Malmani Goldfields in the region. Immediately, labor shortages and the obstacles facing small syndicates intruded themselves such that, by September 1903, Gubbins admitted, "our syndicate is practically broke." Turning then to agriculture, Gubbins took advantage of the colonial government's attempt to undermine the Boer stronghold on farming by doling out land to Britons. First renting a homestead and then purchasing his own land at Malmani oog, twenty-two miles from the Zeerust and twenty-three miles from the Mafeking train stations, Gubbins settled into country life with fervor. Hiring twenty black Africans and one Boer, he began to live the life of a farmer—churning his own butter and going to town only to bid on cattle. While the idea of mining was never far from his mind, and while life in the countryside was just as, if not more difficult than that in town, Gubbins tried to acclimate himself. When, in the middle of 1910, he met and courted Mona Levey, daughter of the Colonel and Mrs. Levey, the resident magistrate of Zeerust, his decision to stay in Marico was all but certain. Accepting "a smaller income" than that which he could garner in town, John and Mona married, deciding to, in his words, "feed off all we grow." And with that, Gubbins became a British farmer living in the Boer hinterland.

Settling into life in the country, Gubbins was brought face-to-face with people and politics that had until then remained mere abstractions. As with mining, his eagerness to succeed was quickly mitigated by the contemporaneous problems of labor hunger and factional tensions. It was here in the veld that the struggle to control African labor first captured his attention. Partaking in the racist language of the day, he bemoaned the "thoroughly bad male boy" he was forced to keep at what he considered to be an outrageously high rate. Similarly, he echoed farming interests when he called for the importation of Chinese labor "under stringent indenture" to free Africans for farm work. As Gubbins was introduced to life as a South African farmer, he began to understand the need to compel a cheap labor force. Just as he became aware of the problems inherent in agricultural production at the time, Gubbins began to intermingle with fellow farmers, a group that was overwhelmingly comprised of Boers.

Excerpted from A Place That Matters Yet by SARA BYALA. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction Two Worlds Collide: John Gaspard Gubbins in South Africa, 1902–1924 The Founding Vision: John Gaspard Gubbins and the Dream of a City’s Treasure, 1924–1935 Becoming “Treasures and Trash”: The Africana Museum in the Johannesburg Public Library, 1935–1977 “Determined to Be Relevant”: The Museum Reimagined, 1977–1994 On Display and in Storage: Museums and Archives in Postapartheid South Africa The Enduring Struggle: The Utility of a Colonial Institution in the Postcolonial World Contents Notes Bibliography Index

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