KwaZulu-Natal Museum: 117 years of par excellence

Asked about her work, Nikki Giovanni responds: “We are citizens and sometimes people let writers think that they should be more…. ‘If you’re a good writer, why don’t you change the world?’ Well, writers don’t change the world. The world changes and we write about it.”

These are more or less Viranna Frank’s sentiments when it comes to the role of the museum.

We chat to her about the KwaZulu Natal Museum and she tells us “the museum cannot change history, however, it can be socially cohesive in how it presents its collections, exhibition and also the way in which this information is presented to its public.“

This establishment on 237 Jabu Ndlovu St, Pietermaritzburg is in good hands, Viranna seems to go above and beyond her post, PR and Marketing Officer.

Her friendly “whatever you need” attitude is infectious and made doing this an absolute pleasure. If you are ever in Mgungundlovu and wish to make a short-left to the museum, here are a few things about this depository.

Zululand Press (ZP): Please give us a brief background on Viranna and your role at the museum. How do you end up in this role, education, interests and so on?

Viranna: My background is in Public Relations but I also have completed courses in Management Sciences as well as Marketing. I started working at the Museum 20 years ago and having qualified in Public Relations is what brought me to the museum as they were looking for a PR person at the time. My role has evolved more into marketing as that is what the emphasis and focus is on, in more recent times but even more on digital marketing in the last few years and adapting to a whole new way of engaging with our public.

ZP: Tell us a bit about KZN Museum? What is the significance of a museum?

Viranna: KwaZulu-Natal Museum, a popular tourist and educational amenity and acclaimed centre of scholarly research, offers thousands of visitors a feast of attractive, modern, user friendly displays. The KwaZulu-Natal Museum is dedicated to increasing understanding of the history of mankind in south-eastern Africa and of the natural world, through the collection, study and display of real objects. The Museum opened its doors on 30 November 1904 and is now home to several of South Africa’s most important heritage collections. The collections are of international renown, and feature regional archaeology, African cultural products, European settler history, seashells, insects and other forms of animal life. The KwaZulu-Natal Museum is proud to be the custodian of one of the most important collections of Zulu craft objects. The largest national museum in KwaZulu-Natal, the KwaZulu-Natal Museum is dedicated to the collection, preservation, study and exhibition of objects of cultural and scientific value, concentrating on both the Natural and Human Sciences. The exhibition galleries are continually being upgraded to make the museum even more effective and enjoyable. A cultural and natural history museum renowned for its unique collections – there are eight natural history and around ten cultural history galleries that include an array of mammals, together with the last wild elephant in KwaZulu Natal, birds, amphibians, insects, an extensive mollusc collection, there are few South African land snails that are not represented in the Natal Museum, and a life-size T-Rex model. There is also a room dedicated to KZN history, a reconstruction of a Victorian street, complete with shops and period homes and a recreation of Drakensberg cave. What makes this Museum particularly interesting is the array of interesting temporary exhibitions that give the museum a definite dynamic advantage. The Museum is wheelchair friendly, boasts an internet café.

ZP: Surely museums have the responsibility to counter inaccurately documented history especially in a country like ours where things were set up to favour other race groups more than others. Would you say the KwaZulu-Natal Museum is actively involved in correcting our history?

Viranna: The traditional role of a museum is to collect objects and materials of cultural, religious and historical importance and then preserve them. The Museum’s role is also to research into these collections and present them to the public for the purpose of education and enjoyment. The Museum cannot change history, however, it can be socially cohesive in how it presents its collections, exhibition and also the way in which this information is presented to its public.

ZP: Would you say you are a culturally responsive space? I am talking about the diversity in your patronage, curatorship, exhibits, collections, general staff. If so, how are you responsive, and if not, what are you doing to fix that?

Viranna: I would say absolutely yes. The KZN Museum has transformed so much in the last 20 years. We have a diverse staff in all level of our structure especially among our scientific staff. Diversity is very well represented in our exhibitions, reflecting the broad community that we serve. Our marketing efforts ensure that all cultures are targeted and we pride ourselves on being socially and culturally inclusive in everything that we do.

ZP: What is your take on heritage? What did your heritage month look like, events, exhibitions?

Viranna: The KZN Museum is a heritage body. It’s who we are and everything about the Museum in one way or the other concerns natural and cultural heritage. Due to the covid pandemic and our limited operating hours and the various restrictions imposed through lockdown currently we are very limited in what we can do in terms of events.

The KwaZulu-Natal Museum commemorated Heritage Day on the 23rd of September 2021 by unveiling a new temporary exhibition celebrating South Africa’s cultural wealth. The exhibition highlights South Africa’s indigenous Nguni cattle and features Nguni Cattle silhouettes decorated by learners from 12 local primary schools who were invited to participate in the Museum’s Heritage month competition. Learners from the 12 primary schools were present to witness their artwork on display, with each school giving a presentation on their respective design. The event culminated with a panel of judges, comprising of Mr Mthokozisi Phungula from the KZN Department of Arts & Culture Museum Services (Guest Judge) as well as members from the Museum’s Exhibition Department choosing the best designed Nguni Cattle silhouette. We also ran a series of posts on social media that looked at various aspects of South Africa’s multi-cultural heritage.

ZP: How strong is your involvement with the communities that surround you?

Viranna: The KZN Museum is nothing without the public it serves. At the centre of most of our outreach and in house programmes we involve the community very frequently. The Museum has an active education department and we run various educational programmes and well as observe special days throughout the year. If we have events in the Museum we include people from various communities to either participate or attend. When we run educational programmes we also take these programmes to schools, especially to schools from previously disadvantaged areas. We even include communities and schools in new exhibitions as indicated in the write up about the Heritage Exhibition.

ZP: What is the future looking like for the museum with the changes in how people are navigating the world? The museum is a brick and mortar institution that needs one to physically engage the contents but we are more on our phones, hardly interested in anything either than ourselves; any special programmes to keep the young interested?

Viranna: The KZN Museum is constantly updating and upgrading its exhibitions. The irony is that even in this world that has an accelerated technological growth people still look to the Museum for an escape from that and want that experience in a Museum that recreates a spaces that take us into other worlds. They look for an experience that they can’t get from television or a cell phone. This is comforting to know that people will always want to physically visit a Museum for that unique experience which is also educational. The KZN Museum is even moving to new premises in the not so distant future to accommodate growth for its collections and exhibitions. The Department of Sport, Arts and Culture will be funding this move to a much bigger and better site in Pietermaritzburg. The future of this Museum is bright and it’s a wonderful opportunity to create that space for the visitor and meet the expectations in ways that we have always hoped for.

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