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If we burn, there is ash, 2016, Wits Anthropology Museum, Johannesburg.

In 2013 the Department of Anthropology undertook to refurbish the Anthropology Museum, not only revamping the architectural design, but also ushering in a new era for reimaging the epistemologies of the museum and the Department. The original cabinets of the old Museum still line its walls. The decision to keep these Victorian-style display cabinets, is a pointed one. In conceptualising the possibilities for a new Museum, members of the Department did not want to erase the problematic legacy of the collection and the display thereof. However, since it’s reopening the cabinets have remained empty. Their emptiness contrasts with the lively debate that happens around the large table in the Museum’s main room, where seminars, tutorials and meetings are held.


During the 2015 #FeesMustFall protests at Wits, the student movement used the foyer of the Museum as a storeroom for donated supplies and an informal meeting space. The floor was lined with orange bottles of Oros, and the walls with towers of toilet paper. The immediacy and makeshift nature of the space as an ad hoc storeroom threw the anachronous austerity of the empty cabinets into stark recognition. These tensions attest to an uneasiness within the department regarding the status of the objects in their collection, collected since the department’s establishment in 1923. The empty cabinets (previously used to display these objects) embody a yet-to-be-answered question; what is to be done with this inherited collection of objects? 

On Christmas Eve of 1931 a fire broke out at Wits University’s Great Hall. At the time, the façade of the Great Hall had been built, its stone pillars and steps creating a striking image of the university in the young colonial city. But the University had run out of funds, and the building that would become Central Block, had not yet been built. Erected behind the grand façade of the Great Hall were wooden shack-like structures, which burned in the fire. These wooden structures housed the collections of what is now called the Cullen Library, as well as the Ethnographic Museum’s collection.

Initiated by Winifred Hoernle, head of the Ethnography Museum at the time, the collection was largely comprised of pieces of material culture sent to her from the British missionary, William Burton, while stationed in the ‘Congo’ region. The fire burned hundreds of books, paintings and artefacts. Some of the only objects that survived the fire are clay burial bowls from the Burton collection. Able to withstand the heat precisely because of their prior exposure to fire, these bowls remain, but are blackened and broken by the 1931 fire.

The exhibition, If we burn, there is ash centres around this story as a place from which to think about the value of colonial collections of material culture. While the origins of the 1931 fire remain unknown, it nonetheless provides a space in which to think about the potentially generative qualities of fire.

Ash, the material remains of fire, however elusive, does not disappear. Even when things burn, they are never fully physically or ephemerally eliminated. Ash is not just the physical remains of that which has been burnt. It is also used as an ingredient in cement mixtures. It is literally transformed into a building material.​ Using ash and cement as a poetic relation, this exhibition asks about the potentiality of burning in the project of building and growth. Ash and cement serve as a provocation on the question of what is to be done with the material remains of a violent colonial past.

The exhibition includes works by Thandiwe Msebenzi, Meghan Judge, Healer Oran and Tshegofatso Mabaso.

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