Scary stories from a lovely place
I’ve always enjoyed good architecture, even before I married Stephen and we watched nothing but Grand Designs. I am struck by the intricacies of this vocation in museums and their galleries. Now that I know a little more about what being an architect actually involves I think these guys must be the masterminds behind the message delivered in modern museums.
One day soon before Silas was born I visited Constitution Hill in Braamfontein, Johannesburg. A friend had a friend visiting from Scotland and I offered to take her somewhere touristy. In my mind this meant the Carlton Centre or perhaps the night markets in Mayfair. But she requested Constitution Hill, so true tourists we were and off we went. Con Hill is the old jail, which is now a museum, cool office space (FEW, an organisation that works for the rights of black South African homosexual people meet in the isolation cells of the white, women’s jail) function centre, and the new Constitutional Court of South Africa.
While we waited in the lovely Joburg winter sun for Sibusiso, our friendly tour guide, I felt an eery familiarity with my surroundings. I realised while looking at the glass panels latched atop the crumbly, concrete waiting cells and the rusted iron design of the office facade, that there is a sameness about museums that have been constructed in the last 20 or 30 years. Content aside, I could have been at the Apartheid Museum or the Holocaust Museum in Los Angeles, or at Alcatraz, the watery jail in San Francisco’s bay.
These museums (and I’m sure many others) use a predictable blending of old and new architecture, incorporating relics of the past with contemporary glass, iron and brushed steel. Along with the many flat screen’s displaying images of oppression and dominance, these museums also use hanging fabric with screen printed images and frayed or burnt edges, audio loop of interviews and gunshots, contrasted with sadly beautiful pictures of people in captivity or poverty.
Architects are keen on lingo like ‘narrative’, ‘prescience’, ‘discourse’ and ‘indoor/outdoor relationship’. I had encountered, and even used these many times during my English literature degree (well perhaps not the last one), but I didn’t get how they applied to buildings. I used to listen to Stephen’s friends or read clever architecture magazines and wonder what was going on. As I wandered around Constitution Hill on that beautiful Joburg morning the light dawned. Even though the design was predictable, it was also effective in the way it communicated the history of the physical spaces with the people, stories and events they encapsulated.
This week Stephen and I had the opportunity to visit Kilmanhaim Jail near the centre of Dublin city. It’s pock-marked corridors and aged staircases speak of a narrative akin with Alcatraz or Constitution Hill. Aspects of Ireland’s history of oppression and poverty bear striking similarity with South Africa’s.
I enjoyed the tour. The guide was knowledgeable and personable, and she kept the mood light, although occasionally this came at the cost of poignancy. There wasn’t a sense of dragging us through guilt and horrifying us with detail, but we were shown the spot the 1916 revolutionaires were executed on and the tiny cells that sardined starving petty criminals during the Great Famine of the late 1840’s.
Interestingly there was none of the predictable museum design that I have experienced before. Kilmainham Jail was surprisingly organic and untouched in it’s presentation. Perhaps this is because it’s been restored over many years, mostly by volunteers and public donations. Even though the other museums work really well, I liked how plain Kilmainham was. This located the power in the stories I heard and what I imagined as I walked through the jail, rather than in the way those things were presented to me.