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The Medicine Chest


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  • Healing instruments

    “I invited Edmund February to the Kirby collection to view the instruments and learn his thoughts on them from a botanical perspective. February identified the dancing rattles as being made of the seed pods of Oncoba spinosa (Venda: mutuzwa) and the seed pod of Adansonia digitata (Venda: muvhuyu). The wood of the iodophone was, however, unrecognisable as a result of its handling. February also contacted colleagues in the Department of Zoology and the School of Mathematical & Natural Sciences at the University of Venda, who connected me to a Venda diviner, Muanalo Dyer, who uses similar baobab rattles (and other materials from that tree) in her healing practices. This interdisciplinary engagement showed that these instruments, supposedly frozen in their early 20th century understanding of being on the brink of extinction, remained very much functional in the present” (Liebenberg 2021: 271).
  • Buttons

    A display of a collection of pins, buckles and buttons excavated from the washing pools used by slaves on Table Mountain. Taken from their dusty boxes in storage they are currently exhibited as part of Skotnes's 'Division of the World' (Department of Archaeology).
  • Isigubu through Gqom

    "In 2018, the Zulu drum alleged to have been played during the 1906 Bambatha rebellion against British rule and unfair taxation in the colony of Natal (discussed by Nixon) became the focus of Amogelang Maledu’s Honours research project. In ‘Isigubu through gqom: The sound of defiance and Black joy’, Maledu (who has an undergraduate degree in Anthropology and Visual Culture) used the drum’s history of colonial resistance and contextualised it through the contemporary musical genre of gqom, showing music as both an act and celebration of joy and freedom and of defiance against the limitations of township life. Through her ‘speculative and imagined interconnectedness’ of the isigubu and gqom, Maledu appropriated the limited information available about the former and expanded it by reinventing new historical pathways that reframed colonial narrations and aesthetics (Maledu 2018: 29–30). Her curation broke the silence of the Kirby instruments and liberated the isigubu from its ethnomusicological framework through a juxtaposition that spoke back to history and the contemporary moment. In addition, a website provides a framework for historicising gqom and encouraged the growth of its archive through viewer engagement, also highlighting the speculative and stagnant colonial archive in which the isigubu is situated (Maledu 2018: 29–30)" (Liebenberg 2021: 211 - 212).
  • Division of the World

    "Undergraduate students regularly engage in discussions around certain displays as part of their teaching programme (N. Zachariou, personal communication, 27 May 2020), and the installation is also used to introduce visitors (exchange students and school children, for example) or students from other UCT departments (architecture students taking the archaeology module) to the department and the discipline (J. Parkington, personal communication, 20 June 2020). It has even been described as a ‘super curriculum’ (or as ‘several super curriculums’) for how it visualises what archaeology does on both an empirical and procedural level (J. Parkington, personal communication, 20 June 2020)" (Liebenberg 2021: 210).
  • The Kirby collection of musical instruments

    "Kirby’s choice of an ‘age-old simple classification’ to order the instruments can be correlated with another classification formulated at Wits around the time he was collecting. The Department of Bantu Studies was established in the 1920s at roughly the same time as the Music Department. Kirby’s use of the phrase ‘native races’, which features in the title of his book, resonates with the descriptive subtitle of the Wits journal connected to research in this department: Bantu Studies: A Journal Devoted to the Scientific Study of Bantu, Hottentot, and Bushman (Nixon 2013: xii). The homogenising act of categorising all diverse indigenous South African groups into three general categories seems to echo Kirby’s taxonomic imposition on the diverse instruments he collected on his trips and that continues to feature as the ordering principle of this collection" (Liebenberg 2021: 136).
  • Stone tools

    "By positioning artefacts to emphasise their labelling (stones are positioned to reveal the details written on them), including seemingly familiar objects and expanding and shrinking timelines, the installation [Division of the World] draws attention to the framing devices, tools and methods of the department’s insiders" (Liebenberg 2021: 207).
  • Things zoological insiders look at

    A sample box of archaeological specimens shown to first year students.
  • Things archaeological insiders look at

    A variety of pottery shards of Asian porcelain, European earthenware and British stoneware in a drawer in the Department of Archaeology, UCT.
  • Appendix (installation shot)

    A variety of pottery shards consisting of Asian porcelain, European earthenware and British stoneware sourced from the University of Cape Town Archaeology department and subjected to a botanical analysis by a graduate of the Biological Science (Botany) Department.
  • Appendix (installation shot)

    A variety of bones sourced from the University of Cape Town Archaeology and Zoology departments, playfully re-imagined by the students as a collection owned by a time-travelling anthropologist - collecting samples across time and sometimes, across dimensions.
  • Rattles in the Kirby collection

    A drawer of rattles in the South African College of Music's Kirby collection: "The instruments are now grouped in different cabinets according to the taxonomy set out by Kirby in his book. In the preface to the second edition (1964), Kirby shares some of his considerations when deciding how to group the instruments, writing that he had to decide ‘whether to arrange his material tribally, or to deal with each type of musical instrument separately from the technological and historical points of view, allowing the tribal aspects to emerge incidentally’ (Kirby 1964: xi). Kirby chose the second alternative, stating that his chief reason was that he wanted the work to be, as far as possible, ‘a complete and comparative study of one particular aspect of the life of our aborigines’ (1964: xi). His second consideration was to find the most suitable manner for classifying the instruments, for which he defaulted to the ‘age-old simple classification of musical instruments into three main groups of percussion, wind and strings’ (1964: xi) – a Western system for the classification of instruments and the principles on which they were based. The chapters in his book and the displays in the room are thus grouped into three categories: percussion – ‘rattles and clappers’, ‘drums’, ‘xylophones and sansas’ and ‘bull-roarers and spinning-disks’; wind instruments – ‘horns and trumpets’, ‘whistles, flutes, and vibrating reeds’ and ‘reed flute ensembles’; and stringed instruments – ‘stringed instruments’ and ‘Bushmen and Hottentot violins and the ramkie’. Kirby encountered one taxonomic anomaly when employing this system: the ‘gora’, an instrument both wind and string, which he termed ‘a stringed-wind instrument’" (Liebenberg 2021: 135).
  • Terra Nova

    Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova expedition reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912 — 23 days too late. Inside a small tent supported by a single bamboo flying a Norwegian flag, was a record of the five who had been the first to reach the pole: Roald Amundsen, the leader, and his team - Olav Olavson Bjaaland, Hilmer Hanssen, Sverre H. Hassel and Oscar Wisting. On 19 January, they began their 1,300 kilometre journey home, Scott writing: “I’m afraid the return journey is going to be dreadfully tiring and monotonous” (Scott 1914: 548).
  • Fish

    A showcase of fish found in the Artic regions.
  • Resonance (Greenblatt)

    In 'Resonance and Wonder' Greenblatt discusses ‘resonant’ moments in regards to museum displays as “those in which the supposedly contextual objects take on a life of their own and make a claim that rivals that of the object that is formally privileged. A table, a chair, a map – often seemingly placed only to provide a decorative setting for a grand work – become oddly expressive, significant not as a background but as compelling representational practices in themselves. These practices may in turn impinge on the grand work, so that we begin to glimpse a kind of circulation: the cultural practice and social energy implicit in mapmaking is drawn into the aesthetic orbit of a painting, which has itself enabled us to register some of the representational significance of the map” (1991: 22- 23). For him a resonant exhibition often “pulls the viewer away from the celebration of isolated objects and toward a series of implied, only half-visible relationships and questions” (1991: 23).
  • Resonance

    Image from page 137 of the 'Curiosity CLXXV' catalogue, describing resonance and its application in MRI technology.
  • Pompei casts

  • Pattern recognition

    A display in Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town. The label reads: ​The History of Crockery Apartheid did more than separate the races. Parallel with the separate crockery for the different religions (Jewish = Blue; Muslim = Pink) was a range of separate crockery for the staff and patients of different races. Here are a few examples of this complex collection: ​Royal Blue: Jewish patients and staff (kosher) Dark Navy Blue: "European" patients Green: "European" staff Maroon: "Non European" patients Black: "Non European" staff Pink: Muslim patients and staff (halaal) ​These pieces of crockery are now part of our history and all patients are served meals in the standard rectangular crocker plate.
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