What’s culture, anyway?

Today I found asking myself precisely this question while visiting the ‘National Cultural History Museum’ in Pretoria with two of my roommates – a question that has been keeping social scientists busy for quite some time.

The Oxford Sociology Dictionary (2014: 152) defines ‘culture’ (as understood within the social sciences) as “all that in human society which is socially rather than biologically transmitted, whereas the commonsense usage tends to point only to the arts. Culture is thus a general term for the symbolic and learned aspects of human society (…).” Following this definition, almost anything falls under the term ‘cultural’. ‘What is not culture?’ seems to be the question quicker and easier to answer. Criticizing the excessive usage of the term, Adam Kuper suggests in ‘Culture. The Anthropologists’ Account’ (1999: x, preface) to “avoid the hyper-referential word altogether, and to talk more precisely of knowledge, or belief, or art, or technology, or tradition, or even of ideology-” ‘Culture’ seems to be almost as problematic as ‘identity’ (see Brubaker & Cooper 2000, Beyond Identity). But that’s a different story.

Visiting the ‘National Cultural History Museum’ today, I expected an exhibition of South African cultural artifacts. And I could not have been more surprised. Apparently, the museum was working with a rather loose interpretation of both the notion of what is cultural and national when selecting the items of the exhibition and their order. It was the most random collection of topics and things I have ever come across in a museum. And it was brilliant! While at first I was a bit frustrated, trying to find a formula that would make sense of the randomness, I was soon enjoying the compilation, enthusiastically roaming through the winding and poorly lit floors of the museum, eager to find out what was waiting for me behind the next turn.

In order for you to understand my fascination with the museum, I would like to name some of the exhibits I encountered: From the large and empty main hall, I could see a room containing an exhibition about San art and culture to my left. In front of me, I was facing a giant copy of Rembrandt’s famous ‘Nightwatch’. To my right, there was the entrance to a room dedicated to Steve Biko. Right next to it: An assemblage of various older and newer household items and a display of Ndebele culture. Walking further, I entered a photography exhibition dedicated to Yasir Arafat. Further I would find – next to (South-) African art, architecture and pottery – a pair of Mahatma Gandhi’s sandals. In another room, an Egyptian or Persian mummy was put on display lying behind thick acrylic glass. Then, the evolution and history of currencies and money was explained, leading to an explanation of three possible causes for inflation. Another room was beautifully decorated based on the early Marabastad bazaar in Pretoria. I could go on for much longer, it was the most remarkable collection of curiosities.

However, what had initially caused my irritation was that I could not identify a topic that would link up all these various exhibits. What I was trying to find was a story that would make sense of the display and specific order of all the objects. Only when I gave up trying, I started to enjoy the museum. After having given it some thought, I think the ‘National Cultural History Museum’ even manages to deconstruct ideas of ‘the national’, ‘the historical’ and ‘the cultural’ by grouping objects that have originated in very different contexts and epochs, e.g. displaying Chinese, Aborigine and Fijian swords and daggers right next to each other, looking alike to the non-expert. Taken together, I can definitely recommend a visit of the museum as it is a very different experience to visiting other museums that usually follow a linear order and story. The ‘National Cultural History Museum’: A fragmented, non-linear conceptualization of ‘culture’, ‘history’ and ‘the national’!

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