Rhodes University's fledgling heritage course celebrates the sector reopening after two years of lockdown

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[L-R] Heritage Management graduates Nosipho Magoswana, Khanyisa Ngquleka and Emma Dickson Bow at the 2022 graduation ceremonies
[L-R] Heritage Management graduates Nosipho Magoswana, Khanyisa Ngquleka and Emma Dickson Bow at the 2022 graduation ceremonies

After two isolating pandemic years, the Rhodes University Anthropology Department's Postgraduate Diploma in Heritage Management (PDHM) saw its first in-person graduates this year.

The year the course launched, in 2020, was undoubtedly one of the most challenging years for heritage matters, as all museums, art galleries and historical sites were closed to the public.

According to Dr Dominique Santos, Co-ordinator of the course and Senior Lecturer in Anthropology at Rhodes University, it was unbelievably challenging to make a success of the course. The curriculum was built around field trips and placements, such as at the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature in Makhanda.

"We had already had several placements lined up when the hard lockdown hit, and we had to completely reconfigure what we were doing and how we were doing it. Although we quickly noted the heritage management industry turned to the digital space during the pandemic, we had to approach it critically," explained Dr Santos.

As the Coordinator, she had to ask herself some tough questions, such as "How is the digitisation of heritage reflective of resource inequities?" and "How does it reproduce curatorial biases rooted in acts of 'gazing upon fixed objects'?"

As an adaptation, students designed digital heritage projects with a public social media presence instead of the physical placement they would have done. "This made us engage with the possibilities and inequities of digital heritage in a big way," Dr Santos stated.

As some of the harsher lockdown restrictions began lifting, Dr Santos said, students were encouraged to do practical tasks in heritage sites in their neighbourhoods and towns. "This cemented the idea that heritage is always, at heart, embedded in deeply personal and intimate practices," she said.

Although the challenges of the past two years were significant, Dr Santos said the future for the heritage management industry is bright – perhaps even thanks to the lockdown. "Government funding for the heritage industry has increased as part of job creation efforts post-pandemic. The field is challenging, but as we decolonise further and continue embracing the very alive, vibrant relationship with heritage (both tangible and intangible), there can only be growth in this sector. There is a hunger for connection now."  

One of the recent graduates, Emma Dickson-Bow, now a Master's Candidate at Rhodes University, was one of the fortunate post-hard lockdown students who could do her placement at Amazwi.  "This was a real highlight for me, as I could put into practice what I had been studying and reading about. It was a great way to be physically involved in the heritage sector and to understand how different institutions operate," she said.

Dickson-Bow believes the first steps to revitalise heritage sites are awareness, education, and the creation of visually appealing exhibitions for people of all ages. "It is important to visually and physically show why these sites are deemed heritage sites," she said.

She also chooses to see the positive impact the pandemic has had on the sector. "We have seen an increase in social media and virtual spaces used in the sector since the pandemic hit in 2020. Many museums, art galleries and heritage sites globally utilised this opportunity to make their exhibitions available online in the form virtual tours – often interactive. Having a virtual format meant that more people globally could closely experience what it would be like to be in these spaces – without ever setting foot in them. This type of platform also helps preserve these sites by minimising foot traffic," she said.

As one of the in-person graduates this year, Dickson-Bow recounted the surreal experience of walking across the stage. "I graduated with distinction, so it was an amazing experience to have people clapping and cheering for me - even people who didn't know me. Unfortunately, the pandemic took away the opportunity for me to walk across the stage for my undergrad and honours degrees, so it was very satisfying to finally get to do it and have my family in town supporting me," she said.

The new Coordinator of the course, Dr Pascall Taruvinga, joined the Anthropology Department earlier this year. "We are excited to welcome him as someone who has a wealth of heritage management experience. Our principal aim is to build collaborative networks that cross national boundaries. A Pan African approach to heritage management, which emphasises local knowledge and relationships, is key to Africanising heritage management. We believe this can have a global impact in re-thinking what we think heritage is and how we engage in managing it," concluded Dr Santos.


More on this course can be found here: https://www.ru.ac.za/anthropology/studying/postgraduate/postgraduatediplomaheritagemanagement/