Christopher Till: Mandela, Apartheid and the future of museums

2018 has been a hectic year for Christopher Till. The director of the Apartheid Museum, which has traveled the world in the last few decades helping to preserve Nelson Mandela’s legacy, has participated in the many celebrations of the centennial of the birth of the South African leader. Among them are the Mandela exhibitions in Dublin, Winnipeg, London and Fortaleza, Brazil, where he spoke with the ATLANTICO team. “Everyone wants a little piece of Mandela,” he jokes. In addition, he is preparing to open two new ambitious projects, both in South Africa: the Mandela Capture Site in Howick, and the Javett Art Gallery and Museum. But since starting to work as a museologist and cultural agitator in the late 1970s, Christopher Till has a hectic schedule. In this interview, he says he takes pleasure in telling stories and connecting people, creating spaces that are useful but can provide unique experiences. He also talks about the importance of the Apartheid Museum, a place where whites and blacks enter separately. For him, discussing segregation and hatred has never been so urgent. “There is a polarization again and we need to change that dramatically,” he says. In this conversation, Till also talks about trends in museums and their importance to the African continent.

Christopher Till was educated at Hilton College and Rhodes University where he obtained a MFA and began his career as Director of the National Gallery of Zimbabwe before serving as Director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery from 1983 to 1991. During his tenure he was responsible for several groundbreaking exhibitions, including “The Neglected Tradition: Towards a New History of South African Art”, secured the Brenthurst Collection of African Art, and commissioned several major sculptures for the collection. As Director of Culture for the City of Johannesburg from 1991 to 2001, he established the city’s first cultural office and directed the formation of arts and culture policy. He was responsible for establishing the Johannesburg Arts Alive International Festival in 1992, the Johannesburg Biennales in 1995 and 1997, and the rebuilding of the Civic Theatre (now Joburg Theatre). He is the founding Director of the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg and the Gold of Africa Museum in Cape Town, and has organised exhibitions on Nelson Mandela, Steve Biko, Oliver Tambo and the Women’s March, among many others.

ATLANTICO — How did you start your career as a museologist?

Christopher Till — Actually went to study art at art school of the university. So when I finished my undergraduate degree I was then in a master’s degree, and immediately after that, I went to a country just north of South Africa. At that time, it was known as Rhodesia. And in 1980, when that country became independent, I was made the director of the National Art Gallery. I ran that museum for some years. And then I went back to Johannesburg, my home, and I took over the directorship of the Johannesburg Art Gallery, which is a city Art Museum. And from that became director of culture for the city. And then I was asked to assist on a project which that would be the beginning of the Apartheid Museum. So my career has been around developing museums. I’ve worked with a colleague of mine for some 24 years on most of the heritage projects in South Africa, many of them museums. I’m currently working on a brand new project at the University of Pretoria. That is a project which is an independent project in the grounds of the university. The other project I’m working on at the moment is when Nelson Mandela was arrested, his place of capture. It’s near my home, which is four and a half hours from Johannesburg. We hopefully going to open the new museum in September. So I’ve been involved this initially art museums, in festivals, theater, music, and then social political history. And now I’m back doing a new art museums. So it is a 360 degrees.

Mandela was the first to say “I’m not a hero”. He was the first to say “I’m not an icon”. He said, “I’m part of a collective.”

ATLANTICO — What elements do you need to take into consideration to start a new project? Is it an easy job to do?

Christopher Till – It is a very pleasing job to do and i am lucky enough to be efficient in a career which I have passion for. It is a process that consists first of conceptualizing, looking at the environment, engaging with the community. And then to put it all together with an architectural input.

ATLANTICO — New technologies come up every day. How was it used to make museums more accessible, democratic and attractive to all?

Christopher Till — For a long time I resisted technology in some way just because in many of the institutions that i’ve been, to very often, the technology was not working. However I think technology changes all the time and it is astonishing what can happen. In my new museum, that I have designed at the Nelson Mandela capture site, me and my team are putting together an exhibition very full of technology. We’re doing an immersive 360-degree experience where there’s a long 20-meter light table that tells a story as you walk through it. You can engage with iPads, VR devices and video screens. It’s very immersive!

The use of technology in contemporary museums is vital in being able to engage the younger generation. Because everybody got a telephone, everybody is communicating, talking, looking information coming down instantly. So you need to bring them into a space where you can engage with them in different ways. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do. And I say my big experiment will be open exhibition in September and i hope that we are up to date technology and i don’t wake up on October and find there is a lot of technology to change.

ATLANTICO — What are the trends for museums in the coming years? Can you relate to these more immersive technologies and experiences?

Christopher Till — I think all of that. If you look to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, for example, they have entered into a space where they look at subjects which are popular, which are engaging and they create experiences like, for example, an exhibition about David Bowie, who is in New York at the moment. And they’ve created this extraordinary experience with the artifacts and films and the people stand for hours at the door to see..

Changing exhibitions that museums put on is a way you can bring new audience all the time. So I think it’s a balancing of all popular interest and innovative ways of bringing alive those objects and elements that you have in the museum. I also think that it is necessary to link all of this to an education program that which looks the issues that youth faces and bring this to the matrix of the museum. So that they engage with, they feel part of, they say we want to hear our voices. In this new art museum we are developing now we tried to do exactly that.

ATLANTICO — How important are museums to the African continent and why should governments invest in them?

Christopher Till — It’s a big problem. It’s a problem even in my country, where you see the established museums. There’s so many really good museums, but they come from a colonial context. So we need to change that perception. We need to say no to the idea of collecting the heritage of whatever place, that this heritage may be should not be seen through a colonial way. It should be seen through a collective identity. The role the museums play in the society is not only keep the objects safe, conserve and available, but it is to put it in back in the social, historical, even the political view of society. And in South Africa, the government does not provide sufficient amount of money for those institutions. And that is why the institutions that I’ve worked in since I left the Johannesburg Art Gallery had been private. The Apartheid Museum is, actually, a private institution. There are two new art museums opened in South Africa recently that also are private institutions. I’m not saying that these institutions should be private. I’m saying, yes, let’s see how we can start working together to convince governments to give importance to this sort of thing. That’s why I think my new art museum if i succeed is perhaps a model to inspire other countries.

The Apartheid Museum is more important now than it was when we opened it in 1994, no doubt about it

ATLANTICO — How does the Apartheid Museum contribute to reducing racial inequalities around the world?

Christopher Till — I think that South Africa can be seen as the laboratory for discrimination and for racism. As a South African and especially as a white South African, I can say that my community has dominated and oppressed another community. A minority dominated the majority. And we’re able to turn that. And I’m not saying it’s a Cinderella story, because it’s not. South Africa is going through a very bad period. At the moment, racism is more alive and evident in South Africa today than it was in 1994, which is very sad admission to make. There is a polarization again, and we need to change that dramatically. And that’s why I think that the apartheid museum is more important now than it was when we opened it in 1994, no doubt about it. Then we were living in this euphoria of how we’d all come together and love one another, and whatever. Now the social ills are coming to the surface.

ATLANTICO — Do you think that is why the exhibition about Mandela is still a remarkable product ten years after been launched? Is because of the new generation, is the legend?

Christopher Till — I think it’s the legend. Everybody knows about Nelson Mandela. They see him as a hero. he was first to say “I’m not a hero”. He was the first to say “I’m not an icon”. He said “I’m part of a collective, I happen to be brought into a space of leadership, but I represent my people and the fight that my people took on to change”. And now in the 100 years of this man, people still think about Mandela. We’ve done, in our museum, exhibitions about another leaders, like Oliver Tambo and Steve Biko, that were very important figure, but are not internationally known. But Mandela is Mandela. I mean, you know about him. But, you do not know about him really.

The use of technology in contemporary museums is vital to engaging the younger generation.

ATLANTICO — You have the privilege to share some moments with Mandela…

Christopher Till — I met him in a number of occasions. He was not in good health at that time that I said “come to look at the exhibition that we’ve created” and he came. But he could not walk very well so I’ve got a golf cart and put him. And I drove him through the exhibition and say “this is your life Mr. President”. And he wasn’t interested in himself. He was pointing out the people in the pictures that “oh, this is”… He was more interested in the other characters than in his own story. What an amazing thing to do.

ATLANTICO — How the Mandela’s legacy can inspire today’s leaders around the world?

Christopher Till — He was selfless, his genuine commitment was to change the lives of these people for the good. For the point that he was happy to die for it. He said so in his trial. And the he spent 27 years in jail, and come out and say “it’s worth together, we are all one, this is our country let’s make it work”. Sadly, we’ve now seeing this huge corruption era for the last 15 years. It’s like an aircraft hitting for the ground, trying to pull it up again. And I think we just beginning to get the nose up. But we’ve got to keep underlying that message otherwise. What are we leaving for our children, our grandchildren? Maybe we’ll have failed. So I think the message is as relevant today as it’s ever been. It’s more relevant today. And it should be an example to the leaders of Africa. But we got a long way to go.

ATLANTICO — What are your memories about the apartheid time?

Christopher Till — I think the one memory is how the government created a propaganda construct. For example, one of the ways of controlling people in South Africa you had to have a pass. If you were black, you were not able to do anything without your pass. If you lived in an area you couldn’t go and lived in another area. So they controlled people. And I remember in my area, every now and again, there will be yelling, and people running around and jumping over fences and whatever. And the police arrived because they wanted to check passses. And if you didn’t have the pass you will be arrested. But as growing up, I could see that that was crazy. When we get groups of school children, and they go through the exhibition, they can’t understand why we separate them at the door. Everything has to be transformed. But you have to begin to understand what is that transformation. So it’s a moment of reflection, it’s a moment of re engagement with the struggle.

by Caroline Ribeiro and Gustavo Augusto-Vieira