How to stop the degradation of our museums and cultural infrastructure

How to stop the degradation of our museums and cultural infrastructure

We are witnessing the collapse or near collapse of key museums and heritage institutions in South Africa. How do we remedy this?

This year is the African Union year for Arts, Culture and Heritage. This week the African Experts’ virtual meeting on Sites of Memory and World Heritage Convention in Africa and Inter-Ministerial Meeting is taking place.

While this high-level discussion occurs, on the ground we are sadly witnessing the collapse or near collapse of key museums and heritage institutions in South Africa.

These include Robben Island Museum, which is reportedly cutting salaries to make ends meet; the District Six Museum, which has escaped an immediate crisis through its Love Letters campaign that has raised more than R1-million; the Apartheid Museum, which has temporarily closed its doors for financial reasons; the Liliesleaf Heritage Site, which is battling to survive financially; and the Fugard Theatre, which has survived from the philanthropy of one founding donor and ticket sales.

Other heritage sites that are not in the big centres, such as the Cradock Memorial, the Sobukwe grave, the Botshabelo Mission in Mpumalanga and Jan Smuts House in Irene, are generally dilapidated and falling apart. 

Every so often the government may inject some capital, but it is not sustainable. Perhaps the worst example of a heritage site is the San and Khoi Memorial outside Graaff-Reinet dedicated to those who lost their lives in conflict with farmers between 1702-09. The memorial is a disgusting heap of smashed stones, marble and other rubble left abandoned on a hilltop.

While the government has responsibility for many museums and heritage sites, with rare visits by the responsible minister that may result in an immediate injection of funds for a clean-up, this is not a sustainable way to honour our heritage. There is also substantial philanthropic support for various museums and heritage institutions and sites, largely by people who actually care about them, but usually, they survive hand-to-mouth, with regular financial crises.

The establishment of some of the key museums after 1994 was undertaken with great enthusiasm, but the financing models were never secure, while the fundraising strategies adopted did not necessarily work. Sustaining any kind of organisation requires a fundraising approach that goes beyond proposal writing, lottery applications and crowdfunding. 

Understanding that most resources, but mainly financial resources, are sourced outside the organisation, the director or CEO should focus on social leadership, essentially facing outward, building partnerships with others in the field; positioning the organisation as a leader in its field; building relationships with potential donors and other entities with funding such as local, provincial and national government; seeking international support, partnerships and exchanges; engaging with media so that news about the organisation is produced; building links with academic institutions to encourage more research that in turn can create news; connecting with experts in the field; building relationships with the cities or towns in which they are situated; connecting with tourism operators and organisations; engaging with the general public, especially key stakeholders affected by the specific heritage issues; and hosting events.

When this work is done properly, donors and supporters eventually offer support and there is reduced stress about raising money. 

This outward-facing work takes time, and institutions should recognise that this would be the bulk of a director’s work. While accountable to the governing board for delivery on the organisation’s strategy, the director should oversee the work of the organisation through an operational manager. If the director is sitting in the office all the time worrying about the roll-out of programmes, operational policies and who can take their computer home on the weekend, critical external relationships cannot be built.

Most of the entities that are facing crises have websites that do not mention how they are managed, governed or funded. There are few lists of senior management and board members, no annual reports or financial reports; there are no lists of donors. This information is critical to donors – they don’t just press the “donate” button when they don’t know the financial state of the entity or who is involved in running the organisation.

Fundraising is personal and based on trust. Building relationships is about creating trust and it is incumbent on organisations to find people in the corporate sector, in philanthropy, in government and internationally whose objectives and values are aligned with those of the museum or heritage site, who are geared to support them and then build that trust and those relationships.

What is problematic in the way new museums or heritage institutions are created is the lack of forward thinking when it comes to finances. There are wonderful causes, new ideas and the real need to memorialise our history. But, like any business, it cannot start without seed funding, committed donors over the long term and a plan to sustain itself.

This involves generating income through admission fees, services, exhibitions, book sales, workshops or summer schools, retail sales and even renting space to other organisations for meetings or events; regular fundraising from a diversity of donors led by the director; corporate sponsorships particularly relating to specific exhibitions; the building of reserves or even an independent endowment to ensure that the operational costs of the entity are covered. 

Most of the museums have suffered badly as a result of the Covid-19 shutdowns as they have relied on visitors’ fees, a museum shop and even a restaurant, but they should not be closing if they had good relationships with their donors through this crisis along with some reserves to maintain basic infrastructure.

So what is the Department of Sport, Arts and Culture doing? A quick check of the tenders on its hopeless website doesn’t show much strategic thinking. It mentions security at the Nelson Mandela Prison House, two books on two South African Living Human Treasures (R999,833); a feasibility study towards developing a Monumental Flag and Flagpole (R1,749,150); and a tender awarded to Indingliz Advertising and Marketing (a company that does marketing, website design, advertising, graphic design, printing and photography) to provide a wellness intervention programme for South African cultural and creative practitioners for three years (R14,912,901). Quite a bit of the website results in a statement from Google as follows: “The requested URL was not found on this server. That’s all we know.”

Where to now for this essential sector? Each organisation is unique and will need to consider its plan for the future. This means digging deep to change well-entrenched but ineffective practice when it comes to resourcing organisations and understanding that it is not about a lack of donor money, but the inability to attract it. 

Changing poor fundraising practice, focusing on growing relationships with the external world, building reserves (a tough ask, but essential) and ensuring that the director has the time to identify and attract the resources that the organisation needs would be a start. 

Published on DailyMaverick