The Red Location Museum opened in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, in early 2006. Part of a large Cultural Precinct which will, in the end, be comprising an art gallery, a library, a theatre, an art school and 200 to 250 social houses, the museum is situated in the Red Location area, the oldest part of the New Brighton township outside of Port Elizabeth. Although the full Complex is far from being finished (the time-frame from completion given by one of the architects of the project, Jo Noero, ranks from 2 to 20 years), the museum alone is worth the travel.
Contrary to Addis Ababa’s Memorial which is a small private initiative, the Red Location Museum is part of a vast public project ordered by the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality which sought “to move the cultural centre of the old city to the township”, in accordance with a national effort to rehabilitate and revitalise townships throughout the country. Architecturally first, the building is in harmony with its memory fostering purpose. Established right in the middle of shacks and using mainly inexpensive and raw materials, it easily bears comparison with any other architectural masterpiece of the kind.
Equally interesting is the set up of the exhibition itself. Rather than choosing a formal presentation of the major events of the Apartheid struggle (already displayed in many museums across the nation), the architect imagined an interactive concept of memory boxes, with smaller rooms inside the main structure, which would each hold a particular memory or event related to local events and directly linked to the local population’s past.
The architect indeed argues that the first targeted public, New Brighton inhabitants, have probably never been to a museum and have no means of understanding a formal and rigid presentation of history.
While we visited, members of the museum’s security staff indeed related to some of the memory boxes for being part of their own past while being part of History at the same time.
Those boxes, host to temporary mini-exhibitions, are made of ‘red’ rusty galvanised iron sheets used to build shacks.
Unfortunately however, the feeling of achievement and significance emanating from the museum contrasts immensely with the outside reality. The Complex was closed during the last festive season (December and January, a period during which tourists and locals alike would be inclined to go to cultural hotspots) and seemed abandoned. The art gallery is not apparently a source of attraction and the township is not seeing the revitalisation impact or the economic benefits which were among the primary goals of the project. Hence, it feels that much time, energy and funds were put in the initial phase, but that it was not followed by a clear cultural program. It also raises the question of the revitalisation potential of a museum, dedicated to memory.
In the end, the Red Location Museum appears as a perfect example of grassroots memory mechanism rendering some sort of justice to a population which is otherwise overlooked and which is still not, to some extent, at the centre of the national rehabilitation debate.