Space, Storytelling, and Interpretive Soundscapes in Industrial South Africa

By Sarah Rovang posted 12-13-2018 11:59


Over the next year Preservation Leadership Forum will be presenting a series of posts by Sarah Rovang, the 2017 recipient of the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship from the Society of Architectural Historians. The fellowship allows its recipients—recent graduates with advanced degrees or emerging scholars—to study by travel for one year, providing them with opportunities to see and experience architecture and landscapes firsthand; think about their profession deeply; and acquire knowledge that will be useful for their future work, for contributions to their field, and for contributions to society. For Preservation Leadership Forum, Rovang will examine the many facets of storytelling at industrial heritage sites across the world. For more about Rovang's work, read her posts on the SAH Blog, listen to her podcast, and follow her on Instagram @sarahmoderne

At 763 meters below the earth in the Premier Mine in Cullinan, South Africa, my borrowed boots were covered in mud and my blue miner’s jumpsuit was damp with sweat. George, octogenarian former mine manager and our fearless guide, yelled over the din, urging us to climb up a set of rickety metal stairs to the top of a crushing machine. The sound of metal pounding the blue kimberlite ore was deafening. Somewhere deep in my bag were earplugs, but at that point, my main concern was clinging to the handrail.

Throughout my time in South Africa as the Society of Architectural Historian’s Brooks Travelling Fellow, I was struck by the ways in which audio—live and recorded—was recruited as part of public history experiences. I was inspired to undertake this exploration after seeing sound artist Steven Vitiello’s “All Those Vanished Engines” at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art a few years ago. Installed in the museum’s Boiler House, a salvaged industrial space, Vitiello’s piece was an eerie homage that evoked the sounds of industry, underscoring the absence of the machines that would have generated those sounds decades ago. The relationship between space and sound poses both interpretive opportunities and challenges for museum professionals.

While frequent visitors of historic sites might be accustomed to the conventions of a period room and the use of artifacts from daily life to tell a story, spaces of industrialization don’t necessarily speak for themselves—nor, for that matter, do many of the sites and heritage places associated with the apartheid, the freedom struggle, and other aspects of the history of democratic South Africa. Whether an old mining tunnel, a worker’s compound, a prison cell, or the site of an important protest, industrial sites and sites of political resistance often lack familiar material signifiers. Additional interpretive sensory input can animate such sites, helping visitors grasp the experience of these heritage places.

Ambient Sound in Industrial Spaces


Original gold mining headgear or roller coaster? Gold Reef City in Johannesburg has both—this happens to be the latter. | Credit: Photo by Sarah Rovang

Exploring an operational diamond mine is a full-day ordeal that involves making reservations several weeks in advance, renting a car, gearing up, and watching numerous safety videos—an industrial heritage experience that few visitors of South Africa undertake. Most visitors either explore a historic, nonoperational mine or a re-creation of a mining tunnel.


The original tunnels under Gold Reef City have been widened and enlarged to accommodate standing visitors. Here, a docent indicates our position on a map of the gold mine tunnel system. | Credit: Photo by Sarah Rovang

And many of those places deploy sound to help conjure the ambience of historical mining processes. For instance, the tour of the old gold mine under Johannesburg’s Gold Reef City theme park features the simulated sound of a jackhammer. And at the Kimberley Mine Museum, the re-created underground diamond mine is filled with a constant, cacophonous roar punctuated by dramatic dynamite explosions. These jarring soundscapes activate real and artificial mining tunnels, channeling the industrial aspects of subterranean and often inscrutable spaces. Presented at historically accurate volume levels, the sound installations shake the whole body—a taste of the frequently appalling working conditions of South Africa’s early gold and diamond mines.

Personal Narratives at Political Sites

In terms of auditory interpretation, South Africa’s industrial heritage places stand in stark contrast to its political sites, where ambient sound is virtually absent. Instead, these spaces rely on face-to-face interaction and personal testimony. Individual narratives are elevated as a way of redressing the dehumanizing, anonymizing effects of apartheid. 

According to the 1994 “Report on Future Direction for Heritage Conservation in South Africa,” the country’s heritage conservation bodies were re-evaluated in the transition to democracy, and the pioneers of the new heritage movement called for the telling of more diverse stories. Given that South Africa is only 24 years out from apartheid, many living people can speak directly to the experience. Indeed, people with personal memories of freedom struggle sites—including Robben Island, the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Soweto, and the District 6 Museum in Cape Town—have been recruited to recount their stories. More so than in many other parts of the world, telling of the recent past has been entrusted to those South Africans who lived it.

 How can we bring sites like a prison barrack at Robben Island to life? How can museum professionals help visitors step into the daily experience of South Africa’s most notorious political prison? | Credit: Photo by Sarah Rovang

The cultural significance of personal testimony might relate in part to indigenous African oral traditions, which have been used to maintain a sense of narrative meaning and continuity among local cultures, tribes, and language groups. These traditions became increasingly valuable in the face of colonial incursions—as modernity and industrialization threatened traditional lifeways, preserving stories became ever more essential. Personal testimony as public storytelling may also be related to the economic realities of South Africa. Unemployment is high, and money to invest in public history projects is scarce and unevenly distributed. Employing live storytellers creates jobs and shapes an engaging, interactive visitor experience without a cadre of curators or expensive digital displays.

Though such testimony is a powerful tool for understanding the tragedy of apartheid on a human scale, it is sadly inherently a temporary resource. Over the coming decades, institutions will need to continue adapting and reconfiguring how they preserve and share these stories—whether through training a new generation of storytellers, recording the stories to preserve the actual voices of witnesses and survivors, or a combination of the two. Some truly excellent examples of community oral history projects can already be found at the South End Museum in Port Elizabeth or in the montage of interviews on display at Johannesburg’s Constitution Hill.

Integrating History By Integrated Sound

I wonder whether apartheid sites might learn something from their industrial counterparts—and vice versa. Many freedom struggle sites include re-creations or preserved architectural spaces related to imprisonment and segregation. What were the daily sounds of these spaces? In instances where whole communities were evicted from the city centers and relocated to peripheral townships, often placed in inferior housing, how did their soundscapes change?


A former prisoner, detained in this very barrack for seven years, tells his story, allowing visitors to access a unique and poignant set of memories of this particular place. | Credit: Photo by Sarah Rovang

Correspondingly, it’s easy to fall back on an understanding of early mine and factory workers as a homogeneous demographic, forgetting that labor in South Africa was sourced from across the African continent and that workers brought their personal experiences to urban and industrial spaces. Personal narratives, such as those available through the rare but extant written accounts of mine workers, might be brought to life through voice acting, adding a richness to the generalized understandings of miners or factory workers.


A young tour guide in Soweto leads a group of visitors through the spaces of his daily experience. | Credit: Photo by Sarah Rovang

The divide between how sound is treated at industrial heritage sites and at freedom struggle sites speaks to a broader disconnect I noticed again and again across storytelling institutions in South Africa. In most cases, late-19th- and early-20th-century industrialization are treated as separate from the system of apartheid officially instituted in 1948. The Workers Museum in Johannesburg presents a compelling counterexample, persuasively arguing that apartheid came directly out of already existing systems for controlling and housing black migrant laborers. South Africa’s industrialization and urbanization, particularly in connection to the mining industry, laid the groundwork for apartheid as a system of rigid segregation.


The iconic Ponte City Tower in Johannesburg has tracked the city’s decline and regeneration. In-house nonprofit Dlala Nje provides tours, using proceeds to support youth activities in the massive apartment tower. | Credit: Photo by Sarah Rovang


Nomonde Siyaka, owner and chef of Mzansi Restaurant outside Cape Town, has turned her personal story into part of the dining experience. When the meal finishes, Nomonde—who goes by “Mama”—tells the story of starting the restaurant and struggling to break even for many years. Mzansi is now ranked number 1 in Cape Town on TripAdvisor. | Credit: Photo by Sarah Rovang

Both the ambient sound approach of industrial heritage sites and the personal narrative method have distinct communicative powers for giving meaning to space. Perhaps combining these approaches could help reconcile the tightly linked history of these sites, positioning them as part of a contiguous and integrated landscape of oppression.

Sarah Rovang is an architectural historian, curator, and educator specializing in 20th-century American architecture with particular attention to technology, modernization, and the rural landscape.


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