10 June 2014
The oldest cell block at the Maritzburg Gaol – which once held famous leaders such as Nelson Mandela, King Dinizulu, Kasturba Gandhi (Gandhi’s wife) and Harry Gwala – is being converted into a world-class museum.
An interactive museum exhibit, based on a concept developed for the site in 2011, is being developed at the historic Old Prison Museum in Pietermaritzburg by Project Gateway, a church organisation which has had permission to use the premises since 1991.
The oldest cellblock is a national monument and is one of the oldest buildings in Pietermaritzburg, the capital of KwaZulu-Natal.
Formula D interactive, a specialist design consultancy, has been commissioned by Project Gateway to produce the interactive exhibition at the official heritage site.
While maintaining the original layout and harsh features of the location, the exhibition will use information graphics and multimedia displays to convey the experience of prison life.
At 127 years old, the Old Prison has exceptional historical significance. Situated on the corner of Pine and Burger streets, the Old Prison is part of the Freedom Route, started in October 2007, which allows tourists to explore the rich struggle history of the area.
Other prisoners incarcerated here included famous Moses Mabhida, Peter Brown, AS Chetty, Omar Essack and Derick Marsh.
Project Gateway has sought to acquire funding for the site since 2011. Funding from the National Lottery was granted in early 2014, Formula D interactive said in a statement issued last week.
By converting the oldest cell block of the Maritzburg Gaol into a world-class contemporary museum, Project Gateway and its funding institutions aim to ensure that the important struggle activists who were imprisoned here are remembered.
The site was commissioned in 1862, with the E block being the first building erected. The execution block was constructed in 1934, with gallows and high security cells.
When the prison blocks were originally built, the cells were designed to house prisoners individually. But as the number of inmates increased, between 10 and 12 prisoners were squashed into each cell. They slept on mats as there were no beds, and each cell had two buckets – one for water and one for a toilet.
The cookhouse was constructed in 1872, although a dining hall was never built. Instead, inmates had to eat outside, no matter the weather, in clearly marked white lines on the tar between the chapel and the whites section. Former prisoners remember the “open-air dining room” as a common area for gang fights.