Interacting with Apartheid

10 December 2004

Visitors to Johannesburg’s remarkable Apartheid Museum are being offered a unique chance to interact personally with exhibits, thanks to the donation of a personal audio system by German company Sennheiser.

The system, a first in South Africa, was installed by Sennheiser in mid-November at no cost, says museum operations and public manager Wayde Davy.

“Initially, the Johannesburg branch of the company came to sell the system to us, but we had no money”, Davy says. “When the president of the company visited the museum earlier this year, he fell in love with it and decided to donate the system to us.”

The Apartheid Museum
Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum, assembled by a multi-disciplinary team of architects, curators, film-makers, historians and designers, takes the visitor on a powerful emotional journey into South Africa’s past, bringing to life the story of a state-sanctioned system based solely on racial discrimination.

The system, called a Guideport, consists of digital receivers that supply visitors with a selected audio programme. The pre-recorded audio information on an exhibit is started automatically through sensors placed strategically at various points within the museum.

“The pre-recorded information is transmitted wirelessly from a location within the museum”, explains tour guide Virginia Thobela. “Immediately a visitor starts on his or her tour, small sensors placed near the columns, which bear the principles of the Constitution of South African, activate the receiver to play the audio file corresponding to the exhibit.”

The receiver features volume, as well as stop and repeat keys. A headphone jack that fits snugly to the ear completes the system. The gadget can be worn with a belt clip or a lanyard.

“The contraption allows visitors to hear what they want to hear and when they want to hear it”, says Thobela. “It allows them to connect emotionally as well as intellectually to the exhibits. Visitors are also allowed leeway to view exhibits at their own pace.”

Located about five kilometres south of the Johannesburg city centre near Gold Reef City, the museum is one of the most popular tourist sites in the city, hosting scores of local and foreign visitors each year. It tells the story of apartheid and how the people of South Africa overcame it.

Exceptional pictorial and monumental displays depict apartheid scenes, while television monitors continuously beam images of the struggle against the injustices of the apartheid system.

The most eerie display is one depicting 131 nooses hanging from the roof, representing political prisoners who were hanged or died in detention during the apartheid era.

Isn’t Thobela afraid the new audio system will make people in her profession redundant?

“Actually, I have no fear of losing my job as a tour guide in the museum”, Thobela says. “Before the installation of the system, the number of visitors sometimes overwhelmed us. This has taken the pressure off and we can now attend to those who prefer to tour the museum without the use of the system.”

Visitors choosing to use the Guideport system pay R15 on top of the R25 entrance fee. They have to leave their passport or identity document at the reception for surety.

Davy says the museum received a donation of 50 receivers, each worth R5 000. “The installation of the system cost Sennheiser over R2-million. The museum only paid for the production of the audio tape, which transmits only in English and German.”

The museum is currently working on introducing more languages to cater for local people.

Visitors have fallen in love with the gadget, says Davy. “From the comments we have received, people find it absolutely fantastic.”

Source: City of Johannesburg