Digital Curation students engage productively with controversy

21 Jun 2017 - 15:30
Snapshot of website
Snapshot of a page of the Digital Curation project of Willie Bester's sculpture of Sara Baartman

As an assignment for the MPhil Specialising in Digital Curation programme, LIS students were this year given the task of re-curating the sculpture Saartjie Baartman by Willie Bester that currently occupies the Chancellor Oppenheimer Library at UCT. The product of their efforts ( is a virtual space that directly confronts issues of curation and those of the digital realm, bringing the students themselves (and hopefully consumers of the virtual exhibition) into dialogue with social realities as well as with the constraints and affordances of the virtual media. As such, it aims to complement the multiple layers of curation of the existing artefact with additional voices and to reach a broader audience.

Bester’s sculpture has been a focus of heated debate that emerged from various interconnected student movements and protests, including #RhodesMustFall, that have enlivened UCT campus and many others globally since 2015. The call to make campuses and education generally more relevant and accessible, united under the banner of decolonisation, has led to intense discussion about artworks and representation of black bodies. The burning of some artworks on UCT Upper Campus during the Shackville protests in 2016, and the subsequent removal of various works on UCT campus from public display, has led to discussions about curatorial policy and preservation, both of which directly impact on the discipline of Digital Curation.

In March 2015, around the apex of the debate about the removal of the statue of Cecil John Rhodes statue, a group of students largely representing the interests of women and non-binary people in the #RMF movement undertook a symbolic and ceremonial clothing of Bester’s sculpture of Baartman. The sculpture remains in this state today, and Richard Higgs, convenor of the MPhil Digital Curation programme, saw this as an ideal opportunity for a student project that simultaneously tackles a highly topical curatorial issue and opens up many possibilities in the digital realm. The diverse group of students was required to navigate topical concerns as well as their personal reactions and subjectivities in order to develop a coherent product. In addition they were presented with the countless options for display and interactivity in the curatorial space that digital online media provide. As part of the project they were also required to develop a governance and sustainability model for the online exhibition, demonstrating their ethical and social responsibility toward digital content that is an essential outcome of the course.

Associate Professor Jaya Raju, Head of Department of LISC, praised the students and the project, calling it “an amazing example of engaged learning.” She complimented the students on their achievement as a group, acknowledging that despite the many challenges that the assignment provided, the fact that they “came out at the other end with so much knowledge and learning satisfaction is testimony of the value of this exercise.”

Convenor Richard Higgs is satisfied that this project meets the objectives of making the Masters in Digital Curation programme at UCT, still unique in Africa, a relevant and challenging one that extends the tertiary Digital Curation curriculum beyond the narrow focus of Research Data Management and digitisation and directly addresses decolonisation at the level of content itself. Last year's MPhil cohort dealt with similar themes in their project 'Does This Offend UCT?', which looked into the covering up of Diane Victor's painting Pasiphë.