The Slave Lodge building was first constructed in 1679 by the VOC as housing for the people they enslaved. It was modified over time, and post-British settlement of the Cape was transformed into government offices. After passing through various stages of administrative use – most notably as the Supreme Court – it opened as the South African Cultural History Museum in 1967.
Typical of apartheid-era museology, its displays made no reference to the building’s connections with slavery. Post-apartheid, the museum was brought under the management of southern state umbrella Iziko Museums, and was renamed Slave Lodge in 1998. Although a number of its displays still date from the Cultural History Museum period, new exhibitions have been installed, and the museum now purports to serve as a centre where human rights abuses are discussed and exposed. There is a particular focus on slavery, and racial segregation under apartheid, both through permanent and temporary displays.
The main slavery exhibition is titled ‘Remembering Slavery’ and opened in 2006. This occupies the western wing of the ground floor of the museum. The exhibition offers a comprehensive overview of Cape slavery, with galleries focussing on contextual history, the Slave Lodge building, the middle passage, slave trading routes in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans, and a recreation of life in the eighteenth century Slave Lodge. Owing to the paucity of material remnants of slavery at the Cape, the exhibition relies on text to a large extent. Tapping in to the ‘reconciliation’ narrative of the early Mandela years, its overall effect is to portray slavery as a South African history which the country has learned from.
The opposite wing of the building hosts a changing selection of temporary exhibitions which have focussed on human rights abuses including the anti-apartheid struggle and women’s rights. The museum offers a comprehensive education programme with a particular focus on slavery.
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