Friday, April 23, 2010

So what do we do with the broken toilet building? PART II: THINKING THROUGH MAKING AN EXHIBITION

A fist step to answering this question from a Museum exhibition design perspective has been to research the history of the bucket system in South Africa. There is very little published material available and so our research approach entailed tracking down and speaking to engineers and officials in local authorities who had been responsible for the decommissioning of the bucket system toilets. Chemical engineer and waste water specialist Shehnaaz Moosa’s help was invaluable in this regard. She directed us to Denver Damons (Technical Services) at the Theewaterskloof Municipality who had been responsible for decommissioning the bucket system toilets most recently in Genadendal where black plastic buckets were used up until recently in makeshift ‘out-house’ structures. (See Image 1).

Image 1: Photograph of the bucket system in operation in Genadendal until 2009. Although the makeshift structure is noticeably different to those at Lwandle, the system of a seat and buckets used are similar. Photograph courtesy Shehnaaz Moosa.

Exhibition designer Jos Thorne approached Damons, and Vivienne Gray went through to meet with him. Through discussions with him as well as interviews and oral histories conducted by the Museum it appears that prior to these black rubber buckets were in use, then subsequently blue plastic buckets with ribs down the sides were used. It appears that first buckets used were zinc buckets. The Museum has now acquired nine buckets for use in the restored bucket system area (see Image 2). According to Jos ‘we have 9 buckets as per the 'bucket system'. 3 older ones, which are made from rubber and are black, 3 blue plastic buckets with the ribs down the sides, and 1 with the new shape, black and looks like the ones in photograph from '90s. We also have 2 galvanized buckets from the '50s or '60s, we think, but only imagine them being used as latrines.'

Image 2: Lunga Smile and Lundi Mama show off the buckets acquired by Vivienne Gray as artifacts for the display in the bucket system area of Hostel 33, LMLM 22 April 2010. Photograph Noeleen Murray

Having understood what the toilet cubicles looked like - what shape and form the seats took, how they were fixed to angle iron supports and with an idea of the conditions in these spaces when the bucket system toilets were in use - the Lwandle Museum team set about debating ways to represent this important story in the space. In designing an exhibitionary approach we are mindful of the needs and tensions between architectural conservation and interpretation of the space. Current conventions in architectural heritage debates favour a ‘conservation’ approach, which entails leaving the layers of a building evident, and clearly marking any new interventions, rather than attempting literal recreation or restoration by making ‘authentic’ replicas to a specific past.

There are many ways in which this can be achieved and we have debated different approaches in detail. We have decided on an approach which draws on a number of philosophies, from various precedents and sources explored in the process of research and design. While the overarching notions are those of conservation and interpretation, we have at times deemed it important to remember, restore, preserve, reconstruct, and rehabilitate.

The Museum’s main aim is to retain a strong sense of the history of the space and provide an interpretive framework. In order to do this it has been crucial to identify appropriate approaches to both the historic built- fabric as well as the senses of history of use over time. In the case of the bucket system toilet area, these approaches are applied as follows:
• the overall structure is to be conserved, allowing for the building to be experienced through a concept of layers over time.
• in order to achieve this we propose to rehabilitate the space to make it compatible for inclusion and use as part of the Museum complex at Hostel 33.
• this will necessitate repair to the building to be undertaken in such a manner that is in accordance with the Burra Charter notion of ‘doing less’ (See blogpost 'Experts Visit').

We have decided to remake three toilet sets which will be installed in the space as part of the exhibition, which – along with the buckets – will recreate the conditions underwhich the toilets were used (See Image 3). The fourth cubicle, which contains the fragment of the old toilet seat will be left as is, and the first two cubicles as one enters the space will be left untouched, respecting the way the building has aged. Minimal structural repairs to the brickwork will be made and a new brick screen wall will be built – to replace the walls that have entirely disappeared at the entrance to the toilet area.

Rather than recreating new elements in different materials as a means of marking their newness – an approach which Jos Thorne cautioned could be overly ‘postmodern’ - all new interventions and reconstructions will be noticeably new while containing a sense of authenticity and remaining faithful to the original materials used. So the materials for new elements used in the bucket system section area are based on the research mentioned in the previous post - toilet sets are being made from old Oregon Pine similar to the originals; bricks have been hand-picked to match the originals; the buckets that will be used in the space are original buckets kindly donated by Denver Damons and the Theewaterskloof Municipality or sourced and purchased for the Museum by Jos Thorne; and stories to be used on the Museum Tour are based on oral histories of peoples memories of the space. This was a point of much vibrant debate amongst the design team, resulting in a careful process of recreating and sourcing of artifacts based on research, which has become a key principle in our approach.

Image 3: From 18 April shows the template that is being used to remake the three toilet seats by Dave van Wyk. Below is the Oregon Pine timber being used. Photograph: Jos Thorne.

Image 4: Three remade seats made by Dave van Wyk are delivered, ready to be installed in the Hostel bucket system area. 28 April 2010. Photograph: Noeleen Murray.

The Museum hereby acknowledges the expert assistance of Shehnaaz Moosa in exploring how the bucket system worked in places like Lwandle and in identifying the appropriate people to speak to which resulted in the generous donation of buckets from Denver Damons (Technical Services) at the Theewaterskloof Municipality which is hereby gratefully acknowledged. Thanks also to Dave van Wyk and Vivienne Gray's professional assistance with the curatorial aspects of the exhibition.


  1. 28 April 2010, an image has been added of the remade toliet seats (Image 4), which arrived to be taken to the LMLM!

  2. This is a good initiative from LMLM. I think there are many issues that need to be taken into consideration as part of the restoration project of hostel 33. For example what happens to the histories of other residents who did not reside in hostel 33? Are these stories going to be incorporated into hostel 33 or will they find expression as part of ongoing exhibitions inthe old community hall. The other critical question relates to historical epochs. At some point hostel 33 was occupied only by males. Women and children joined later. How are these two periods going to be reconciled in the space.Critically importsnt is the issue of restoration. Will the building be repainted to show how it looked like when it was new or will the old paint be left to show that it is actually an old building.