Stellenbosch University: SU awarded multi-institutional international research grant of R26 million

Stellenbosch University (SU), along with three other institutions, has been awarded a R26 million research grant thanks to the unique research of Dr Lizabé Lambrechts, a researcher at the Africa Open Institute (AOI). The project, “Decay without mourning: Future thinking heritage practices,” will be rolled out over the next four years. Dr Lambrechts is the Research Director for the research project and also heads a non-profit organisation called Nuuseum.

Lambrechts explains that her interest in heritage and the processes of decay started during the 10 years she worked on the Hidden Years Music Archive Project at AOI, and the archive kept at the Documentation Centre for Music (DOMUS) in the Special Collections section of the university’s library.

“It is the biggest popular music archive at a university in South Africa, and it is a very valuable resource for research and creative projects,” says Lambrechts, who brought the archive to the institution from Johannesburg and Durban in 2013.

“I started working on the archive, and while sorting the material I became more and more aware of the state of the material. The archive was severely neglected in the past due to politics, due to people not knowing how to work with the material, and also due to the conditions under which it was stored,” she explains.

“In 2015, I discovered these negatives that were completely eroded, covered in organic patterns. This was formed due to amateur handling practices, fingerprints and chemicals that were left on the negatives after they were developed. It started eating into the negatives and it turned ordinary, everyday images into aesthetic objects that was so beautiful,” says Lambrechts.

As an archivist, whose main purpose it is to preserve heritage, Lambrechts started wondering what the value or potential of decay could be in heritage practices.

She admits that in an environment where heritage practices have been built on the idea that “we have to preserve the past for the future”, her research is somewhat unusual. However, she adds, in today’s world, no one knows what our future will look like.

“The present moment is marked by decay: extinction and climate change, ecological anxiety, pandemics and destruction. Technology is developing at a pace more rapid than human comprehension can sustain,” she explains.

“We are asking how can this presence of accelerated change and simultaneous decay become, in theory and practice, part of heritage strategies geared towards an unknowable future?”

“What if we also preserve heritage in the present for the present moment? How can we use heritage as something that is valuable for our communities and that can help us start thinking about issues like climate change and development in meaningful and impactful ways?

Creating research incubators across the world

The project took a number of years to develop and came together in 2020 with the invitation of Dr Lize-Marie van der Watt and Dr Kati Lindström (KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden), Prof Fernanda Pitta, Dr Bruno Moreschi and Dr Naine Terena de Jesus (University of São Paulo, Brazil) and Dr Leif Petersen (Sustainable Livelihoods Foundation) to join the project.

“These scholars draw on a wide variety of expertise in geographical areas often neglected in English-language research, namely Antarctica, Japan, Brazil and South Africa, each with unique socio-political and socio-environmental conditions making them rich sites to study decay,” says Lambrechts.

The project brings together a diverse group of scholar-practitioners studying archives and museums, heritage practices, landscapes, indigenous knowledge, food heritage, environmental history, and nature conservation. We believe that this multifaceted understanding of heritage will lead to more robust and generative understandings of decay in a globalised, yet also localised world.”

“We set up three research teams to work as incubators for the theoretical and practical concerns of the project. These teams are based in South Africa, Brazil and Sweden.

“Through these incubators, we are going to look at processes of decay and how it plays out in different environments.”

Understanding how different countries experience decay

Lambrechts explains that the project also makes it possible to understand how decay is experienced in different parts of the world.

“Decay in Antarctica, for example, of course has to do with climate change, but it also raises concerns over human debris such as weather stations currently preserved in various states of “suspended decay”.”

“Curated decay” will inform the research in Japan, for example bringing kintsugi, or the practice of repairing broken ceramics with gold – only reserved for certain heritage objects, to bear on industrial heritage sites of big factories or mines that have destroyed the landscape. The questions we will be asking is, should these also be repaired and how, and to what state?

In Brazil, explains Lambrechts, decay is set up as a call to action, especially for indigenous communities who face the destruction and pollution of their natural habitats and the loss of their culture – not considered as important to preserve.

“Many indigenous communities have resorted to preserving their own cultures but still does this using Western technologies and structures. The Brazilian team will work with local communities to develop web-based tools and ontologies that is representative of their understandings and perspectives”.

The South African team will work on two sites, namely the Hidden Years Music Archive and the Kaapse Bossiedokters (Cape Bush Doctors) community, to study competing value constructs that impacts the preservation of heritage. While the bossiedokters, referring to indigenous healers claiming Khoisan ancestry, gathers plants with medicinal properties as part of their cultural practice, they are arrested and criminalised if they do so in protected nature reserves.

“Nature is being preserved at the cost of culture, and the question is, how do we think of heritage in this moment in such a way that it will serve the community, while also protecting the environment,” explains Lambrechts.

In contrast, in the music archive, culture is effectively recognised as the object or frame of preservation. But decay has “redefined aspects of the archive into something different and unique, so we are asking if this could be a creative part of the preservation enterprise?”

“We will test our ideas through curatorial interventions; performances and exhibition making; alternative strategies of archive and museum making, collecting and preservation, information processing and distribution; and public engagement with ongoing preservation and heritage debates.”

Many of these events will also be open to the public.

As part of the project, each team will be creating a documentary capturing their research and the processes they followed.

“It is very important for us to include our stakeholders in this research and that the public get to see and experience what we do. So the point is to not just create academic outcomes.”

Stakeholders and communities will be involved in the project through digital storytelling methodologies.

“This involves community members themselves filming and telling their own stories as well as doing the editing themselves. So it is very much their story, how they want to tell it and how they want to share it,” explains Lambrechts. These will be screened during public events throughout the duration of the project.

Heritage does not happen in a bubble

With regards to what they hope to find, Lambrechts warns that it is early days and that at this point she does not “know what this means for the field as yet”. However, what is apparent is that scholars and practitioners are increasingly “starting to think about heritage practices as something that does not happen in a bubble”.

“Heritage is connected to the environment, it is part of ecosystems, it is part of time, part of changing cultures and societies, it is part of cyclical processes, it does not stand separate from it.

“In the archive it is almost like we are trying to stop time, we don’t want things to decay, we want these materials to be pristine and perfect, and the way that it was so that it can last forever, but nothing lasts forever. Even when I digitise something to preserve it, I have to touch it, I have to clean it, and work with it and put it on a machine, and all of those things play into the decaying of the actual object. If decay is so inherent in what we do in the archive, what will happen to our practices when we also study and understand these processes?”

As she reflects on the next four years, Lambrecht’s excitement is very apparent.

“We have a unique opportunity and a great team with whom to study heritage, a field that we all care deeply about. The project in its design is set up to include those individuals and communities most impacted by our research and we hope that through our joint efforts we could produce new value-constructs that may reshape dominant paradigms of heritage practices and conservation.”