Skip to main content

A Place That Matters Yet

John Gubbins’s MuseumAfrica in the Postcolonial World

A Place That Matters Yet

John Gubbins’s MuseumAfrica in the Postcolonial World

A Place That Matters Yet unearths the little-known story of Johannesburg’s MuseumAfrica, a South African history museum that embodies one of the most dynamic and fraught stories of colonialism and postcolonialism, its life spanning the eras before, during, and after apartheid. Sara Byala, in examining this story, sheds new light not only on racism and its institutionalization in South Africa but also on the problems facing any museum that is charged with navigating colonial history from a postcolonial perspective.
Drawing on thirty years of personal letters and public writings by museum founder John Gubbins, Byala paints a picture of a uniquely progressive colonist, focusing on his philosophical notion of “three-dimensional thinking,” which aimed to transcend binaries and thus—quite explicitly—racism. Unfortunately, Gubbins died within weeks of the museum’s opening, and his hopes would go unrealized as the museum fell in line with emergent apartheid politics. Following the museum through this transformation and on to its 1994 reconfiguration as a post-apartheid institution, Byala showcases it as a rich—and problematic—archive of both material culture and the ideas that surround that culture, arguing for its continued importance in the establishment of a unified South Africa.

344 pages | 8 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2013

African Studies

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology


“There could be no better place than South Africa with its turbulent colonial history, past institutionalized racism, and postcolonial conditions that want to forgive the past to carry out such an informed study. Byala demonstrates the power of culture in understanding the history of people and a modern nation, however problematic this may be. . . . This book achieves high standards of academic excellence and offers a critical analysis of an institution, a person, and a country within a rich theoretical framework. Byala succeeds in opening up hidden histories in an arena of political and cultural interplay that has created and shaped one of the great and complex nations in Africa. It is a must read for heritage professionals, political scientists, and those interested in the politics of heritage in nation-making.”

Museum Management & Curatorship

“Byala shows in sharp detail that the nature of power redefines the nature of exhibits and their format.”

Museum Anthropology

“Byala’s book is a significant study of how a major cultural institution developed and changed over the last century. Her careful research makes the most of a rich archive of letters, manuscripts, and museum records, supplemented with interviews for recent periods. She particularly brings insight into the ways that Gubbins and MuseumAfrica can illuminate shifting liberal politics and white identities, the nature of colonial and postcolonial institutions, and the heritage landscape that has developed in recent decades.”

Corinne A. Kratz | International Journal of African Historical Studies

“Sara Byala has given us a meticulously detailed and researched account of the history and transformation of a single institution: MuseumAfrica. In so doing, she reminds the reader of the value of micro-history as a tool for comprehending the broader issues raised by museological developments in South Africa today.”

Annie E. Coombes, University of London

“There is something fresh, rewarding, and even courageous in Sara Byala’s approach in A Place That Matters Yet. She not only manages to reconstruct the history of MuseumAfrica but also demonstrates quite clearly that none of the new museums in South Africa today were created without some institutional (or bureaucratic) connection to it. In other words, the cutting-edge community of new historiography museums that have so captured the imagination of recent scholarship did not appear in an institutional vacuum but rather must be understood and framed within the context of a deeper museological past. It is this longue durée that Byala gives us in A Place That Matters Yet, and we should be grateful to her for having done so in such an elegant and extraordinarily interesting way.”

Christopher B. Steiner, Connecticut College

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press