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Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s biggest township, needs a museum to commemorate the area’s violent history of state-sanctioned racism, political activism and forced evictions.

Khayelitsha, Cape Town’s biggest township, needs a museum to commemorate the area’s violent history of state-sanctioned racism, political activism and forced evictions. However, the precarious poverty situation in the neighbourhood bears the risk of resistance against any development that may not be seen as an immediate improvement of residents’ living conditions. To address this and other challenges, Formula D interactive devised an alternative approach to museum making. By means of technology tools, service design and interaction design, the project focuses on community engagement and collective oral history recording as a foundation for the new museum. 

Khayelitsha, with its estimated 500,000 inhabitants, is Cape Town’s biggest township. In the early 1980’s, when anti-Apartheid protests swept across the city, the Apartheid government decided that two unruly areas, Crossroads and KTC, needed to be eliminated. Houses were ripped apart by bulldozers. People were either deported to so-called homelands in the North of South Africa or they were given tents and relocated to a deserted area, some 40 km from the city centre, which was to become their “New Home”, the isiXhosa word of which is “Khayelitsha”.

The centre is planned to commemorate these traumatic events at the site of an old municipal building, the first brick building of Khayelitsha, which is now surrounded by shacks and low cost houses of an impoverished community.  Although historic background and media accounts of the events that led to Khayelitsha’s establishment are available, there is a lack of oral history from the evicted community members.

After initial research into theory and best practise of memory centres, we learned that memorisation is an active process and that a memory centre needed to cater for active participation of

community members and dialogue. As an interaction design firm we got excited about the prospect of using technology for oral history recording and sharing and started designing a museum experience which included spaces for participation, reflection and activity of the community.

However, dramatic events at the award winning Red Location Museum in Port Elisabeth which deals with similar topics, made us think again. At Red Location, angry residents from the impoverished surroundings threatened visitors and staff and swore they would prevent the museum from ever opening again, a News 24 report said.

We realised we had been too focussed on designing for the outcome of the centre while neglecting the processes that would ensure that the project was rooted in the affected community from the start. Would residents see value in a Memory Centre? Would they welcome a new museum building, whilst many of them still lived in shacks?

Inspired from a Participatory Design workshop with city officials and residents in October 2013,

Participatory Design Workshop with Khayelitsha residents, October 2013

we developed an activity plan for the Memory Centre, which is aimed at engaging citizens in co-creating exhibition content and elements of the museum building. Key components of the plan include a travelling memory fair to ignite dialogue around the topic, a history trading store concept, where memories can be traded for goods, and a memory radio to encourage a community of active citizens around the subject.