Gone are the days of dusty museums housing collections of “Do Not Touch” specimens and fossils, displays of stuffed animals, and pre-historic stone tools.
The Old Prison Museum in Pietermaritzburg, where the entire building is itself is an artefact, reflects the innovative ways in which history is being communicated. Built in 1863, this two-storey rectangular structure of 300m2 has become an interactive centre that tells the story of the nation in a macrocosm.
Formula D interactive Founder and Creative Director Michael Wolf said museums play a crucial role in nation building.
“Museums play an important part in telling the history of a nation and are a crucial component of an educational system,” he said. “A compelling museum design will ensure that museumgoers understand and remember the history.”
Cape Town-based interactive design agency Formula D interactive creates museum experiences that are engaging, inspire reflection, and promote community activity. In keeping with the times, Formula D uses a mix of technology and design – combining the latest technology, graphic, multimedia, and exhibition design to upgrade and create cutting edge museum displays and events that are at the forefront of the industry.
Some years back they were approached by Project Gateway to assist with an exhibition on the life of King Dinuzulu (1868 – 1913) who had been imprisoned in the Pietermaritzburg prison in 1909 for his part in the Bambatha rebellion.
Mr Wolf suggested that perhaps this would be an ideal opportunity to transform the entire prison into a museum exhibition that told more than just the story of the king.
“We looked at the proposed exhibit and at the site and said this is so exciting why not rather spend the money on something that develops whole building as a museum,” said Mr Wolf.
The idea had crossed their minds and with the added incentive and the concept document produced by Formula D, they went ahead and solicited the necessary funding.
The design is follows a chronological sequence, which is divided into a number of eras, beginning with the “Colonial” and ending with contemporary world, titled the “Freedom Era”.
“The different eras not only reflect the passage of history but also the shifts in power and the use of the prison,” said Mr Wolf. “During the Colonial Era, the majority of the prisoners were in jail for petty offences.”
When King Dinuzulu was imprisoned, this reflected the political and social changes rippling through the land. For the display, Formula D hired an actor to play the part of the King, and through a series of questions that the visitor can activate questions relating to his so-called trial, and hear his answers to the allegations.
Mahatma Gandhi, his wife, and some of his family members were also imprisoned here and there is a section—the Satyagraha Era—that traces the 21 years he spent in South Africa, and the politics of peaceful non-cooperation.
While the old prison—which stopped operating in 1987—was being transformed, more details about previous prisoners emerged, including the fact that President Nelson Mandela spent his first night there after being arrested outside Howick. The Apartheid Era section includes information and biographies about a number of political struggle leaders incarcerated in the jail, including Harry Gwala and Moses Mabhida.
Formula D has developed a strategic process of mapping the key elements to capture and communicate history that will transform the museumgoers’ experience.
“The Old Prison Museum in Pietermaritzburg has exceptional historic significance for South Africa and its people,” said Mr Wolf. “It has been visited by King Goodwill Zwelithini, and he has been extremely interested in the project, pointing out a number of omissions and additions will now be included.”
The next stage of the project will be to convert the top floor into a research and library centre where visitors will be to investigate issues in greater detail.
“Superior design and the use of advanced technology have resulted in a facelift of the museum industry as we have come to know them. With creative and strategic design thinking we are making education entertaining and placing it in a different league, and enabling it to contend for space and attention against the likes of theme and game parks,” concluded Wolf.
The museum is expected to play an important role in attracting a larger proportion of tourists visiting the region.