Prestwich Place Memorial

2 Jul 2019 - 14:30

Prestwich Place Memorial: the treatment of human remains

Beáta America, an honours in curatorship student, looks into the history of the Prestwich Place Memorial; how human remains are kept, displayed and looked after; and the controversial placement of Truth Coffee Company. 


Varying ideas of what happens when we pass from this life have undoubtedly crossed the minds of most at one point or another. However, do we spend the same amount of time thinking about what happens to our physical body on this earth when we pass on? Who has access to it and what will be done with that access if we are no longer around to give consent to any of it? It is unfathomable to think that one’s remains would be exhumed, examined and perhaps displayed, stripped of our autonomy to satisfy someone else’s curiosity. Curiosity that is either displayed under the guise of furthering science or under the pretense of learning more about the past. While both ventures can be beneficial in their own right, not everyone sees human remains as a necessary vehicle to learn more about the human condition, but rather views it as something that should be untouched and respected. If we look at the events that transpired at Prestwich Place in Cape Town we will find a very recent example of the contentious issues that surround handling human remains as well as the legality around it. The ethical considerations about what should happen with the remains that were found, were disputed between the city and members of the community, but ultimately it was decided that they would be settled in a secure ossuary as part of an exhibit about the discovery and history of what has become known as Prestwich Place. In this article, the value assigned to human remains and the place that they have within the museum context will be examined and critiqued. This will then be related to the development and curation of Prestwich Place Memorial as a commemorative and respectable place for the city’s historically marginalized communities and their deceased, as well as how it compares to other monuments and memorials in Cape Town. 


The human body has a certain sense of elevated status. In many ways, the body has transcended the physical and now acts as a symbolic object that can be interpreted in various different ways. According to anthropologist Katherine Verdery in The Political Lives of Dead Bodies (1999), she describes human bodies to be ambiguous and void of just one singular meaning: ‘Remains are concrete, yet protean; they do not have a single meaning but are open to many different readings’ (Verdery, 1999:28) (Jenkins, 2011:107). In her book Contesting Human Remains in Museum Collections (2011), sociologist Tiffany Jenkins writes how this then allows for a duality in understanding human remains as a ‘person’ (human, body), but are also a ‘thing’ (remains, corpse, cadaver, skeleton). Because of this, human remains dwell around the line between the ‘real and the not-real’, between ‘person and non-person’ (Jenkins, 2011:107). This allows for a disconnection to happen when confronted with the idea of human remains, as Museologist Paul Williams explains, “they appeal to the contemporary popular idea that something was ‘there’ (Jenkins, 2011:108). Is this then why we tend to gravitate towards displaying these remains in a somewhat controlled environment like a museum space in order to satisfy this obscure fascination with what once was? Could this be the reasoning behind the success of natural museums housing the remains of animal species, remains that we undoubtedly hold to a different, and somewhat lesser, standard to that of human remains? It is also important to understand the ethical perspective of excavating and displaying these remains in a museum-like space. 


The handling and exhibiting of human remains has been in museum practice as early as the eighteenth century (Jenkins, 2011:2). The contestation over the handling of human remains varies over different countries and spaces, however many concerns are due to cultural, religious, political and ethical concerns over the procurement and exhibiting of these specimens for museum use. Correlating the human body to an object in a museum is counter to the high value with which we perceive the body, and finds itself crossing the line to ‘not-real’ and ‘non-person’ which is a dangerous association to make. It is also important to define what constitutes as a museum space in this regard. According to archeologist Dr. Myra Giesen (2013), some keepers of human remains in non-museums do not recognize their institution/organization as a museum. Does this then change the perspective in which we think about the handling of these remains? If the display aspect were to be removed, would the uneasy feeling with which we think about these human remains in a performative state alter slightly? 


In contrast, if one were to shift perspective and look to the exhibit of Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds, plastinated corpses were displayed as objects of science in curated institutions (Jenkins, 2011:112). While this specific display of the human body is somewhat accepted under the pretense of science, this does not act as a justified cause when the objects displayed are posed in a lifelike manner and not akin to that of a medical laboratory (Jenkins, 2011:112). Because of this, the human remains are more associated to works of art, making the ethical considerations of this exhibit that much more prominent. The detached nature with which we associate these beings is due to the anonymity of the individuals. The namelessness allows for the emotional attachment to be significantly less, and the outlandish somewhat abject visualization of the bodies make the correlation between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that much wider. Having this disassociation between the audience and the human remains, allows for a highlighting of the artistic side of the exhibit which does a disservice to the humanistic nature of the objects. Jenkins goes on to say that, ‘Museums hold a cultural authority that frames and affirms the pursuit of truth and defines what is historically and culturally significant.’ (Jenkins, 2011:55), if this is true, then exhibits like Body Worlds do not portray an accurate truth of the human condition as there are many aspects that make up the body, not just the medical properties. The historical and cultural value that Jenkins speaks about, creates context about the socio-political and identity of the individuals on display. As curators, the origin of an object adds significant value to our understanding of its history and the manner in which we can relate to it in our context today, why should we treat human remains any differently.


In 2003, during a construction project on a seven-story luxury complex, traces of human bone remains were found on a construction site that has now since become known as Prestwich Place (Jonker, 2005:188). This, then catapulted a necessary conversation surrounding heritage, culture, identity and power between the community and the city of Cape Town. Around 3000 individuals were discovered at the site, many of which were reported as being part of ‘a cosmopolitan community of slaves brought to the Cape from East and West Africa, second generation slaves and freed slaves’ (Jonker, 2014:189). There is an array of archival evidence showing that the area had previously been used as an informal graveyard for Cape Town’s underclass, which in addition to slaves included Khoikhoi, Europeans, Africans, Muslims and free blacks (Jonker, 2014:189). This solidified the dehumanization of these minorities in the city’s history by denying them a legitimate graveyard for their final resting place, to be excavated years later for the fruition of an upscale housing development.


In the aftermath of the discovery of the remains, a public consultation, which was held in terms of the National Heritage Resources Act (NHRA), showed select members of the public were strongly against the excavation of these remains (Jonker, 2014:189). The public body The South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA), was set in place and tasked with the responsibility of making the final decision on the matter, and ultimately decided that “the bodies were to be exhumed forthwith, and reinterred somewhere else” (Jonker, 2014:189). In opposition, the Prestwich Place Committee (PPC) was formed by members of the community to demand the project be halted, as they did not see the emphasis put on archaeology and methodology necessary for determining the meaning of the site (Jonker, 2014:190). As per the NHRA, archaeological artefacts, which includes human remains, are constituted as being ‘objects’ (National Heritage Resources Act, No. 25 of 1999, 1999:6). Is this classification perpetuating the way in which we view these remains and in turn, how we end up handling them? By labelling them as an ‘object’, it minimizes their value to something inanimate that wasn’t once a living organism. As curators it is important to be aware of this distinction and critique the language used when talking about, and perhaps even displaying to some extent, something as sensitive as human remains. 


Regardless of your positionality on this issue, advocates for either side of the argument refer to the need for repatriation with regards to human remains. The repatriation, is a term that fundamentally means to return something or someone ‘home’ (Jenkins, 2011:17), with ‘home’, being an obscure and ambiguous term in itself. Would it then be the origin of the individual, which would need some sort of medical intervention in order to be studied and examined, would it be an assigned museum space for holding, or would the final resting place constitute as a type of ‘home’? This ambiguity allows for a continuous disagreement from every side, which is prevalent in the order of events that transpired at Prestwich Place.


SAHRA’s ultimate decision to continue with the excavation was due to the claim that there were no living immediate descendants related to any of the individuals that were found. Ultimately saying that the bones of the deceased were not of equal value or importance or worthy of the same amount of respect and dignity as they would be if they had living relatives to contest their ultimate burial place. In this regard then, if we refer back to Jenkins’ understanding of human remains as either a ‘person’ or a ‘thing’, then SAHRA’s refusal to halt the project on these grounds could cause one to ultimately conclude that this is due to seeing the human remains found as a collection of ‘things’. This sentiment is evident in the way in which the remains are laid today. In unorganized brown boxes hidden away in a secluded, secure area, that is less reminiscent of a memorial space but rather that of a storage facility. In a curatorial aspect, the NHRA classification of what constitutes as an object, heavily impacts the manner in which the remains are stored and packed away. As part of the Iziko South African Museum, curators follow standard conservation practices where remains are packaged and stored in a similar way to that of any other artefact. Each is individually wrapped in acid free tissue paper and placed in precise sized boxes (Black, 2019). It becomes difficult then to see the individual as just that, an individual, when the remains are stored in the same practice as you would a vase.


The Prestwich Memorial shares its space with a popular, prominent, coffee brand company called Truth Coffee Roasting. The location of Truth was seen by many as insensitive and an additional disrespect towards the deceased that are laid to rest a mere few feet away. The idea behind the ossuary and the coffee shop being in conjunction with one another was so that visitors of Truth would have the opportunity to enter the ossuary to pay their respects to the individuals packed away in those loosely marked brown boxes behind an impenetrable gate, creating a physical barrier between you and them. A gated area that is mimicked in the exterior of the building, where the steel gate aesthetic follows along the outside of the building, and bears an eerily similar resemblance to that of a jail. The symbolism of which I find telling, given the manner in which minorities in South Africa, like the individuals who are deceased and laid at Prestwich, were and still are treated in our society.


Given the success and popularity of the Truth brand, the customers that frequent the establishment are less likely to be going with the intent of visiting the ossuary, but rather to purchase their favourite hot beverage. The next question one would then ask is, what is the purpose of the coffee shop if not to create foot traffic and have more members of the community visit the space that is so rich with history and educate themselves on what happened not too far from where they are currently standing? While the space has multiple purposes, the addition of the ossuary is not directly linked to the brand of Truth which might have been a conscious uncoupling due to the uneasy feeling some might feel knowing what was packed away a few feet away (Kase-Katiya, 2010). The real role of Truth sharing the same space as this exhibit however, is its financial ability to keep the exhibition and ossuary afloat (Kashe-Katiya, 2010). While noble in its attempt, the amount of critique the exhibit received upon its creation should have warranted some pause. Given that the majority of the patrons that frequent Truth are not solely there for the exhibit, would there not be another avenue in which to use the money put into the ossuary to give the individuals a more respectable resting place?


The exhibit itself is curated with a large degree of mobility. The text heavy information sheets detailing the history of the area and the process of excavation which accumulated in this specific exhibition, is situated on wheels that can be manipulated and moved as one sees fit. This made the information easy to influence and consume with intent, however this is also its downfall. The exhibition space lacks structure which does not allow for a clear narrative to be established, making the experience feel detached and incoherent. The entrance to the ossuary is off to the side and just large enough to find if one knows where to look. On the wall next to the steel gates sits a wall text that provides context as to where and during which time period these individuals might have lived, while also describing the ossuary as their ‘place of final rest’. Visitors are then invited to ‘reflect upon these ancestors of our city’, an image I find difficult to imagine even as I visited the memorial. Looking into a dimly lit gated room to reflect on my city’s ancestors, who were stripped of many things during the time of the living, and now again even in death.


If one had to compare the Prestwich Place Memorial to that of any other monuments or memorials around the city of Cape Town, it would be easy to see a glaring difference in the handling of the ‘objects’. The selective history that gets chosen to be put on display and celebrated is telling to whose history the city is proud of and what they would rather omit and leave tucked away. Large monuments depicting individuals such as Jan van Riebeeck and politician Jan Hendrick Hofmeyr in prominent areas of the city, highlight a very specific history that Cape Town might not overtly celebrate but has not taken down. The Slave Memorial by Gavin Younge placed in the Church Square, accurately depicts this contrast visually. Situated in the same vicinity as the statue of Jan Hendrick Hofmeyr, the vast contrast in size is striking. Hofmeyr is in direct eye line of South Africa’s oldest Christian Church ‘Groote Kerk’, with a lingering sense of power that is still being exerted years after its erection. The memorial sits at a height that could be mistaken as a resting area for passersby and not a moment of reflection for the country’s most historically marginalized individuals. This glaring visual difference between the two installations speaks to the ongoing imbalance of racial power, but also indirectly speaks to the minimization of the lives of people of colour in history. Whether this is due to shame or an unknowing ignorance, this minimization is carried over to Prestwich in its treatment of these remains.


It is clear that the politics surrounding the handling of human remains is an issue that should be treated with great care and sensitivity. As curators, it is important to interrogate the nuances of identity, culture, religion and politics when approaching the topic, while still giving the individuals and their history a necessary platform. It is also necessary to interrogate what ethical obligation we have in the caring of these remains when those who they belong to are no longer around to give consent? Do they forgo their human rights because of this inability to consent to the journey of their body or do those left behind with a voice get to have a say regardless of if they are of direct descent or not? The curation of Prestwich is a temporary bandage on a much larger and invasive wound on the city. Human remains I believe, although classified as objects, should be treated with the same amount of respect and dignity that one would receive alive. There are ways in which to research the human condition without the use of archiving the deceased and perhaps if the scientific discovery is a necessity, there is a manner in which repatriation could be achieved. Maybe by then the ‘home’ that we are searching for will be found.


Words and photographs of Prestwich Place by Beáta America.