For the second edition of Local Issues and Locales, Daniël Geldenhuys examines the Springbok Experience Rugby Museum
Supposing you could take part in an experiment where you walk into every museum in Cape Town blindfolded and try to identify your surroundings, the Springbok Experience Rugby Museum would be the easiest to pinpoint. Entering the relatively small though very well utilised space opposite the Cape Town Eye at the V&A Waterfront on a Thursday afternoon, you are confronted with an unexpectedly noisy room. This, the tour guide boldly declares, is encouraged.
Perhaps the most important goal of the museum is to oust popular misconceptions about rugby that continue to be perpetuated in South Africa. This begins with a large signboard outside the museum listing every man who has played the sport on a national level for over a century. What this list of over 800 names proves is that the sport was played by black, coloured and white people in the days that they were still forcibly classified as such. An accompanying timeline of the numerous racially divided rugby unions that existed in the country over the past century shows that the museum might be all about a game, but it’s really just another story of the effects of South Africa’s past and present politics.
Doing away with the idea that rugby is a ‘white’ (dare one add ‘Afrikaans’) thing, the museum fittingly scrapped any notion of a white cube or what one might expect to find in one. Why have four white walls when you can have a maze of low-lit rooms in stone grey with highlights of green and yellow? The museum not only encourages visitors to cheer from excitement, but also to touch selected trophies, and participate in a range of interactive displays.
Within five minutes of stepping into the reception area, this writer was photographed by a computer that cuts out your head and places it on that of a rugby player in an extensive series of photographs through which you can flick on a screen. The tour guide demonstrated – showing me my life as a successful SA rugby player. When he quickly flicked past a photo and was asked to backtrack, he did so reluctantly, dismissing the fact that in this picture I was placed on a female body. Clearly I was not supposed to play for the women’s team.
The immersion continues in an area marked Springbok trials where you can kick and throw virtual balls, and determine whether or not you’re fit enough to join the team. It should be noted that these activities, along with the merchandise store, are clearly differentiated from the museum section of the experience that begins upstairs. In addition to allowing its visitors to touch and feel, the museum celebrates them with a montage of portraits of chameleon-coloured rugby fans hung all along the stairwell.
The official museum section is no less colourful or technologically orientated than the festivities downstairs. The combination of traditional museum display cabinets housing historical artefacts, projections, wall text, and interactive labels can easily overwhelm. Yet, what this kaleidoscopic cacophony of display modes prompts the visitor to do is edit things down for themselves. The visitor becomes an active spectator, seeking out things they find interesting. Suddenly, the idea of a pristine museum space with artworks on blank walls seems somewhat controlling and descriptive in comparison.
The museum covers every medium. There are sculptures (not credited to any artist in particular) of the most important men, starting with George Ogilvie (widely credited as the man who introduced football to South Africa) and ending with Madiba and Pienaar shaking hands at the ’95 World Cup (Invictus subtext not intended). These two works bookmark a diverse collection including the genuine Currie Cup, examples of every rugby jersey ever, and The Book of the Unwelcome containing 3 764 signatures from the citizens of New Zealand who refused to be associated with anyone representing the apartheid regime. There is an oil on canvas that an unknown artist created in 1907, showing a six-year-old Kathleen Trick, looking surprisingly serious wearing the 1906 Springbok rugby kit and clutching a rugby ball. There is also an example of the type of benches used at the Newlands stadium between 1927 and 1973, which as the tour guide words it, allows you to sit on history.
Issues of conservation would pop into your mind if your thoughts are so inclined. The museum is essentially on the water and there are quite a few precious trophies that would do well not to rust. Also, how many people can sit on history before it breaks, and if so, do we have a replacement? Kathleen Trick, luckily for her, lives in relatively low-level lighting. Although there is a bright spotlight that gets shone on the rugby jerseys around her from time to time as part of the interactive display, one may assume her green kit will remain grassy.
Where genuine artefacts have been lost or cannot be displayed, the museum does an expert job of digitising and presenting them in a user-friendly way. An archive of vintage newspaper articles is a joy to explore, that is if you’re not watching video clips from a century-worth of rugby highlights. Overall, the museum tells a detailed, critical and dynamically presented historical narrative.
Just after Madiba, and before a somewhat underwhelming screening room that shows a panorama film of different rugby teams going at it on the field, there is one final eruption of techno display. This area, a visual cross between the New York Stock Exchange and a spaceship, ensures that the visitor does not leave without a comprehensive knowledge of the sport. One interactive screen allows you to be interviewed by a rugby player, while another area allows visitors to measure their height against Springbok legends, or be surprised at their general lack of height. There is even a display that acknowledges the women’s team.
One of the largest displays in the space, an interactive projection, allows the visitor to flip through a gallery of Springboks and see details about the position they play as well as the optimal physical skills, height and weight traditionally utilised for the position. In addition, the visitor can rotate the player on screen 360 degrees, choosing to look at him from the side or the back. The latter view, the tour guide says, is especially for the ladies.
1: The Springbok Experience Museum.
2: Daniël Geldenhuys as a successful Springbok.
3: One of the many high-tech displays incorporating a traditional display case and projection on the walls.
4: An interactive display with examples of rugby jerseys and painting form 1907
5: Madiba and Pienaar set in stone (or in this case, probably plaster).
6: Nina Liebenberg goes in for a virtual kick.
All text and images by Daniël Geldenhuys.