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2012 Nelson Mandela Museum-Michigan State University Museum Curatorial Fellowship

Experiences of a Graduate Curatorial Fellow at Nelson Mandela Museum

Benjamin Brühwiler

BruhwilerBenjamin Brühwiler, a Ph.D. candidate in the African history program at MSU, is the 2012 Nelson Mandela Museum-Michigan State University Museum Curatorial Fellowship recipient,  Brühwiler spent part of his fellowship based at the MSU Museum and also work with the Nelson Mandela Museum in Eastern Cape Province, South Africa, where he developed youth education programs.


Working at the Nelson Mandela Museum was a privilege and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. Thanks to a graduate curatorial fellowship offered by the MSU Museum, I spent two months in South Africa during the fall of 2012. It was a truly enriching experience, both on a personal and professional level.

The staff at the Nelson Mandela Museum welcomed me with open arms. By the second week of my stay, my Xhosa-speaking colleagues had adopted me by humorously turning my first name – Benjamin – into Ben Dlamini. (Dlamini is a common clan name in the Eastern Cape region.) As part of my daily routine, the museum staff would allow me to hop on the museum bus that took us from Mthatha to the village of Qunu, where the museum runs a youth and heritage center. The main exhibition hall and office building in Mthatha was closed due to renovation and, thus, all the offices had been temporarily moved to Qunu.

Mandela Museum youth program When it came to work tasks, the museum staff likewise displayed their hospitality and generosity. They allowed me to take part and contribute to a variety of activities that were exciting and enriching. I usually worked with the staff in the Heritage and Programs Department of the museum. They introduced me to the various museum sites in Qunu, Mqhekezweni, Mvezo, and Mthatha as well as the large collection of over 4,000 gifts Nelson Mandela received during his presidency. My colleagues Sinazo Mtshemla and Isabel Gwaze had interviewed donors and asked them about the meaning and significance of their gifts. We transcribed some of the interviews and organized a one-day workshop on oral history for a youth group in Qunu.

The next item on my agenda was a 10-day international youth camp that took place in the Qunu facilities. More than 70 young adults from various European and African countries participated in the camp. Together with Anja Schade from Germany, I was in charge of the archives workshop. We introduced the participants of our group to the general concept of archives and to the collection at the Nelson Mandela Museum in particular. All the participants then came up with their own projects and did some research on one particular gift. They became deeply involved and they were able to provide valuable information to the researchers at the museum. Read a blog from the youth camp here. 

Mandela MuseumThe final major task during my stay at the museum was the elaboration and revision of a strategic plan for the coming three years. The entire museum staff was involved in numerous meetings, both at the departmental level and at the museum level. I was allowed to participate in these meetings and share my ideas. I gained valuable insights into how the museum was run and how the museum’s vision was translated into tangible strategic and operative goals.

Weekends were the time for me to experience Mthatha and other places in the Eastern Cape. I visited East London several times and I had the opportunity to sit in on a research seminar at the University of Fort Hare. I also traveled to Grahamstown to visit a fellow historian, who teaches at Rhodes University.

Overall, the fellowship gave me the opportunity to become familiar with the activities and practices of one of the leading museums in South Africa, experience the behind-the-scenes activities of a curatorial institution, establish contacts with academic institutions in the region, and – most importantly – interact with and appreciate the people I worked and spent time with in Mthatha and Qunu. It was an intense and rewarding time.

See a Facebook album here:

Youth camp I Youth camp II