The design and creation of a museum is no ordinary undertaking. It demands a huge variety and range of skills and talents. These go from conceptual and strategic thinking, to an understanding of the cultural, artistic as well as the other social, historical and heritage needs that will be addressed by the museum -through to the entertainment, educational and other value that it offers to the widest possible audience.

Totem Media is a unique collective which comes together to conceptualise, design and implement exactly these kind of museum projects and related installations. Bringing together leading local and international talents in the fields of museum and heritage design, architecture, research, writing and graphic design, as well as filmmakers, curators and historians, Totem has most recently completed a revolutionary museum installation project in the Pilanesberg.

The Moruleng Cultural Precinct is a shining example of what creative South African heritage institutions can be. The origins of the project go back to 2009, when Totem was approached by Kgosi Pilane of the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela Traditional Administration. The Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela have lived and worked in the Pilanesberg for centuries and wished to build a suitable place in their traditional lands to share their history, culture and future vision with visitors from South Africa and around the world.

This vision became the newly launched Moruleng Cultural Precinct, on the slopes of the Mmammitlwa Mountain. One of the key intentions of the Moruleng Cultural Precinct is to allow visitors to explore the way in which the traditions of the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela helped them see the world before colonialism and Christianity arrived. The project seeks to inspire conversations and debates about cultural values, beliefs, knowledge systems and practices, as they inform identity and possible futures for the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela.

The Precinct comprises many different elements. It includes the restoration of the Mphebatho Museum building and the conservation of the old Dutch Reformed Church, which turned 150 years old in 2014. It also incorporates the creation of an Iron Age settlement pattern, a lekgotla that can seat up to 200 people and way-finding and external information panels at selected places of interest.

Totem Media has developed a unique interactive museum experience in both the Mphebatho Museum and the old Dutch Reformed Church, experiences that are more akin to moving through an art installation than a conventional static and passive museum offering. The real innovation lies in designing an installation and exhibits that will have the power to change perceptions about rural communities, and excite and inform both locals and visitors through the presentation and delivery of vibrant Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela stories and histories – all in a cutting-edge set of designs that use state-of-the art materials and techniques.

The highlights of the new Moruleng Cultural Precinct are undoubtedly the Mphebato Museum and the Dutch Reformed Mission Church, both of which have been extensively redesigned and reconceptualised by the Totem team to reflect a contemporary take on traditional Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela values.

The Mphebatho Museum, originally built as a school in 1937, allows visitors to experience Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela culture and traditions as they have evolved through the centuries. The exhibition is split between two key areas. The first considers culture and belief from the inside out, using highly visual and tactile installations that are introduced by a multi-screen video installation, explaining how creation stories, traditional beliefs, healing systems, the use of cattle and clay, as well as an understanding of the key life stages that have helped the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela navigate their lives over centuries, and are still relevant today. The second space looks at Bakgatla culture from the outside in, using the lens of traditional museum views, with a selection of images from the notable 1930s anthropologist Isaac Schapera. This area employs clean lines and contemporary display techniques.

The renovated Dutch Reformed Mission Church houses an exhibition and films on the impact of missionary and colonial influence – both negative and positive – on the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela showing how, over the years, they have found ways for Christianity and tradition to live alongside each other in mutual respect. The building is also equipped with audio-visual equipment to allow the venue to be used for community gatherings and conferences.

Next level museum design

The conventional focus of heritage installations like that of the Moruleng Precinct is on the traditional museum aspects of the exhibition and on the objects that might stand in for or represent a culture and its values and way of life. But the Moruleng project goes way beyond this, offering an immersive art installation type environment organised spatially around the main Mphebatho Museum and the Dutch Reformed Church. Between these two lies the amazing reconstruction of an Iron Age landscape, which is a detail of the first Kgosi Pilane’s settlement that can still be visited in the Pilanesberg National Park.

Totem project manager Samantha Horowitz points out: ‘For Totem it was vital that the spaces be tactile and immersive and representative of the key narrative themes. This led into the design and execution of the physical exhibition concepts, buildings and curation.’

The production aspects of this execution phase were managed by Totem team member and Digital Fabric MD, Gavin Olivier. The exhibition production and implementation was handled by long time Totem collaborators Image K Digital.
The first step in the process of getting the highly complex designs off paper and into the exhibition space lay in the decision to model the entire exhibition in 3D CAD. Totem had decided to work with the raw materials which were used by the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela traditionally, including wood, copper, rawhide and clay. The resulting exhibitions and exhibition spaces, according to Gavin Olivier: ‘Required a highly capable drawing team for the levels of complexity required. The entire exhibition has in excess of eight thousand individually produced parts. Each part was designed, drawn and modelled, with working production models.’

Central to the exhibition is a curved wall that mimics ancient stone walling, while acting as a backdrop for the multi-screen installation. This installation alone has over 2 000 unique parts, all of which had to fit together with very little tolerance.
‘Without 3D modelling,’ continues Olivier, ‘this would have been an impossible job.’ Olivier says that this is partly because it’s not only a question of material design. The design process has many input requirements that include:

Structural – the components need to physically fit together and safely. For example, that same wall required several tons of wood, which in turn needed internal steel reinforcing and invisible wiring channels in which to run AV cables through the exhibit. That amount of material has an obvious safety requirement which has to be meticulously observed.

Feasibility – the sheer volume and quality of material required by these unique installations has to be carefully tracked and kept within budget, especially allied with a time-consuming and potentially expensive design process.

Aesthetic – the design ultimately has to fit with the original concept and purpose of the exhibition and its space – in this case to dramatise and foreground the fascinating culture and history of the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela. The other components are in the service of this goal.

The final production of the exhibition required sophisticated laser cutting and CNC machining to realise the designs. Olivier continues: ‘A project of this size and complexity simply cannot be produced without CNC technology. To manufacture that many parts accurately is simply no longer possible using traditional build methods. Having said that, the team you need on a job like this needs to be multi-skilled, because all of those CNC and laser parts have to be finished, assembled and installed. For example, we needed to chemically etch exhibition text into steel plate and engrave text into materials as varied as granite, timber and Perspex. We had to use various paint techniques, different types of printwork, laser etching into wood, romark, cowhide; working with hand-beaten copper…the team needed not only to have these skills, but to have a sense of the craft-making traditions they were working within.’

Of course, no contemporary exhibition is complete without a media component and the Moruleng Precinct is no different. Says Olivier: “The initial walk-in display in the Museum comprises seven monitors ranging in size from 22-inch to 55-inch, displaying a unity image. The content for this array was shot on a single 6K camera, allowing sufficient resolution for each of the display windows to still be at the required HD resolution. The seven channels of video are run frame accurately from an Alcorn McBride HD Binloop with five channels of audio from concealed speakers. The entire museum audio component is routed via a BSS Soundweb platform to facilitate preset levels and overall museum control is managed by Crestron. While it is by no means a large system, it carries all of the sophistication and automation that a large museum system would feature, with an emphasis on ease of use’.

In addition to the rich historical and heritage tapestries contained within the Precinct and so beautifully expressed by its exhibitions, the Pilanesberg location contains many other sites of historical interest in the immediate area. Today the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela Traditional Authority, led by Kgosi Nyalala Pilane, constantly seeks innovative ways to combine the values of their traditional culture with the challenges and opportunities of contemporary development. The Moruleng Cultural Precinct is a site teeming with such innovation, but one which does so by educating and informing people about its valuable cultural heritage and rich history. Samantha Horowitz concludes:’ Totem Media are extremely proud to have walked this journey with the Bakgatla-ba-Kgafela, it’s not every client that is prepared to embark on such a creative and personal adventure and we look forward to the next challenge.’