The Political House of Art: The South African National Gallery 1930-2009

Hahn, Catherine Neville. 2016. The Political House of Art: The South African National Gallery 1930-2009. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London [Thesis]

Text (The Political House of Art: The South African National Gallery 1930-2009)
ART_redactedthesis_HahnC_2016.pdf - Accepted Version
Available under License Creative Commons Attribution Non-commercial No Derivatives.

Download (27MB) | Preview

Abstract or Description

The thesis analyses modes of representation in the South African National Gallery (SANG) between
1930 and 2009. Built in 1930, for the larger part of its history SANG was situated in a white state
that disenfranchised the black populace. Whiteness, as citizenship, was normalised and glorified in
the state’s museums. Analysis of evidence collected from the archive, décor, art collection,
exhibitions, attendance of walking tours and semi-structured interviews with staff demonstrates
that SANG’s historic practice does not fit neatly within the dominant theoretical understanding of
the art museum, namely a sacred space in which power has been obscured through the ‘art for art’s
sake’ model. Instead, the thesis finds at SANG invisible symbolic capital resided alongside the
more muscular capital of the colony, which derived its strength from an overt relationship with
commerce, politics and race. The thesis further finds that SANG developed a close relationship with
its white audience through its construction as a ‘homely space’. As a consequence, I argue SANG
developed museological conventions that better fit the analogy of the political house than the

Taking new museum ethics into consideration, the thesis examines how SANG’s distinctive heritage
impacted on its ability to be inclusive. My fieldwork on recent representational practice at SANG
reveals strategies congruent with the post-museum, including performative political exhibitions,
diversification of the collection and active dialogue with the communities it seeks to serve. At
the same time embedded modes of white cultural representation were identified that restricted its
capacity to ‘move-on’. The thesis contributes to the field of museum studies by drawing attention
to the significance of the individual histories of art institutions in determining their ability to
make change. The thesis also contributes to the field of visual sociology by presenting
images and ‘map-making’ as an integral feature of the research design.

Item Type:

Thesis (Doctoral)

Identification Number (DOI):

Additional Information:

This is an edited version of the thesis with third-party copyright material removed.


South African National Gallery (SANG), visual sociology, museums, art, racism, apartheid, representation

Departments, Centres and Research Units:



31 July 2016

Item ID:


Date Deposited:

12 Dec 2016 12:04

Last Modified:

08 Sep 2022 11:43


View statistics for this item...

Edit Record Edit Record (login required)