We have been in Dundee for two weeks now. During the first week, we set about establishing our base and finding our way around the town. We are renting a cottage (a converted garage) that belongs to a big game-hunter friend of a friend. The first night spent navigating walls mounted with Kudu horns and trophy heads, until –out of fear of being impaled on the way to the bathroom– we removed them and stashed them in the study. We now work away from the gaze of unblinking glass eyes.
During our time here we have made the town of Dundee our object of study. This has involved walking the streets and talking to historians, museum curators, educators, farm workers, bar men, locals, car-guards, journalists, politicians and re-enactors.
The more we listen, the more we find stories and routes intersecting with one another. Events and histories are debated and speculated. Listen long enough and several versions of the same theme or historical character will emerge. What is mythologized in one tale will be rubbished in the next. One person’s victory is another’s defeat, time allows for certain liberties to be taken. The chance to re-invent, even redeem, the infamous.
In a town such as this, the connections between people and their past are easier to discern, this is helped by the fact that a large portion of the population have resided here for over four- generations.
The locals assume we are here to explore sites surrounding the Anglo-Zulu and Anglo-Boer Wars but our interests are a little less clear. Securing the support and participation of the community is, of course, crucial in ensuring the success of this project. Some embrace our ideas immediately while others take some convincing.
“Out the box” is a phrase often used to describe our way of thinking and we are not sure if this is to be read as an encouraging sign or as a polite way of dismissing us as complete weird ou’s. Art or artistic processes are relegated to beading necklaces or pastoral water-colours: a still life of field-flowers and calabashes. The use of phrases such as “public space intervention” and “installation art” will not, we have learnt, endear you to many and should be omitted from any getting- to- know -you chit chat.
We try to explain that we are not just interested in the town’s inglorious rep of colonial carnage but rather its more recent history, the history of the everyday, even the ordinary, the history of last year, of five minutes ago.
There is the abandoned fire-engine on the corner of Gladstone Street which has stood there for the last five years. Most locals are not sure about the reason for the vehicle’s demise but each has a constructed a story around it. The fire-engine, through the simple act of municipal neglect, has become an unintentional monument or museum in itself.
What, we ask, is the real story behind it? What legendary fires, if any, did it fight in its life- time? How long before it’s included in the motley chronology of the Talana museum transport collection. Unwieldy and cumbersome enough (Like the ox-drawn milk carts of yesteryear) to be giggled at by visiting school groups of the future.