Dawn Robertson, CEO of the Constitution Hill Human Rights Precinct.
Dawn Robertson, CEO of the Constitution Hill Human Rights Precinct.
Image: Supplied

Dawn Robertson, the CEO of the Constitution Hill Human Rights Precinct, started her career in arts education and has since been involved in SA’s arts, culture, heritage and tourism spaces over the span of her career.

She helped co-ordinate the Gauteng Fifa 2010 World Cup Technical Task Team and the development and implementation of the CreateSA project, which allowed thousands of the country’s young people to achieve an art qualification. Before her appointment at ConHill, she was the CEO of the Gauteng Tourism Authority for five years.

The Demonstration at Constitution Hill, hosted by the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), was a 10-day series of events that opened on September 15. As a part of the museum’s NMAFA+ series, The Demonstration included an exhibition, public conversations and artist-led city tours. Following the Moleskine Foundation’s and Simon Njami’s AtWork academy, and in the lead-up to the 10th Basha Uhuru festival, the events were focused on The Smithsonian-aligned theme of “Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past.”

The initiative aimed to highlight systemic racism and racial inequity across the Smithsonian Institution, in the US and globally, using art and creativity to spark conversations. The SA visual artist and cultural curator, Siwa Mgoboza curated the Demonstration, which also included the culmination of their and Njami’s AtWork programme.

What does the theme/initiative of “Our Shared Future: Reckoning with Our Racial Past” mean to you?

Race has informed each and every one of our lives, regardless of our individual identities. The Smithsonian initiative supports a collective shift towards equality. This partnership and theme with the Smithsonian resonates completely with our remit.  The Demonstration allowed us to understand, experience and confront our complex history, while allowing us to celebrate creativity, resilience and the power we have as people and communities to create a more just future for us all.

Your work has often dealt with empowering the youth and inspiring new generations, how does the platform of Constitution Hill enable and promote the youth?

Unlike a museum that is object-centred and focuses its primary energy on collections and research, Constitution Hill is an “extroverted” heritage space. It is people-centred and its strength and uniqueness is drawn from the interaction and participation of the public in our development and functioning of a heritage site.

We believe creatives have the ability to change the trajectory of our country

Central to this is the constitution and Bill of Rights, which are the principles of accountability, transparency and inclusivity. These are embodied not only in the products and programmes of Constitution Hill, but in the process of our development as well, through the inclusion of the voices of young people and associative communities and stakeholders. We try to ensure that our youth programmes act as a catalyst for self-expression and enable positive change for young people.

ConHill has become the epitome of the country’s ability to change and grow, what is next for the historical landmark? 

Over the past five years Constitution Hill has evolved and expanded our remit from being just a tourism attraction. Embracing our two pillars of art and justice, we have evolved and scaled up our activities and programmes in both areas. Our work with creatives has seen the world-class Flame Studio established on the Hill supporting the music sector. The Queen Victoria Hospital heritage building as been transformed into a creative hub with programmes to support creative enterprises from a market access, business and product design perspective — this will include a fully equipped Makerspace.

We believe creatives have the ability to change the trajectory of our country and for that reason our Speak Truth to Power Lounge has be designed and fitted out by three amazing young, black interior designers. This venue is a space for hard conversations within the human rights and constitutional perspective. Our new building currently under construction includes a 600-seat conference centre to position the site as a venue for international meetings, incentives, conferences and exhibitions (MICE) activity. The visitors  centre includes the archive of the constitution, tourism centre, restaurant, museum and coffee shop and co-working spaces for SMMEs. It will also include the Museum of the Constitution, which, incidentally, was designed with the support of the Smithsonian. He Peoples Park — also under construction  -will provide a green “lung” in front of the court for festival and outdoor events.

All this development has seen ConHill becoming a key cultural hub in the City of Joburg.

How can art, history and creativity be used as tools of progress, healing and considered change?

The arts create wellness in our day-to-day lives by helping us process our lives individually and allowing us to come together collectively. Art allows us to communicate from afar, generating positivity, appreciation and hope. We saw this during Covid-19. In times of social injustice and unrest, art amplifies important voices and messages. At ConHilll we offer space to oppositional opinions by inviting people to help shape our stories. We have become more responsible primarily to our audiences, placing emphasis on people and identity, attracting diverse audiences that are representative of society.

As a museum we are working to be more community-informed. Historically, museums have reinforced inequality in their structure and tradition of exclusivity, in objectifying other cultures, and with unjustly collected artworks. As we evolve, we use our history to inform many museums that are working to overcome this past

We see ourselves as an activist museum and our activism is  reflected in all aspects of our work as we intensify our role in shaping society. Our role is not only highlighting injustice and challenging histories, but also to equip our visitors to enact real change.

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