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Workers Culture in Two Nations: South Africa and the United States

through August 2007
West Gallery

Image of Workers Culture in Two Nations: South Africa and the United States ExhibitOne of the most important ways people define themselves is through their work, and a new exhibition at the Michigan State University Museum explores the richness and diversity of workers culture.

"Workers Culture in Two Nations: South Africa and the United States" opens Sept. 10 and examines cultural expressions revolving around some of the dominant industries and contemporary themes of work. Photos, music, poetry, art and crafts by workers and their communities help tell the story in South Africa and the U.S. (primarily Michigan).

From the exhibit:
South Africa and the United states share a number of important characteristics in their working history, which formed the basis for the exhibit's themes. These are societies with divisions based on race and histories of colonization, racial exploitation and segregation. They are nations whose rich lands provided robust mining and farming complemented by the rise of manufacturing and industrial development that transformed their societies. The commonalities extend into where workplace where miners extracted valuable ores, farmworkers toiled in groves and fields, autoworkers put the nations on wheels, and domestic servants virtually ran households. Labor migrancy has been present in both nations, but with a different flavor and history. Unions have been part of the American and South African workplace with differing tools of struggle and agendas of involvement and change. All commonalities and differences must be viewed, however, in the context of their work-constructed lives and worker culture.

"Work shapes our lives. When we meet strangers, our first question is 'what do you do?'" notes Yvonne Lockwood, MSU Museum curator of folklife and co-curator of the exhibition. "We are not asking about their non-work activities as much as we want to understand one of the most important ways of defining ourselves and others: what we and they do as 'work.'"

"Our relationship to work is not only economic and social, it is cultural as well," she adds. "We talk, complain, celebrate and struggle. Our personal and communal relations to work take many cultural and artistic forms expressed through poetry and narrative, sculpture and painting, humor and drama, craft and representation."
The exhibit features a wide array of art and artifacts which will help museum-goers understand the rich and changing diversity of worklife in both nations, explains John P. Beck, associate director of Michigan State's School of Labor and Industrial Relations and exhibit co-curator. "The links between workers and communities in South Africa and the United States are reforged each day through events like the recent repurchase of two South African factories by General Motors and the acquisition of American companies by South Africans as in the case of Miller Beer and South African Breweries Ltd."

The exhibit is a project of the School of Labor and Industrial Relations and the Michigan State University Museum, under the joint program, "Our Daily Work, Our Daily Lives." The MSU Museum hosts a series of free "Our Daily Work" brown bag seminars throughout the year exploring workers culture. This award-winning university program examines traditions of workers and on workplaces as contexts for the expression of workers culture. In conjunction with the special exhibit, topics this year range from the changing nature of the United Auto Workers union, beauty pageants in the South African textile industry, and a mining strike in Michigan's Copper Harbor area. For more information on upcoming programs, see museum.msu.edu .

An opening reception is set for Sunday, Sept. 24 at 2 p.m., with a gallery tour by curators Beck and Lockwood. "Workers Culture in Two Nations: South Africa and the United States" is on exhibit through August 2007 in the MSU Museum's West Gallery. The exhibit is part of a larger program with a number of mid-Michigan cultural organizations. From September 2006 - August 2007, participating organizations -- including MSU's Kresge Art Museum and the Michigan Historical Museum in Lansing -- will sponsor a wide range of programs on work, workplaces, workers and workers culture.

The MSU Museum is Michigan's natural history and culture museum and the state's first Smithsonian Institution affiliate. Interdisciplinary research, programs and activities are in partnership with the College of Arts & Letters, College of Natural Science, College of Social Science, MSU Extension, and University Outreach and Engagement. Additional support comes from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs to encourage, develop and promote an enriched environment of artistic, creative and cultural activity in Michigan.

The MSU Museum features three floors of special collections and changing exhibits and is open seven days a week free of charge (donations are welcome). The museum is located on West Circle Drive next to Beaumont Tower on the MSU campus in East Lansing and is accessible to persons with disabilities. Hours are Monday - Friday, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m.; and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. For more information, call (517) 355-2370 or see museum.msu.edu .

Related Programs

Sunday, September 24 - Opening Reception and Gallery Tour with curators John Beck and Yvonne Lockwood 2 p.m., West Gallery

October -- All Month - South African Labor Book Exhibit - MSU Library

Friday, October 20 - Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives Brown Bag: Pete Richardson, Center for the Ethnography of Everyday Life, University of Michigan, "Real and Imagined Brothers and Sisters: Familism, Solidarity, and the Changing UAW" 12:15 p.m., MSU Museum Auditorium

Friday, November 3 - Our Daily work/Our Daily Lives Brown Bag: Mark Nowak, College of St. Catherine, "Writing in the First Person Plural: The Ford/NUMSA Worker-poets of Pretoria and Port Elizabeth" 12:15 PM, MSU Museum Auditorium

Friday, November 10 - Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives Brown Bag: Peter Alegi, MSU Department of History, "Rewriting Patriarchal Scripts: Trade Union Beauty Pageants in the South African Textile Industry, 1970s-Present" 12:15 p.m., MSU Museum Auditorium

Friday, December 1 - Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives Brown Bag: Louis Galdieri and Ken Ross, Documentary Filmmakers, "'1913 Massacre': The Woody Guthrie Song and the Michigan Copper Strike Tragedy that Inspired It" 12:15 p.m., MSU Museum Auditorium

Friday, January 19 - Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives Brown Bag: Daina Ramey Berry, MSU Department of History, "'Reap in the Harvest What You Sow:' New Directions in Slavery Scholarship" 12:15 p.m., MSU Museum Auditorium

February - All month - Cesar Chavez Collection Exhibit - MSU Library

Friday, February 9 - Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives Brown Bag: Coreen Derifield, Department of History, Purdue University, "Negotiating the American Dream: Industrial Manufacturing and Working Class Community in Burlington, Iowa, 1960 -1980" 12:15 p.m., MSU Museum Auditorium

Monday, March 12 - Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives Brown Bag: Susan J. Bandes, Director, Kresge Art Museum, "American Images and the Workers' Landscape" 12:15 p.m., MSU Museum Auditorium

March 23-24 - South African Labor History Conference - MSU Museum

Friday, April 6 - Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives Brown Bag: Doug Rademacher, UAW Local 602, "Life and Work in the Shadow of the Verlinden Plant: The UAW Local 602 Oral History Project," 12:15 p.m., MSU Museum Auditorium

June 7 - 70th Anniversary of the Lansing Labor Holiday - a re-creation of labor holiday events, 10 a.m. - 5 p.m., MSU Museum