Old Burger Street Prison Museum

The Old Prison in Pietermaritzburg is testament to the abuse of human rights in South Africa, and has exceptional historical significance for South Africa and its people.

In 2014, Formula D interactive, Cape Town based experience design consultancy, was commissioned by Project Gateway to ensure access to this important heritage site by producing a compelling museum experience. While maintaining the original layout of the prison built in 1862, and its harsh architectural features, Formula D’s design tells the important stories of oppression through the ages with engaging interactive displays and striking graphic designs.

The story’s protagonists include the most famous leaders and historical figures of their times such as King Dinizulu, Kasturba Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Harry Gwala, Peter Brown, and A.S. Chetty, all of which had been incarcerated at the Pietermaritzburg Prison.

As visitors follow 132 years of prison history they learn how one of South Africa’s oldest jails was instrumental in enforcing the laws and ideologies of those in power. From the second half of the 19th century, the British used Pietermaritzburg prison to administer colonial rule and pressure indigenous people into wage labour. In the early 20th century, many Indian immigrants were incarcerated at the Old Prison as the government hoped it could silence protests against oppressive laws. Under Apartheid rule political opposition parties were banned, and its leaders criminalised, many of whom were detained in Pietermaritzburg. The exhibition closes with the first democratic elections in 1994, encouraging visitors to think about and discuss what role prisons should play in South Africa’s new democratic society.

To make this rich historical content accessible and appealing to a broad target audience, including youth and school groups, Formula D interactive implemented multimedia technology throughout the museum.

One of the main attractions is an interactive dialogue with one of the most famous prisoners, King Dinizulu kaCetshwayo. Impersonated by an actor and brought to life on a high definition display, Dinizulu is shown at his trial for high treason at the beginning of the 20th century. As visitors select from a list of the actual accusations, the character impersonation responds accordingly.

In the Satyagraha movement section of the exhibition, a large interactive timeline table invites multiple users to simultaneously explore the history of Mahatma Gandhi and the events of the Satyagraha movement.

In the Apartheid era section, biographies and political associations of prisoners can be explored through interactive cue cards. When these cards are laid upon a table’s glass surface, related content is projected onto the table. Finally, to encourage visitors to think critically about the role of prisons today, Formula D designed the “freedom game”, asking difficult questions about human rights, freedom and security. By storing visitor feedback on a local database, the app allows visitors to compare their opinions to that of past visitors. The permanent exhibition is an important destination on KZN’s freedom route, a round trip of sites relevant to the struggle for freedom. It attracts international tourists and local school groups alike and strengthens Pietermaritzburg’s attractiveness as a tourism destination. Built on the success of the exhibition, Project Gateway now plans to build a resource centre on the first floor of the prison block, allowing visitors an in depth look at some of the fascinating history that lies within the prison walls.

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Old Burger Street Prison Museum - Gallery

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