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DUMBRELL, Katherine (Kathy)

Born: 1973 08 31
Died: 2023 11 24

Architectural Historian


Kathy Dumbrell was an Architectural Historian with more than 25 years of experience in the heritage field. She completed her Bachelor of Architectural Studies at UCT in 1995. She later earned an Honours in African Studies at UCT. Throughout her career, she conducted Heritage Impact Assessments, managed permit applications, and served on the Council of the Heritage Western Cape, and from 2016-2022, Kathy Chaired the Appeals Committee.

Kathy's work extended to deeds and archival research, grading, and auditing surveys, and providing heritage advice. She contributed to the field through articles, reports, presentations, and teaching at Rhodes University.

Despite the evolution of heritage into an industry, Kathy emphasized its significance as a cause and field of study, urging a collective focus on conserving South Africa's cultural and historical legacy.

Kathy was 50 on the 31st of August 2023. Following a courageous and enduring battle against illness, she passed away on Friday, 24th November 2023. May she rest in peace, and may her friends, family and colleagues take comfort in their cherished memories.

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A light has gone out in the heritage world. Kathy Dumbrell, who passed away last week, was until the last still actively involved in her life’s work, championing and protecting the heritage of humble people, places, and communities. Whether you agreed with her views or not, Kathy epitomised passion and integrity. She was astute, professional, knowledgeable, and fearless. The phrase, ‘speaking truth to power’ could have been coined for Kathy. On the other hand, she was a patient and attentive listener. She is going to be sorely missed.

The genesis of the Association of Heritage Assessment Practitioners (now APHP) was in the Historical Archaeology laboratory at UCT, during the 1990s, where a group of colleagues from different disciplines met for seminars and worked together on academic and contract projects, large and small. Kathy was completing an Honours in African Studies, drawing together research skills, with history, historical archaeology, history of planning and architectural theory coursework. Her Honours dissertation was on the wood and iron houses of Athlone. In 2003 we founded AHAP. By then Kathy was an independent architectural historian and heritage consultant. She was active in promoting the cause of supporting professionalism in heritage practice but was disappointed at the association’s difficulties in mentoring heritage sector transformation and attracting a wider range of members.

Dr Antonia Malan
Historical Archaeologist

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Heritage in the making: Katherine Dumbrell

It's hard to piece together when I first met Kathy. I think my first encounter with Kath was when she came to see John Moyle and I while she was still studying towards her Bachelor of Architectural Studies at UCT. At the time we had started an ambitious project to rethink the way in which history of architecture was taught to undergraduates. We sought to reverse the gaze and make visible the social and political aspects of the construction of the South African landscape and in particular the ways in which it's architects and architecture were implicated in its creation. Kath was energized by these ideas. She was a natural activist and passionate about her city and its architectures. She loved reading and she did so with great sensitivity and insight. Already then as a young student Kath’s passion and interest for heritage in Cape Town was well formed. She was living in a Victorian cottage where she had already embarked on a series of historical inquiries into both with the history of the area in the City Bowl and the architecture of the building, as well as being able to place herself in social history.

Very soon Kath joined us in starting what was probably one of the first ever tutorial programs around the history and theory of architecture courses at UCT. Until this time history was taught as it is still very much today as a survey course in which architects were given a sense of the great works of great men and the great stages of Western architecture through examples. Much less attention was paid to the arguments and positions around how to think about architecture and this was the idea of the tutorial program that assisted students to read with interest and with critical application.

Kath dived into this project and was a natural teacher. Through her, many a student’s interest came alive, and one could see the input that she made into people's lives or as their literacy improved and they were able to take a position in an argument and begin to formulate sets of ideas that could shape design in new and different ways.

The move to African Studies and later working in the heritage environment was a natural one for Kath. By then in the late 1990s she was already a very involved member of the Vernacular Architecture Society, and she has close associations with the major researchers and enthusiasts that made up the interest groups around what was to become termed ‘heritage’, following the promulgation of the National Heritage Resources act in November 1999. For the first time many of us got together to explore the possibilities arising from the reformulated legislation and this was an exciting and hopeful time for heritage in Cape Town. At this stage in the 1990s heritage was beginning to be contested in the early years of democracy. Kath was enthusiastically involved in many of the debates around how new forms of heritage practice might take shape. Her passion for research and her ability to understand different forms of archival sources from the visual to the textural positioned her to bring together forms of spatial and social history. She also never shied away from involvement in community work and undertook the hard work of organizing, understanding the value of the invisible work that goes on behind the scenes of any successful event or piece of research or championing a campaign.

Kath went on to serve Cape Town in in a number of ways as a founder member of the Association of Heritage Practitioners as well as serving on BELCOM where she assessed and contributed much to the ongoing quality of heritage controls to preserve many Western Cape buildings and landscapes.

Her move to live near Swellendam was a new adventure that she embarked upon and in a sense, she lived out completely an ethic of environmental sustainability and attention to simple interpretations of heritage as practice that gave her the creative space to handle the kinds of disillusionment that she'd seen and borne witness to in the cutthroat developer-driven world of the city of Cape Town.

It is here that she and Michael Norman made a life and where she gained real happiness, for a time. The Covid-19 pandemic and her failing health weighed heavily on Kathy and Michael, and they had plans to move to Cape Town again, which now sadly shall not be.

Kath was much more than a colleague to me; she was a close and dear friend. Her own extraordinary life story equipped her with the most incredible empathy and an ability to really see other people and to support and give in ways that so many of us will remember her for. I think one of Kathy’s great strengths was that she was a survivor. There was no one kinder than Kath if people needed her, and she gave to so many. Yet she brooked no nonsense, and she could see the humor or the sense of the ridiculous in the most difficult or tricky of situations.

Kath was intellectual as well as practical, she was humorous as well as serious, she touched so many lives as a teacher and friend. I think she would hate the idea of an obituary, but at the same time it is hugely important for us to record her contribution and the impact of her practice in Cape Town and beyond in the Western Cape.

Prof. Noëleen Murray
Research Chair in Critical Architecture and Urbanism
Centre for Advancement of Scholarship, University of Pretoria

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I was fortunate enough to have been a colleague of Kathy a number of years ago when we co-authored a Heritage Management Training Course at Rhodes University for SAHRA. We also then each taught a Module of the Course at the Environmental Development Unit at the University.

I knew her as an articulate person, dedicated to her heritage work and she shared this enthusiasm and in-depth knowledge willingly with her colleagues. She gained the respect and admiration of those persons who were involved with her on a professional level.

It is truly a great loss to the profession and her colleagues, who will truly miss Kathy's contribution and expertise in the Heritage field.

Elwyn Harlech-Jones
Architect, Construction Project Manager,
Heritage Practitioner Architecture, Environmental Heritage Planning