Museums are the windows to the natural and cultural heritage of a country. South Africa can justifiably be called the museum country of Africa, with the earliest of its museums dating back to the first half of the 19th century.
There are more than 300 of the approximately 1 000 museums in Africa are situated in South Africa. They range from museums of geology, history, the biological sciences and the arts, to mining, agriculture, forestry and many other disciplines.
Most of the country’s national museums are declared cultural institutions (national museums that have framework autonomy and are managed by their own councils), and fall under the overall jurisdiction of the Department of Arts and Culture. They receive an annual subsidy from the department, but are mostly autonomous.
In terms of the Cultural Institutions Act, 1998 [PDF], the declared museum institutions in Gauteng
and Cape Town have been grouped together into two organisations known as flagship institutions.
While the components of these two museum flagships (the museums from which they have been constituted) continue to operate as semi-independent museums regarding their core functions (collection, preservation, research and education), other functions, particularly administration, financing and human-resource management, have been centralised.
The following museums report to the Minister of Arts and Culture in terms of the Act:
- DITSONG museums, Pretoria
- Iziko museums, Cape Town
- Natal Museum, Pietermaritzburg
- National Museum, Bloemfontein
- Afrikaanse Taalmuseum, Paarl
- National English Literary Museum, Grahamstown
- Voortrekker Museum, Pietermaritzburg
- War Museum of the Boer Republics, Bloemfontein
- Robben Island Museum, Cape Town
- William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley
- Engelenburg House Art Collection, Pretoria
- Nelson Mandela Museum, Mthatha
- Luthuli Museum, KwaDukuza
- Freedom Park, Pretoria
The DITSONG Museums of South Africa is an amalgamation of eight national museums, seven in Tshwane and one in Johannesburg which are National Museum of Military History, National Museum of Cultural History, National Museum of Natural History, Kruger Museum, Pioneer Museum, Sammy Marks Museum, Willem Prinsloo Agricultural Museum, and Tswaing Meteorite Crater
The Iziko museums of Cape Town, formerly known as the Southern Flagship Institution, consist of the South African Museum, the South African Cultural History Museum and its satellite museums, the South African National Gallery, the William Fehr Collection and the Michaelis Collection.
In terms of the Cultural Institutions Act, 1998, the declared museums in other provinces continue to operate as before.
These include the National Museum and the War Museum of the Boer Republics, the William Humphreys Art Gallery, the Natal Museum and the Voortrekker Museum, the National English Literacy Museum and the Afrikaanse Taalmuseum.
The Act also provides for the National Museums Division, comprising the CEOs and directors of the flagship museums and other declared museums.
The Robben Island Museum was established as a national monument and museum, and declared South Africa’s first world heritage site in 1999. Guided tours are offered to historical sites on the island, including the cell in which former President Mandela was imprisoned.
The Robben Island Museum has its own council and is a separate declared institution, independent of Iziko.
Apart from the declared museums that fall under the department, there are also a number of other national museums that are administered by central government departments or research councils. Notable examples are the Museum of the Council for Geoscience (Pretoria); the Theiler Veterinary Science Museum at Onderstepoort (Pretoria); the South African Air Force Museum at Air Force Base Zwartkop (Pretoria) with its satellites in Cape Town, Port Elizabeth and Durban; the museum of the Department of Correctional Services (Pretoria); and the Porcinarium (the world’s first pig museum) outside Pretoria on the Irene Campus of the Agricultural Research Council.
A number of museums fall directly or indirectly under the provincial government departments responsible for arts and culture. In some provinces, these museums render museum-support services at provincial level, while other provinces, notably Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, Western Cape and the Free State, have separate museum-service organisations.
However, many museum and heritage services are also rendered by the declared national museums on a consultancy basis. Many municipalities also manage museums.
Other museums fall under universities and university departments, or are owned and managed by private-sector companies, NGOs or individuals. The largest museums are situated in Johannesburg, Pretoria, Cape Town, Durban, Pietermaritzburg and Bloemfontein.
The best-known natural history collections in South Africa are housed in the Iziko museums and the Northern Flagship Institution, as well as in the following:
Natal Museum, Pietermaritzburg
National Museum, Bloemfontein
McGregor Museum, Kimberley
East London Museum
South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, Grahamstown
Port Elizabeth Museum
Durban Museum of Natural History.
The best-known cultural-history collections are housed in the Iziko museums and the Northern Flagship Institution, and in the following:
National Museum, Bloemfontein
Natal Museum, Pietermaritzburg
Durban Local History Museum
Museum Africa, Johannesburg.
Art museums include the:
South African National Gallery, Cape Town
Johannesburg Art Gallery
Pretoria Art Museum
William Humphreys Art Gallery, Kimberley.
The South African Cultural History Museum (Slave Lodge) in Cape Town houses the oldest cultural history collection in the country.
The South African Museum (Cape Town) showcases the natural history of South Africa, as well as relics of the early human inhabitants of the subcontinent. The huge Whale Hall houses possibly the most impressive of all its exhibitions. This is the only collection in South Africa with a planetarium attached to it.
The Transvaal Museum in Pretoria houses the skull of Mrs Ples, a 2,5 million-year-old hominid fossil, and depicts the origin and development of life in South Africa, from the most primitive unicellular form of life to the emergence of mammals and the first human beings. It has an impressive collection of early human fossils and houses some of the largest herpetological and ornithological collections in southern Africa.
The Tswaing Meteorite Crater, situated to the north-west of Pretoria, combines a museum with a cultural-development initiative.
The NCHM (former African Window) in Pretoria is a centre for the preservation and promotion of the culture and heritage of all South Africans. It explores cultural diversity and commonalities, links the present and the past to offer a better understanding of both, and nurtures the living culture of all South Africans.
Mining is best represented by the De Beers Museum at the Big Hole in Kimberley, where visitors can view the biggest hole ever made by man with pick and shovel. It includes an open-air museum, which houses many buildings dating back to the era of the diamond diggings.
Another important mining museum is at Pilgrim’s Rest, Mpumalanga, where the first economically viable goldfield was discovered.
The entire village has been conserved and restored.
Agriculture in South Africa is depicted mainly at two museums. These are Kleinplasie in Worcester, Western Cape, which showcases the wine culture and the characteristic architecture of the winelands; and the Willem Prinsloo Agricultural Museum between Pretoria and Bronkhorstspruit in Gauteng. This museum comprises two “house” museums, and runs educational programmes based on their extensive collection of early farming implements, vehicles of yesteryear and indigenous farm animals.
The Absa Museum and Archives in Johannesburg aims to preserve the banking group’s more than 110 years of history. It also houses a unique and very valuable coin and banknote collection.
The Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg offers a realistic view of the political situation in South Africa during the 1970s and 1980s. Exhibitions in the museum feature, among other things, audio-visual footage recorded during the apartheid era.
The Red Location Museum in Port Elizabeth highlights the struggle against apartheid and has won three international awards.
One of the most common types of museums in South Africa is the “house” museum. Examples include an entire village nucleus in Stellenbosch; an example of the lifestyle of the wealthy wine farmer in Groot Constantia in the Western Cape; the mansion of the millionaire industrialist Sammy Marks, outside Pretoria; the Victorian affluence mirrored in Melrose House, Pretoria; and the Kruger House Museum in Pretoria, the residence of Paul Kruger, former President of the Zuid-Afrikaanse Republiek.
Simpler architectural variations have not been neglected, for instance the pioneer-dwelling in Silverton, Pretoria; and the humble farmhouse at Suikerbosrand near Heidelberg in Gauteng.
There are several open-air museums that showcase the black cultures of the country, for example Tsongakraal near Letsitele, Limpopo; the Ndebele Museum in Middelburg, Mpumalanga; the Bakone Malapa Museum in Polokwane, Limpopo; and the South Sotho Museum in Witsieshoek, Free State.
South Africa has two national military history museums. The South African Museum for Military History in Johannesburg reflects the military history of the country, while the War Museum in Bloemfontein depicts the Anglo-Boer/South African War in particular. The famous battlefields of KwaZulu-Natal, the Northern Cape and North West are also worth a visit.
The work of the War-Graves Division of Sahra includes the upkeep of graves of victims of the struggle for South Africa’s liberation.
For more information about museums in South Africa, contact the Chief Directorate: Heritage at Tel: 012-441-3067 or 012-441-3037.
For Heritage Institutions contact details click here
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