Museums off the Beaten Track
South Africa’s varied and intriguing history means that most small towns and all cities boast museums aplenty. Some are specialised, while others cover wider aspects of society and history. One can visit the past to see how people lived, handle fossils of animals that lived eons ago or see how things work.
Here are some unusual museums.
Cape Town has a wide variety of museums. There are three in Letterstedt Road, Newlands, one of which is the working Josephine Mill. Named after a princess of Sweden, it stands on the bank of the Liesbeek River which still drives itshuge mill-wheel to grind flour from wheat.
Livingstone Qantolo demonstrates the milling process, one of the earliest industrial technologies in which grain pours down from an upper floor to be ground between the massive millstones. He also demonstrates hand grinding with his mother’s stone quern.
Another Beer Please
Children are fascinated by the huge Josephine Mill wheel when the guide lets water into the race. Indoors, grain flows down from the hopper into the chatterbox, which vibrates to feed the grain into the millstones. Before long Livingstone produces a scoop of fine, light brown flour for tasting. It’s nutty and delicious, used in everything from bread and buns to pasta and piecrust as well as the muffins served for tea beside the river.
Nearby are the Beer Museum at Ohlsson’s Cape Brewery, which conducts tours of the beer brewing process for over 18s, and the Rugby Museum at the Newlands Rugby Stadium with memorabilia of the history of South African rugby.
Johannesburg’s newest museum on Constitution Hill features a jail with a dark history. While the functional Constitutional Court building is a proud new architectural addition – with over 200 wonderful South African art works – the preserved Number Four section is part of the gloomy Old FortPrison.
Prisoners here included British soldiers accused of being Boer sympathisers, Africans punished for not carrying passbooks as well as famous liberation struggle icons such as Walter Sisulu, Mahatma Ghandi and former president Nelson Mandela. Exhibits reflect the system of punishment in apartheid South Africa and the conditions in which prisoners were kept. The complex reflects Johannesburg’s history, past and present.
Heart and Soul of the Inner City
Another popular museum in Johannesburg boasts that its exhibits ‘lay bare the heart and soul of the inner city’. Museum Africa, situated next to the world-renowned Market Theatre in the central Newtown Precinct, is built into the interior of an old fruit and vegetable market.
Museum Africa displays all aspects of South Africa from geology to economy complete with sound effects. Enlivened by the music of the city, you can imagine yourself in a 1950s shebeen, the illicit bar that was the social centre of township life, a miner’s home, a Randlord’s mansion or the Zeederberg coach that transported gold from Pilgrim’s Rest.
Photographic exhibitions at the adjoining Bensusan Museum of Photography are ever changing, but have included: World Press Winners, Women Miners, Women in the Struggle and Women Incarcerated.
Pretoria hosts one of the newest additions to the museum scene. Mapungubwe Museum celebrates the recent discovery of the oldest kingdom in South Africa’slong history which long ago traded with India and China.
The museum is named after the hill in Limpopo Province on which archaeologists uncovered a 13th century Iron Age site, including a royal burial ground. The graves contained what are now national treasures in the form of gold ornaments, including the tiny gold rhinoceros which has become a familiar South African icon; ivory, bone and ceramic figurines; trade beads; and iron and copper artifacts.
Kimberley in the Northern Cape is where diamonds were first discovered; and in many ways it’s a museum in entirety. It is saturated with historyand has retained buildings from its glory days; many of wood and iron.
Train enthusiasts from around the world visit to see mint condition steam locomotives. The McGregor Museum, housed in the old Sanatorium, is encyclopaedic in its scope, which entertains and educates all age groups. Here you’ll find information about the Anglo Boer War including displays of the Kimberley siege, documents and archives, living history and rock art.
Pop into the EnviroZone of the McGregor, which concentrates on the natural environment, or imagine those who lived three million years ago by visiting the Ancestors Hall. And paying tribute to more contemporary history, there’s a satellite museum dedicated to the pioneers of aviation.
Among Durban’s more unusual museums is the Durban Cultural and Documentation Centre, devoted to the history of Indians in KwaZulu-Natal. It documents their arrival in the city in the 1860s as indentured labour for the burgeoning sugar cane industry; and traces the growth of this group, which is now the largestsuch population outside India.
The museum records the influence of Indian culture, food, clothing, jewellery and art that is so evident in this province, as well as the story of Mahatma Ghandi, whose impact was felt throughout the country.
Museum Africa: Image © Museum Africa
McGregor Museum: Image © McGregor Museum
- Josephine Mill: www.cape-town.net
- Rugby Museum: www.newlandstours.co.za
- Constitution Hill: www.constitutionhill.org.za
- Museum Africa: www.joburg.org.za
- McGregor Museum: www.museumsnc.co.za
- Durban Cultural & Documentation Centre: www.durban.kzn.org.za
- Mapungubwe Museum: www.mapungubwe.com