By: Lazarus Kgasi, Junior Curator and Tebogo Pitso, education officer: DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History


The DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History (DNMNH) is a renowned science research institution as well as one of the best tourist destinations in Tshwane. To address the most pressing issues facing the world today, we draw on our exceptional collections and unmatched knowledge. The role of a modern museum is to collect, preserve, interpret, and display or exhibit scientific significance for the public. Museum staff also conduct research and present education programmes and tours. By complying with this, we tick the boxes to be regarded as a modern museum.

As part of being a modern museum, the Palaeontology Section at the DNMNH continues to expand its fossil collections as it helps to better understand the evolution of species. It also assists with comparative material and educates the public through exhibitions or short articles. The Palaeontology Section at the DNMNH has a rich history of news making discoveries and renown researchers like Dr Robert Broom, Dr John Talbot Robinson, Dr Charles Kimberlin Brain (known as Bob), Dr Elisabeth S Vrba and Dr John Francis Thackeray. All of them walked in the Museum’s corridors and studied fossil material that they have collected from sites and their contribution to science is unmeasurable. Reading their field notes, working in the offices in which they worked and knowing the importance of the discoveries they have made give us enough reasons to follow in their footsteps. What is important for the current staff in the section is to continue the legacy of their predecessors by expanding the collection through fieldwork, make science fashionable, care for the historical collection as they did and continue sharing the discoveries with the public through exhibitions, popular articles and peer reviewed articles.

One way to honour these world-renowned researchers is to continue growing the collection from the site called the Bolt’s Farm cave system, the very same site on which Dr Robert Broom worked in 1936, and at some point, Prof. Francis Thackeray who was a permit holder of this site. Prof Thackeray had a dream that every school in the country must have a copy of Mrs Ples and started the idea of the ‘Broom Room tours’ at the Museum where the public can come to the Museum to see the original fossils and learn about them. Having worked with Prof. Thackeray, and learned about the field of Palaeosciences, it is important that DNMNH’s Palaeontology Section contributes by giving back the knowledge we have gained all these years by educating the students and the public, open our doors, and continue with research and exhibitions on the discoveries that we make.


Figure 1. Poster of the Bolt’s Farm exhibition that can be viewed at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History.


The Plio-Pleistocene collection represents more than 80 years of prospecting and excavation undertaken by diverse internationally renowned researchers. Robert Broom was the first to collect fossils at Bolt’s Farm in 1936. Other renowned researchers who worked on the site include J.T. Robinson and C.K. ‘Bob’ Brain.

The collection represents more than 60,000 specimens (the inventory is still in progress and is constantly growing). The study of all these fossil remains assists us in reconstructing past environments, as well as the evolution of Southern African biodiversity through time. The collection is composed of skulls, jaws, isolated teeth, and long bones of human ancestors, as well as medium-large carnivores and bovids, small rodents (bats and lizards) and animal fossil remains. Methods on how to remove fossils from breccia blocks using acetic acid, how to curate fossils, the tools used to excavate, and the history of the Palaeontology Section are all in the display. Here students can come to experience how to become a palaeontologist by digging for fossils (casts) in the exhibition area, as we have a dedicated area for an excavation experience.


Figure 2. Learners from Lycée Jules Verne de Johannesburg (a French international school) during an ‘excavation’ at DNMNH (Photo by D. Vinckenbosch).


Figure 3. Learners from Lycée Jules Verne de Johannesburg looking for an interesting ‘discovery’ during an excavation when visiting the DNMNH (Photo by D. Vinckenbosch).

The Fossil World of Bolt’s Farm Exhibition offers the public the opportunity to see some of these Plio-Pleistocene specimens, including the famous ‘Mrs Ples’ (one of the earliest ancestors of humans who forms part of the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History’s collections). You are invited to come and view this exhibition which is on display.


Figure 4. Reconstruction of Bolt’s Farm fossil site (Photo by D. Vinckenbosch).


The DNMNH has a significant number of unique palaeontological displays that were mostly constructed in-house, because of outstanding collaboration between Museum employees and external associates. The South African French collaboration started several years ago in 1995 when a formal Memorandum of Understanding was signed by representatives of the then Transvaal Museum (now DNMNH), the Collège de France (Paris), the National Museum of Natural History of Paris (MNHN), and the French Embassy in Pretoria, with the intention of promoting collaboration between French and South African palaeontologists. In 2019 the Palaeo-Research Institute at the University of Johannesburg became the third member by signing a Memorandum of Understanding with both DITSONG: Museums of South Africa and the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS).

Funding for this exhibition was generated by DITSONG: Museums of South Africa, the French Embassy in Pretoria, the National Research Foundation (NRF), CNRS and the French Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs. Palaeontology staff from the Museum (researchers) selected specimens to support storylines established by the Bolt’s Farm team and exhibition designers.


Figure 5. Learners from Lycée Jules Verne de Johannesburg drawing animal bones(casts) that they have discovered during their excavation (Photo by D. Vinckenbosch).


Figure 6. Learners from Lycée Jules Verne de Johannesburg viewing the newly discovered Panthera (Photo by D. Vinckenbosch).


Original specimens were prepared by staff and the educational section. Moulds and casts were produced by our external co-workers (from the Centre of Research in Palaeontology in Paris (CR2P)) who worked closely with DNMNH curators to reproduce and recreate replicas. These replicas were used by exhibition designers and curators to weave a story about the ‘Past Worlds of Bolt’s Farm’, illustrated through original material and supplemented with cast mounts derived from Plio-Pleistocene palaeontology collections. DNMNH curators were critical in providing exhibition ready material for mounting, moulding and casting. Original elements were carefully mounted by in-house exhibition staff, curators, and rigging contractors with some assistance from DNMNH sections. The University of Johannesburg (P-RI), CR2P, DNMNH director and DNMNH curators provided critical input in the scientific content of the exhibition, which often highlighted their research specimens. Many specimens were collected, prepared, and described in the months preceding the exhibition’s launch. Many specimens from Bolt’s Farm’s Early and Late Pleistocene strata, as well as the history of Plio-Pleistocene Paleontology are included.

Examples of newly discovered Panthera (mainly large cats) from Bridge Cave, Geronticus calvus from Brad Pit, Metridiochoerus modestus, Potamochoeroides hypsodom, Papio robinsoni, Canis mesomelas, Taurotragus oryx, Equus capensis, Antidorcas bondi, Dinofelis barlowi and carnivore’s coprolites are displayed. The exhibition panel of ‘acid preparation methods’ is among the most outstanding showcases from the exhibition that illustrates this collaboration.

Our education team members are standing by if you wish to spend the day at the Museum imagining to be a paleontologist and searching for fossils.


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