By Frank Teichert, Curator, Archaeology and Human Remains, DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History

The DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History (DNMCH) had its humble beginnings as the Staatsmuseum of the Zuid-AfrikaanscheRepubliekn(ZAR) in 1892. The State Museum was at first a small room in Parliament House on Church Square and was known as the Museum Room. It was not very accessible to visitors and soon became too small to house its growing collection. The collections consisted of all the aspects of history and natural sciences. In 1893 a new building was acquired for the State Museum in the Pretoria fresh-produce market in what is now Lillian Ngoyi Street (formerly Van der Walt Street). It is comprised of one exhibition hall and two small rooms for the staff. In 1894 an additional corrugated iron building was built as a laboratory, taxidermy studio and a store for a wagon. The State Museum was opened in 1894 and the President of the ZAR, Paul Kruger, was present. 

The collection policy of the State Museum consisted of items made by indigenous inhabitants; items of interest in the field of natural history including animals, plants, fossils, minerals and ores; and items of European origin and history, in particular those relating to the Boers and the Voortrekkers.

Not long after the Market building was acquired the State Museum had run out of space again as new donations and collections started coming in. It was not until 1902, during the Anglo-Boer War, that the State Museum moved into its new home, a newly built building on Boom Street. After the British occupation of Pretoria during the Anglo-Boer War, the Museum’s name was changed to the Pretoria Museum but soon changed to the Transvaal Museum.

Figure 1: DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History (formerly Transvaal Museum).

The National Cultural History Museum (as it was previously known) was inextricably interwoven with that of the Transvaal Museum whose collections tendered more toward the natural sciences. It was only in 1964 that the National Cultural History Museum and the Transvaal Museum became two institutions. The Transvaal Museum (now DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History) moved into a new building opposite the City Hall, where it still resides today, while the National Cultural History Museum stayed in the building on Boom Street. In 2000 the National Cultural History Museum moved into its new permanent building in Visagie Street where the South African Mint was housed until it moved to its new premises in Midrand, south of Pretoria.

Figure 2: DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History.

The collections of the current DNMCH reflect many aspects of South African diversity but it also has collections from other countries and cultures. This was due to people travelling or working in these foreign countries where objects were bought, traded, found, or acquired through dubious circumstances. These were then donated to the Museum, building up different collections of foreign objects. Some of these collections come from China, Peru, Egypt, Japan, Australia and many other countries.

Figure 3: Some of the foreign objects from the DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History’s (DNMCH) collections.

Over the last 135 years, the DNMCH has been collecting archaeological material both through unscientific and scientific methods. The foundation of the Museum’s archaeology collection was only laid after 1903 when the more systematically collected material of George Leith was bought by the board of the then Staatsmuseum after his death. George Leith can with right be regarded as the father of archaeology at the Museum. Since then the collection has grown to nearly a million objects, from the smallest bone fragments to the largest rock engravings. After the mid-1960s controlled and proper archaeological research contributed to the bulk of the collection.

Figure 4: Some of the archaeological material housed at the DNMCH.

The public has also played a role in the expansion of the collection over the years through donations. The collection reflects not only our Southern African past but also artefacts from all over Africa, Europe, South America and other countries. The Museum’s collection of Incan, Ancient Egyptian, Greek and Roman objects are of course part and parcel of this.

Figure 5: Incan pottery housed in the DNMCH’s collection.

Over the last few years, the Archaeology Section has committed itself to the complete repacking and ordering of the collection in the new storage facilities. This includes full documentation and inventorying, as well as digitisation of the entire collection. The first phase of this work has been completed with the full inventory of the archaeological artefacts. The Archaeology Section also focuses on the proper management of the collection. The identification of research gaps has led to a successful volunteer programme as well as providing access to students or academics (both external and internal) to the collection to conduct research.

Figure 6: The archaeology collection at the DNMCH.

The Museum’s archaeologist believes that the archaeology collection is a valuable, irreplaceable resource. It needs to be properly curated, not only for the benefit of its archaeologists and researchers but also for external academics and new generations of archaeologists. Through a collection-based research programme, previously unknown data will be generated that will be beneficial to South Africa in general. By taking proper care of the collection and putting the information contained in it in the public domain, the DITSONG: National Museum of Cultural History hopes to make the public aware of the wonderful and interesting world of archaeology.

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