Museum Notes: South African Museum • Cape Town


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As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

South African Museum

The South African Museum is focused on zoology, archaeology, and paleontology collections, a planetarium, and a variety of temporary exhibitions.

This was one of my picks for a museum to visit in Cape Town (along with the District Six Museum and the Rupert Gallery) specifically to see the Rock Art. 

The history, symbolism and cultural expression amaze me.

South African Museum History

The South African Museum was founded in 1825 by Lord Charles Somerset.  The collection moved to its current location in the Dutch East India Company’ Garden in 1897.

The museum is now operated by Iziko Museums of South Africa.  You will see the word “Iziko” on several museum in South Africa including the Slave House, Bo-Kaap Museum, Maritime museum, libraries and more. 

The word Iziko mean hearth traditionally and symbolically the social centre of the home. The South African governments Department of Arts & Culture adopted this overarching word for their collections of museums to symbolize that they are spaces for cultural interactions.

These are my picks to explore while in the South African Museum in Cape Town.


Rock Art

The highlight of this museum was The Power of Rock Art exhibit. It features several displays of San rock art highlighting their surroundings, the animals, hunting, and their beliefs.

Cape Town - South African Museum - Rock Art

The Linton Panels are a series of rock slabs found on a the Linton farm. The slabs were moved to the museum in 1917 and today are considered some of the best preserved South African rock art.

The ochre pigments on rock date back 70,000 years and shows some of the rituals and beliefs of the San people including a Shaman in a trance.

Through the rock art and also interviews with some of the last remaining San people in the 1800’s, researchers interpret that the panel shows people capturing a power the /Xam called !Gi. The San sought and used this power for the benefit of their community. It allowed for the healing of the sick and for the healing of divisions within society. San rock art was believed to be rich in this special power.

Cape Town - South African Museum - Linton Panel
Cape Town - South African Museum - Linton Panel
Other exhibits show engravings of rhinoceros, ostrich, other animals and the sun.
Cape Town - South African Museum - Rock Art
Cape Town - South African Museum - Rock Art

Note: While in the African Cultures Gallery, make sure to look out for the terracotta Lydenburg Heads. They are the earliest-known examples of African sculpture (AD 500–700). In Nov 2019, during my visit they were tucked away during a revamp of this gallery.


Eve's Footprints

Discovered on the shores of the Langebaan Lagoon, South Africa in 1995, these ancient footprints date back 117,000 years ago, The are the oldest known footprints of an anatomically-modern human belonging to early Homo Sapiens. The footprints found just 70 miles northwest of Cape Town are from a women 5’3″ to 5’4″ tall with size of a modern-day (U.S.) woman’s size 7½ shoes (European size 39½).

I looked at the imprint and wondered how the scientists even recognized this was a footprint or dated it to 117,000 years ago. Every time I see artifacts that are this old, I am amazed they survive and also amazed at evolution in general. A modern day women would be around the same height and same shoe size.

Cape Town - South African Museum - Eve's Footprints


Whale Well

This courtyard contains the skeletons of giant whales and models including a 20.5 meter blue whale skeleton. Listen carefully and you will hear the songs of the humpback whales.

Cape Town - South African Museum - Whale Well


Sociable Weaver

Sociable Weaver Nest also known as Nature’s apartment building.

Located in the Wonders of Nature Gallery, this 6 foot wide next is built by two birds called Sociable Weavers. They create 2 J-shaped compartments for their own living.   Smart little creatures creating their own living spaces – a man cave and a she-shed.

Whether they intended to have long term guests or not, the nest continues to grow and becomes an apartment building for other animals who move in rent free. Occupants include lovebirds, Pygmy falcons, snakes, hornets and spiders.

This nest is a small version as larger ones exist in the wild. Nature’s version of apartment living.

Please excuse the glare. This one is behind glass with lots of spotlights.

Cape Town - South African Museum - Social Weaver Nest


Animal Hall

Most Natural History museums have rooms full of taxidermied animals. Each time I walk into one, I am both amazed at the diversity of animals and I also always cringe.

In the days gone by before ease of travel and knowledge sharing across the world, museums used taxidermied animals as teaching tools.  They provided visitors a look into the fact that these animals existed and their attributes. The unsettled feeling I had as I walked through was that our knowledge came at their expense. These animals were likely in their prime when they were captured for science and some as trophies that were likely donated later in time. 

From a scientific perspective, I understand the history of this practice. Documentation – a method to record species including those that are extinct and threatened. This museum has one of the few existing Quagga Foal’s (a subspecies of Zebra) that is now extinct. 

Today, with video, more accessible travel to see many of these animals in their natural habitat and other non-invasive methods, it seems a dated way to teach. As I walked the through looking at dozens of species and looked straight into a hippos mouth, I thought about this dilemma. 

I find no solutions in condemnation of the past. It is a pandora’s box that cannot be resolved without a time machine. Rather I try to think of how we can teach and share knowledge knowing what we do know today.

From a scientific standpoint, these animals are providing answers to questions.  From a teaching standpoint, I am not so sure. There was noone in the hall at all.   Do you think these animals should continue to be used for exhibit as a teaching tool?   

Something to consider when you see this exhibit.

Cape Town - South African Museum - Animal Hall


I concentrated most of my time on the lower levels and the rock art exhibits. These exhibits seemed to be the most updated and reflected understanding of beliefs and symbolism of the people of this area.

The museum overall is a bit dated and cavernous. I got lost several times with no clear route through the floors and exhibits.  Sometimes this was backtracking, sometimes good wandering.

The museum states that the items on display are just of subset of their catalog. I can only imagine how extensive it is.

I was encouraged that the museum is taking a critical eye to the exhibits.

They recently removed an exhibit created decades ago about the Khoihois tribe.  Researchers (decades ago) eager to document the everyday lives of the tribes utilized some overreaching methods harmful to Khoihois. Several died in casts documenting their activities.

I would hope and recommend that the taxidermy hall be the next to be reviewed. 

Inspired to visit Cape Town?


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