South Africa · South Africa travel · Travel

Cape Town museums- part 1

The attractions of Cape Town are so numerous that it’s not surprising that it often warrants a whole section in many South Africa tourist books, even exceeding the entries for whole provinces. Table Mountain, Robben Island and Cape Point are the most famous places to visit, and Long Street and the V&A Waterfront (you take the ferry to Robben Island here) are other well-known places to check out.
Besides these, Cape Town also has a number of worthy museums and historical buildings to check out, which shouldn’t be surprising given its long history and status as South Africa’s first city hence its nickname. The following were the ones I managed to visit during my all-too-brief stay there.

South Africa Museum

I was very impressed by this museum, which features a strong range of natural science, archaeological and zoological exhibits in really modern and well-maintained surroundings.
Skulls, skeletons, fossils (real and replicas), and rocks are certainly aplenty.
The most eyecatching set is three complete whale skeletons (the largest being that of a 20.5m blue whale, the others being those of a sperm whale and a Southern Right whale) hung up in one part of the museum (see the first picture).
The Cape is an ancient area, so when it comes to dinosaur fossils, geology and anthropology,
it has a rich heritage and source of artifacts that the museum is able to showcase.

The Charles Darwin exhibit that describes his life and details his visit to the Cape in 1836, and had an enormous pair of horns from the now-extinct Cape buffalo, that lived until 12,000 years ago.
The dinosaur section had several fossils and replicas, but the thing that really struck me was a unique kind of pre-dinosaur creature that was the ugliest I’d ever seen. Looking like a mix between a pig and a dog, the dicynodont was a mammal-like reptile herbivore that wandered the vast Karoo plains (the expanse of land that extends across much of the Western Cape). According to the museum’s information, these creatures lived 50 million years before dinosaurs and eventually one group of these creatures evolved into mammals. As mammals include us humans, it means the dicynodonts are our ancestors! Some people already have enough trouble
with the possibility that we’re descended from apes, so it’d probably be even more disturbing if they heard about these creatures. Strange that I’ve never heard of them before.

Somehow I really  don’t find these  creatures appealing in any way.

The zoological exhibit has a room full of stuffed African animals ranging from a tiny hedgehog to antelopes and even lion and elephant. Pretty much every African mammal is represented. There are also animal skulls including one shelf lined up with skulls belonging to large antelopes that amply shows off their massive and impressive horns.

The museum is located right inside the Company Gardens, a large rectangular park which boasts many historical buildings and attractions, such as the National Gallery. Taking a walk straight down the Gardens takes you past the South African Parliament and into the city centre.

That’s the museum in the back center, with part of Table Mountain on the left and Lion Rock on the right. In the foreground is the Delville Wood Memorial, which honors the South Africans who died in a bloody World War I battle of that name.

Alas, these fine dinosaur skeleton frames are replicas.


Slave Lodge

Housed in a renovated complex built in 1679 that was used to hold human slaves, it came as no surprise that the first floor is mostly dedicated to the history of slavery in the Cape.
Besides displays and exhibits on slavery itself, there is also a room full of objects from other parts of Africa like Mozambique, India and SE Asia, mostly Indonesia. These were where the slaves came from, though most of them were from Asia. I never knew slaves were ever taken from India and SE Asia so this surprised me greatly. This slave trade was conducted by the Dutch East India Company, not the British, though they and the Arabs certainly indulged in a lot of large-scale slave trading. Later at Robben Island, itself a prison for unruly slaves, I saw a display listing global slavery sites in which Cape Town was included, along with Bahia (Brazil), Mombasa (Kenya), and places in Ghana, Senegal and Mozambique.

The Slave Lodge is the elegant but unassuming building with the black door.


Map showing where the slaves in Cape Town were bought from.

At that time, there was a special exhibition on Nelson Mandela, which I would later see again in Johannesburg’s Apartheid Museum. This exhibit is a series of photos and informations that show Mandela’s life from his early tribal upbringing to his student and ANC militant days until his ultimate triumph as the president of South Africa and an international statesman runs until December. The displays really revealed Mandela as much more than just the gentle, elderly, always-smiling icon that most of us are probably most familiar with  (I didn’t know too much about his life). Some of the more striking parts concerned his ANC militant career, he was the chief of Umkhonto we Sizwe their militant wing, and his time on Robben Island which was pivotal in changing him, especially in softening his character and making him more conciliatory and open-minded. Surprisingly in one of the last displays about his presidency, Mandela’s flaws are described including being slow to deal with the AIDS scourge, a tendency to be autocratic but on the other hand, also to be too trusting.

The 2nd floor has several extensive collections of European items such as musical instruments, watches and jewelry that hark to the Slave Lodge’s past as a cultural history museum.
They weren’t too interesting to me and made a peculiar contrast with the first floor’s exhibits, given the name of the museum and its purpose is to show the history of slavery in Cape Town.
It wasn’t until I asked a friendly museum staff that she told me the antiques were from when the Slave Lodge used to be the SA Cultural History museum. Before then, the lodge also used to be a government office and housed the Supreme Court, which I think is quite an illustrious history for a rather modest building. Some Egyptian antiques, weaponry from all over the world and even Chinese ceramic wares were also on exhibit.

The 2nd floor also had a gallery of newspaper cartoons about Nelson Mandela. Many of them are witty, but my favorites were one with China’s president giving Mandela a medal for “struggle against oppression” while a Chinese officer looking on whispers to a colleague “lucky he’s not Chinese” as a pair of hands belonging to a “dissident” are seen clasping onto the jail bars of a building at the side, and another showing Mandela looking down on a giant called Apartheid, who he has just vanquished a la David against Goliath, except that behind Mandela, an even larger giant looms, so huge and mencacing that only the legs are visible. The name of this new giant- crime. While the cartoons were all drawn by one artist, a Jonathan Shapiro (Zapiro), I’d think that South Africa must be a heaven for political cartoonists because they have so many famous and notable politicians.

The Slave Lodge is located near the South African Parliament on Adderley Street after you exit the Gardens (no need to cross the road).

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