The Parallel Museum within the Iziko South African Museum

  • Posted: Nov 25, 2013

Explorers have been collecting specimens and documenting the diversity of life for centuries. These records are distributed across varied and distinct natural history collections worldwide. An estimated three billion or more specimens are held in natural history collections around the world. Museums that house these collections have often been viewed as places filled with dark rows of dust covered taxidermy and weird pickled “things”, haunted by necromaniacs interested only in dead material. A view illustrated by a famous British politician who, upon his visit to a natural history museum in London, once asked “Why do we need all these bloody mice?”.

Beyond the turnstiles at the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town, one is greeted with glass cases filled with minerals, ostrich eggs, prehistoric  lizards and a wide variety of what probably looks like the inside of Darwin’s mind. However, this impressive display of our natural world barely scrapes the surface of what lies behind the closed doors marked “STAFF ONLY”. Within the vast, out of sight, storerooms lies a parallel museum housing more specimens than are visible in galleries. More recently, however, it has been described as a war zone, as staff and their collections are in the trenches preparing for the development of “The Courtyard Project”…

The South African Museum was founded in 1825, making it the oldest public museum in the country. From humble beginnings as a small zoological display in the company gardens to a national treasure which took up permanent residence at the top of the now historical Company’s Gardens in 1897. Today, the museum plays host to a number of collections, of which the Marine Biology collection is the arguably the most unique in that it consists of more than a century’s worth of data procured by various government expeditions (e.g. Pieter Faure) and donations from institutions such as the University of Cape Town (e.g. UCT ecological survey). As a result of this, the Museum showcases a variety of beautifully mounted displays and dioramas with supplementary literature. During its 188 years of existence, the Museum has been an epicentre of not only research, but also public education and even in some cases public entertainment. The interweaving themes of research and education are currently being taken one step further, where the public will now finally be able to, not only view the vast collections, but also catch a rare glimpse of a museum curator in “its” natural environment -  the parallel museum.

The “Courtyard Project”, currently underway at the Iziko South African Museum, will open the parallel museum to the public, which in turn will encourage public involvement in not only conservation of these collections, but also vastly improve the public’s perception of the “weird dusty pickled things”. Along with the added educational benefits to the public, it will also facilitate improved research opportunities by making the collections and their respective experts more readily accessible. In the meantime, however, the disruption due to building activity has forced museum staff to seek shelter elsewhere. During the renovations many curators and collection managers will be separated from the collections under their care. However this short break in productivity has some benefit through, for example, facilitating potential cross-field research collaboration. Iziko’s Social History Department (viz., Maritime Archaeology) is housing the research staff of its Marine Biology Collections. This will ultimately support the greater goal of Iziko of becoming “one museum”, where maritime archaeologists and marine biologists can co-exist in harmony; it may even spark innovative collaborations.

The use of natural history collections to the public could potentially be endless. Natural history collections are the ultimate record of the description and locality of a species. Specimens housed in these collections have formed the basis of diverse biological research over the past two centuries. The use of natural history collections have expanded from the traditional fields of taxonomy and systematics, to a global research network. Conserving biodiversity first requires an understanding of it. The diversity of life cannot be understood and measured in a scientific sense without the collection and scientific description of specimens. Natural history collections and the taxonomists who study and determine specimens are the crucial first step in ultimately protecting biodiversity. Natural history collections contain fundamental data that are essential to research in various scientific fields, as well as broader global issues such as the introduction and spread of invasive species, ecological issues, human induced climate change and emerging diseases

Every natural history collection could potentially provide a physical “picture” of a species or community at a particular point in time and space. The Iziko Marine invertebrate collection consists of approximately 129000 specimens. It is this physical record that makes museum collections so valuable, a physical specimen can provide a wealth of information as new techniques (e.g. electron microscopy, thin layer chromatography and DNA sampling) are developed, after all, one cannot extract DNA from a photograph. These techniques will vastly increase our understanding of biodiversity and provide new opportunities for the conservation thereof.

Obviously the life in our backyards is pretty well known by now, but there are still parts of the Earth that have not been thoroughly investigated, and new species are being described all the time, particularly in the oceans and tropical forests. What the public is missing is a basic understanding of the enormous value large natural history collections have, not only as objective databanks with an irreplaceable historical dimension, but also their intrinsic educational value to students of all ages, whether it be school groups learning about whale sounds or tertiary students using the collections to further their postgraduate studies. So in summary, YES, we do need those “bloody mice”.

Contributors: Bosman, A.C., Moela, L.P., Oliver, J.C., Opperman, J.T.M.

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