These collections comprise material mostly from Africa, with a special emphasis on southern Africa. Some of the older collections include objects from all over the world for comparative purposes, such as Inuit material as an example of hunter-gatherer material culture in environmental conditions very different from those in Africa. The collections reflect a long tradition of research and collecting work conducted by Museum staff and their associates on material culture of Khoe-San hunter-gatherers and pastoralists. Studies have also been undertaken on indigenous technologies, such as pottery and basketry in southern Africa.
The development of the ethnographic collections traces the history of anthropological enquiry as well as changes in museological practice. Since the opening of the accession register in the 1870s, successive additions to the collection have built up an important record of ways of life that have now vanished while processes of cultural change in the population of southern Africa have also been documented through this material record and photographs. Significant figures in southern African history have made contributions of both ethnographic and historical value. Notable are the objects from Oceania and the north-west coast of North America that were reputedly brought to the Cape by Captain Cook in the late eighteenth century, and a Tswana bone ornament collection collected in 1836 by Dr Andrew Smith, the founder of the South African Museum, on a journey of exploration in the interior of South Africa. The collections of early anthropologists in South Africa, such as D. Bleek, A.W. Hoernlé, I. Schapera and E.J. Krige, provide a material record that complements their published work as part of the history of the discipline of anthropology.
The photographic holdings include series of photographs and transparencies from field expeditions by staff members, photographs from donors, and a photographic record of specimens in the Collections. Like the ethnographic collections themselves, the photographic record reflects the changing research interests in anthropology and has been enriched by contributions from historically significant figures.
A section of this collection is on display in the South African Museum.