The South African Museum, founded in 1825 and situated in the historic Company’s Gardens, has seen millions of visitors, attracted by the vast historical collection the museum has to offer, ranging from fossils to ancient insects and historical tools. A visit to this museum is not only culturally enriching, but the impressive natural collection will also ignite a spark of interest in learning more about the creatures with which we share our planet.
The South African Museum houses more than one-and-a-half million specimens of scientific importance. The collections now range from fossils, which are almost 700-million years old to insects and fish caught last week. There are also stone tools made by people 120 000 years ago, traditional clothes from the last century, and T-shirts printed yesterday.
The South African Museum was founded in 1825. In 1897 the Museum moved to its present building in the historic Company’s Garden. Since then millions of visitors have wandered its halls and corridors to be stimulated and inspired by its collections and exhibitions. They have left the Museum with a better understanding of the earth and its biological and cultural diversity, past and present.
Did you know?
For every object on exhibition at the South Museum, there are thousands more carefully stored away. The Museum houses more than one and a half million specimens of scientific importance.
For nearly 200 years scientists at the Museum have been adding to these collections and studying them.
Only machine-made objects and clones can be exactly the same. Each natural object is slightly different from all the others. We need many examples of each type or species of animal to find out how they vary so that we can be sure we have identified them correctly.
We must collect different animals from one place to find out how many there are. We must also collect many examples of each kind to find out which ones are most common. This helps us understand how all animals and plants contribute to making our environment work.
Why keep collections?
Without museum collections we would have no permanent record of extinct animals like dinosaurs. Neither would we have examples of artefacts made by our ancestors two million years ago or cultural objects used by people over the centuries.
Today’s collections will show our grand-children what our world was like.
If more species become extinct, examples already safely stored in a museum will be the only direct evidence that they ever existed.
What do museum scientists do?
All scientists ask questions, lots of them. Museum scientists are no different. They just ask slightly different ones.
The single, most important, question is ‘What is it?’. Museum scientists work to answer this question. In some cases, they can decide that new examples or specimens are the same as others they have already identified. In other cases, the new specimens will be different from anything known so far. Taxonomists describe the new specimen and decide how it relates to other known species.
Only afterwards can we hope to answer other questions like ‘How many different species live in this area?’ and ‘Are there more of some species than others?’ Biologists who study biological diversity, or biodiversity as it is usually called today, work to answer these questions. The answer helps us to understand today’s world and how the past differed from the present.
Then ‘Where does this species live?’ You need to know this before you can answer ‘Can you predict where you will find this animal?’ Biogeographers map where different animal species are found and match this with the plants that occur in the same regions.
We also ask ‘What is the relationship between animals, including humans, and their environment?’ and ‘How do they react to the other animals with which they live?’ Ecologists try to answer these questions, which are very difficult because many different aspects are involved.
Or ‘How have humans and other animals evolved?’ The fossilized bones of long-dead animals help palaeontologists to discover how modern animals evolved to be as they are.
And ‘How did our ancestors live?’ Archaeologists and ethnographers study artefacts, which are all the things made or used by people, to work out how people lived in the past.
What does this mean to you?
Without the work of museum scientists your questions about the world around you would not be answered. You would not know whether the rock you picked up is really an ancient stone tool or fossil, or why people say elephants are related to dassies.
If we are to keep our world intact, we must understand how it works. Museum scientists are helping to make sure we know enough to be able to measure the effects of our actions so as not to damage our environment.
Every species of plant and animal has a role to play in keeping our environment intact. New extinctions will indicate that all is not well. Every species that dies upsets the balance that we need for our survival. Museum scientists are playing a major role in identifying species so we can keep check on them.
Promising new sources of food are discovered. Museum marine scientists identify fish and other sea creatures that we may be able to harvest for food in the future.
They study them so that we will know how to sustain stocks and not take too many animals.
Insects are everywhere. By learning more about them, museum entomologists help in the fight to stop them from ruining our fruits and vegetables, and infecting us with illnesses like malaria.
You can be sure that every new display in the Museum is accurate and up to date.
Museum scientists form part of the team that puts on displays, in order to make sure that you have the best and latest information.
Your child’s school can attend classes at the Museum. The education officers supplement school courses and offer a hands-on approach because the scientists share their special knowledge with them.
Take advantage of the opportunity to visit the Museum’s storerooms and laboratories. Scientists often lead guided tours that show you what happens behind-the-scenes. This is an ideal way to find out more about how a museum works and to see some of the thousands of objects that are not on display.
What other services do museum scientists provide?
Museum scientists are eager to tell you all about their work, so they are happy to give talks to schools, clubs and any other group that is interested. Just phone to make an arrangement.
You can ask them to identify puzzling objects. Either phone or leave your specimen at the Museum to be looked at. Be sure not to collect objects that may be rare or protected by the law. Rather report what you saw and take a photograph if you can.
Some museum taxonomists provide professional identifications for commercial enterprises.
Museum scientists can be called upon to act as expert witnesses in legal cases.
Museum scientists undertake environmental impact assessments, which help protect our heritage.
The focus of the Friends is to support and assist in the promotion of Iziko South African Museum and the work it does. At the same time Friends members have interesting activities and generate interaction between the diverse communities in our society.