The Iziko South African Museum

The Iziko South African Museum

As a destination, Cape Town offers both local and international tourists some of the best attractions in the world. Table Mountain, spectacular beaches, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Gardens, the Boulders Beach penguins, the winelands… The list is endless. Surprisingly, the Iziko South African Museum is not often on these lists. Which is a great pity, as it is spectacular. 

Lodoicea maldivica, also known as the double coconut, or coco-de-mer, is renowned for producing the largest and heaviest seeds in the world. Once mature, the palms begin to flower, creating seeds that take two years to germinate and fruit that then takes six to ten years to ripen.

The “Company’s Garden”, situated in Queen Victoria Street at the top of Adderley Street, was initially built as a refreshment station for the trade route that rounded the tip of Africa between Europe and the east. Ships sent by the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) would stop in after many months at sea and stock up on fresh produce grown in the garden—hence, “The Company’s Garden”. 

Fossil of an ammonite – a marine animal belonging to the phylum Mollusca and the class Cephalopoda. They had a coiled external shell similar to that of the modern nautilus.

The Iziko South African Museum was founded by Lord Charles Somerset in 1825 as a general museum and was the first in the country. It is also considered the oldest museum in sub-Saharan Africa. In 1897 the museum moved to its present building in the historic Company’s Garden.

Seven terracotta heads found near Lydenburg (Mashishing) in the old Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) show the complexity of culture that existed for thousands of years in southern Africa.

Iziko Museums of South Africa operates 11 national museums in Cape Town, including the Castle of Good Hope, the Planetarium and Digital Dome, the Bo-Kaap Museum and various exhibitions at Groot Constantia. In this article we are only concentrating on the Iziko South African Museum. On the two occasions I have visited, the exhibitions have been completely different, and the images here are from both visits – about five years apart.

A Coelacanth. These ancient creatures were alive during the era when dinosaurs roamed both seas and land.

The number of objects on display is staggering but what many people do not realise is that there are thousands more carefully stored away. The Museum houses more than one and a half million specimens of scientific importance. For almost 200 years scientists at the Museum have been adding to these collections and studying them. 

Minerals are also included in the displays. Aragonite is an often white or yellow mineral similar to calcite. It forms unique shapes and is mostly found in pearls and coral.

The definition of ‘Natural History’ is defined as the scientific study of animals or plants. As such, I would classify this as a “Natural History Museum”, the likes of which, according to Britannica, “have their origins in the cabinets of curiosities built up by prominent individuals in Europe during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. This somewhat narrow definition would, however, do our museum a disservice as there as also many exbibits relating to cultural and human histories as well.

The beautiful marlin.

The concept of a museum engenders images of an old, dusty building housing moth-eaten exhibits that remain static indefinitely. Nothing could be further from the truth at the Iziko South African Museum. Not only are the exhibits regularly changed (to the point that it is effectively a completely different museum), but they also offer many services to the general public. 

The scale of some of the exhibits is phenomenal…

The museum’s scientists are happy to give talks to interested groups (which could include schools, clubs and any members of the public). One can also ask them to identify unknown objects which may have come to your attention. They also undertake environmental impact assessments and can be called upon to act as expert witnesses in legal cases. “Behind the scenes” tours can also be organised. 

San artworks.

This is a world-class facility, and if you choose to visit, allow at least half a day to see the entire museum. You could combine this with feeding the squirrels in the gardens (they are particularly fond of peanuts) and a lovely walk in the fresh air. Add a cappuccino and apple pie, or a light lunch, at the Company’s Garden, and you have the makings of a wonderful day’s outing!

A stunning moth collection.


The Iziko South African Museum:

The Company’s Garden restaurant:

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