|about the south african museum
- 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.
- The collections now range from fossils 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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- Todays 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.
- 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 understand todays world and how the past differed from
- 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.
- 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 part 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 part
in identifying species so we can keep a 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 ruining our fruit
and vegetables, and giving us 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 childs 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
- Take advantage of the opportunity to visit the Museums
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.
- Museum scientists are keen to tell you 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 later. 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.