|Without a collection, a museum is not
a museum. The primary duties of the staff are to bring together and
preserve, store and classify the collection, but in addition a deeper
study of the material may be made and this is known as research. Museums
display the most interesting specimens in the collection in an attractive
and informative manner for the public to see. Other educational services
include teaching, lectures, special publications, video shows and
The South African Museum was founded on 10 June 1825 by a Proclamation
of the Governor, Lord Charles Somerset, "for the reception and
classification of the various objects of the Animal, Vegetable and
Mineral Kingdoms which are found in South Africa".
It is the oldest existing Museum in Africa and probably also the oldest
in the Southern Hemisphere.
The public makes use of the Museum in several ways. People come to
see the exhibits, to attend the weekly video shows, attend lectures
and to see the Planetarium. The public has contact with the Museum
in various other ways. People who find unknown objects bring them
in for identification; others donate material for the collections;
those with particular hobbies and interests study the relevant collections;
people write for information in various fields; newspapers, radio
and television keep the public informed of special happenings at the
Museum, and members of the staff lecture to various groups. A Public
Relations Officer acts as liaison between the Museum and outside institutions.
Many people are involved in Museum activities not obvious to the visitor,
who sees only the displays. The Museum is concerned with the collection,
care and classification of scientific material, with research and
publication and presents the knowledge gained to the general public
by way of displays and lectures. Supporting these activities are the
library and the administrative section.A necessary function of the
Museum is the systematic collecting of specimens, such as fossils,
sea and land animals, geological samples, man-made objects and information
about them. This is not done haphazardly but is carefully planned.
In collecting, the exact locality or position and the date are recorded,
as well as other relevant information. Specimens are generally sorted
and preserved before being brought back to the Museum laboratories
for more detailed treatment. It is important that this work be done
by experts to ensure that proper records are kept and that material
is competently collected. The environment is disturbed as little as
possible. Special permits to make collections are often required.
The South African Museum is a scientific institution and conducts
research on marine biology, entomology, palaeontology, archaeology
and ethnology. Much of the Museum's research involves the identification
of animals, living or fossil, and often also the naming and describing
of new species. The specimens upon which the descriptions of new species
are bases, so-called type specimens, form an important part of any
Museum collections are thus documented examples of animals and plants,
living and extinct, known to Man and of man's past and present cultures.
preparing and preserving research material
The specialized skills of Museum Technicians play a vital role in
research work. Material frequently requires delicate and lengthy preparation
before in can be studied. Sometimes entirely new methods must be evolved
to suit the occasion. Routine work may be in the laboratory, waist-deep
in freezing surf cutting up the carcass of a whale, or in the blistering
Karoo sun carefully chipping a fossil from hard rock.
When an object arrives at the Museum it is identified, numbered, sometimes
photographed and all information about it is recorded in a catalogue
or register. Depending on the kind of object it is preserved, cleaned
or repaired and if finally either put on show or stored with similar
objects. The curator regularly checks that the collection is still
in good order. Those specimens which are stored make up the study
collection which is used for research work.
By law the Museum is prohibited from parting with any specimen that
has been registered in the collection.
A Museum display is carefully planned and built to illustrate the
subject matter in an attractive, interesting and understandable way.
The creation of a display requires the involvement of scientist, architect,
artist, taxidermist, photographer, label writer, lighting expert and
cabinet maker. Among the special factors to be considered is the preservation
of specimens against damage by insects, moisture or the ultra-violet
rays in light.
Colours, textures and lighting must be carefully chosen and arranged
to emphasize the objects and create a pleasing effect; labels must
be clear and informative and printed in such a way that they will
not complete with the objects.
Various skills and techniques are employed in preparing the objects
that go into museum displays. Taxidermists, who prepare perishable
plant and animal material, require special knowledge about the anatomy
and movement of animals which they sculpture and cast. Modellers use
similar skills in creating scale models. Artists and photographers
provide the backgrounds to dioramas and settings for objects, and
illustrate important features and details. Modern displays demand
high standards and the advent of audio visual installation has contributed
substantially towards this.