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 Planetarium.

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

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.

The museum at work

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.

Research - the work of the scientist

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's collections. Museum collections are thus documented examples of animals and plants, living and extinct, known to Man and of man's past and present cultures.

Science in action

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.

Care of the collections

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.

Planning an exhibition

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.

Display techniques

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.