see also:

  • Out of Africa there is always something new  by J.A. van den Heever
  • Growth of a Collection (Ethnology Collection)  by E. M.Shaw

Edgar Leopold Layard:
Curator of the South African Museum 1855 -1872

Edgar Leopold Layard was born in 1824 in Florence. He arrived in the Cape in 1854 to take up a post in the Civil Service, and was appointed to the Colonial Secretary's office. Recommended by the Governor of the Cape, Sir George Grey, he took charge of the Museum collection, but only in his spare time.Photograph of Edgar Leopold Layard (25625 bytes)

When Layard took over the old collection, it was in a pitiable state and nearly everything was eventually discarded. In 1855 the first Board of Trustees were appointed and in their first Report they drew attention to the need for some permanent establishment for the Museum and for its protection by legislation. The South African Museum was still a private and informal concern, heavily dependent on voluntary subscriptions.

In 1860 a new building for the Museum and Library was opened by HRH Prince Alfred. Layard moved into the Curator's quarters and the extraordinary poverty of the Museum in those early days is emphasized by the fact that he was expected to pay a very considerable amount out of his own pocket towards the cost of erecting the Museum of which he was Curator. But good displays could at last be mounted in a building erected for museum purposes and Layard proceeded well in this regard. He also prepared a Museum catalogue, which dealt only with Mammalia and the most important item listed in it is the quagga foal. Layard had mentioned in 1859 that he was making every effort to obtain a quagga foal and this foal is now the only representative on the the African continent of this extinct sub-species.

His interests were more ornithological and conchological than mammalian, but he was also an enthusiastic collector of invertebrates as well as vertebrates. Minerals, fossils and ethnological material were also accepted and displayed. He believed that the Museum should have "something for everybody" and followed this principle throughout his curatorship. He realized the need to place his collections before the public and the displays he set up, usually with his own hands, were well received.

In 1865 he found an extraordinary whale stranded near Cape Town and although it was thought to be a new genus at the time, it still retains layardii as its specific name, and is known as Layard's Beaked Whale, (Mesoplodon layardii).

Unfortunately, when the Mixed Commission was abolished in 1870, Layard was out of a job and he had to return to England. He was sorely missed as he had been an extremely energetic worker, who seems to have divided his whole waking life between the Colonial Office and the Museum.