Memoirs of a Museum Junkie
Join the trail of small-town museums
Ionce went on a barging holiday in he UK and, on sight of a steeple breaking the skyline, our selfappointed captain would say, ‘Where’s there’s a church, there’s a pub’. An excuse to moor up.
Similarly, my maxim is ‘Where there’s a small town, there’s a museum’. Sadly it hasn’t always been true but, to my children’s chagrin, it’s never stopped me from looking. And so over the years I have found myself eagerly pursuing dust motes, perusing dog-eared documents, chipped ceramics, wilting lace and old farm utensils in the strangest places.
In recent years, I’ve discovered that museums are not only about granny’s trappings, but tributes to just about anything. While far from being a comprehensive collection, here’s a handful from in and around the Western Cape.
Air Force Museum, Ysterplaat
A fighter pilot in World War II, my late father-in-law used to go to the SAAF Museum at the Air Force Base at Ysterplaat soon after it opened in 1987 for reunion photographs. It’s been updated since then with some very smart upgrades of the displays, and it looks like things will be changing even more, because we recently found further renovations underway there.
Bringing the history of the Air Force into the 21st century is the Collective Heritage Display Hall, where a series of panels takes you from the inception in 1920 pretty much to the present day – certainly to the huge role it played in both Nelson Mandela’s inauguration in 1994 and his funeral arrangements in 2013.
There are meticulous timelines of combat, helicopter, fixed-wing and transport aircraft, uniforms and miniature models. Best are the big old planes themselves in the 1920 hangar. For a more complete picture, book a guide, visit the 1939 Spitz planetarium or, on the last Saturday of every month, witness a ground run of the thundering old Shackleton.
Why go? A privilege to get an astral perspective in a working military base.
021 508 6561
18 Gangster Museum Khayelitsha
When I heard news of a town hall talk in Mowbray focused on a project called Shakespeare in Prison, I was so there.
Among the people I spoke to was Mthetheleli Ngxeke or ‘MT’ who, arrested aged 17 for armed robbery, had spent time at Drakenstein Correctional Centre.
He is currently working at The Message Trust South Africa, a Christian initiative that, among other things, has a coffee shop where ex-offenders are trained as baristas, to turn gangsters into ‘gangstars’.
I met up again with MT to drive out to he 18 Gangster Museum in Khayelitsha, where it is housed in a compartmented shipping container dramatically painted black. The visit also included a short, guided tour of the neighbouring township with co-founder Wandisile Nqeketho.
Armed with shovelsful of inside intel, Wandi took us on a tour past (and into)
Bob’s shebeen, a hair salon, a tailor and a spontaneous game of street soccer. Back at the museum, he sat on a bunk in the part of the container that’s a replica of a prison cell, he explained its cautionary significance.
In the other half of the cell, director and co-founder Siyabulela Daweti talks through and beyond the visual panels, giving a broader, social picture of what led to the creation of this ‘living’ museum.
Why go? An eye-opening experience to change your perspective on crime.
021 821 7864, 073 707 3639 www.18gm.co.za
Strandveld Museum Franskraal
Because one is so often in transit, gems in lowkey coastal towns are often overlooked but, on a recent trip passing through Gansbaai,
I was determined to seek out the Strandveld Museum, originally the home of one of the headmen on Dyer Island.
It turned out to be a quaint little cottage set on the rocks among kelp and cormorants, but was disappointingly closed on my impromptu visit. I made a note of the phone number on the board outside to call later.
When I called Estie Fourie, co-owner with her husband Jan, there was a health crisis in her nearby home at the time, but she kindly agreed to meet me there in half an hour. When she arrived in her wee car, she was as fascinating a guide as you could wish for.
Within minutes we’d learnt how she and
Jan had come to open this museum back in 2000, and dipped into a seemingly bottomless pot of eyebrow-raising stories about guano, seal culling, headmen, Black Sophie (a large rock 200 metres out to sea off Gansbaai), medicine and treasure chests, the wreck of the Birkenhead and some of the babies born on it.
To learn that the Fouries are both authors is no surprise, and copies of their books on the region are to be found among the paraphernalia on the tightly packed shelves.
Why go? A tantalising repository of nautical narratives. 028 388 0218, 072 267 5698 gansbaaiinfo.com/strandveld-museum
Music van de Caab Museum Franschhoek
Visitors to Franschhoek generally spend a lot of time eating and drinking. But on the road to the gourmet capital, Solms-Delta is not just another winery with a restaurant, but one that hosts the well-researched Museum van de Caab with full-on history of slaves and slavery in the region.
For me, though, the real bijou is the tiny stand-alone Music van de Caab Museum, to which you can saunter after a good lunch or make an appointment for a guided experience. Once, visiting there with overseas visitors, we were lucky to have a young lady guide sing and drum her heritage memories of growing up in these parts. Memorable indeed.
More recently, we arrived unannounced and, left to our own devices, were free to read the finely detailed panels designed to ‘explore, honour, preserve and develop the diverse musical heritage of the rural Cape’ from Khoisan trance dances and Kaapse Klopse to other African influences and jazz.
replicas of original ankle rattles, mouth bows, guitars made from oil tins and more. There’s an audio-visual presentation but listen carefully and you can hear the winds of change rustling through the trees here and pick up some key moments in South Africa’s musical history. Why go? Small, but special for music lovers who like to know the backing tracks.
021 874 3937 www.solms-delta.co.za/museums-archaeology
Motor Museum, Franschhoek
Some years ago, on the way through the Winelands with car fanatics from the UK, we decided, as a surprise, to pop in to the Franschhoek Motor Museum at L’Ormarins wine estate.
Our British friend thought he’d died and gone to heaven because there were not only several hundred vehicles, motorbikes and memorabilia reflecting 100 years of motoring history, but he was invited to have a spin in one around the immediate property. It was duckegg blue, I forget what make it was, but even a decade later I’m sure he could tell you.
Today the museum houses around 300 cars, catalogued in ‘libraries’ – Studebaker, Ford, Volkswagen, Ferarri, Porsche… the list is long and comprehensive. The oldest is a gracious 1903 Ford Model A, and there are some specifically linked to South African history – like the BMW used by Madiba on his 46664
campaign, and the Protea, the first two-seater sports car to be mass-produced in the country.
There are global-signature cars like a vintage Bugatti and a single-seater Formula 1 but, as curator Wayne Harley says, “Whoever forgets their first car?” So every vehicle has been a signature to someone.
Why go? Total indulgence for car lovers.
Treat yourself to a glass of L’Ormarins wine afterwards. 021 874 9002, www.fmm.co.za Tours by appointment only.
Historic Village Museum Genadendal
On each visit to Greyton I make a point of popping in to Genadendal, the Moravian mission village down the road, because I see something new in their museum every time, and it’s a community-run project.
Genadendal is said to be the oldest such mission village in Africa and, standing in the church square, with its simple but dominant church and surrounding white-walled, thatch cottages, it’s easy to feel that not much has changed since its establishment in 1738.
Donkeys and cows continue to graze in the werf. The wide range of museum ephemera is housed in a clutch of buildings depicting the trappings of everyday life as it was. But there are also carefully curated
photography, education, musical instruments, helpful locals on hand to fill in the details.
There’s a working watermill, and walks for when you want to breathe in the present. It’s too much for one visit, and so special a place that Nelson Mandela renamed his presidential residence after it following his visit here in 1995 – Genadendal, Valley of Grace.
Why go? A gentle, peaceful place to reflect on the complexities of the past.
028 251 8582, www.facebook.com GenadendalMissionMuseum
Toy & Miniature Museum Stellenbosch
A sucker for kids stuff, I once took my boy to the Warrior Toy Museum in Simon’s Town where he bought what he was assured was an investment, a smartly packaged vintage vehicle. The victim of a clearout, it’s long gone, but the fascination for old toys stayed with me, so recently in Stellenbosch, I was not about to miss out on the Toy & Miniature Museum.
In an old, Cape Dutch house tucked behind Tourist Info, it has the look of a giant miniature itself. Inside are lovingly cased rag to rosebud dolls, perfectly 1:12-scale, replica room settings, even a kitchen in a matchbox.
Among the mass of teddies, I found almost a carbon copy of my own from centuries past. For the boy in you, there are hundreds of carefully catalogued little cars (the donated collection of Limpie Basson), but surpassing everything is the train setting.
For the price of R5 in the slot, witness two intrepid little engines wind their way over mountain passes, through tunnels, across bridges, past a pint-sized Stellenbosch station and a maquette of Matjiesfontein. Don’t miss the fingernail-size cyclists, forest hikers, and farm scenes complete with chickens.
Why go? Serious fun and memory lane trip for kids of all ages. 021 882 8861 www.stelmus.co.za/toy_miniature_museum.htm
SAPS Museum Muizenberg
I don’t know how many times I’ve driven the main road to the South Peninsula and thought ‘I really must visit the SAPS Museum one day’. It is, after all, rather upstaged by its neighbour, the elegant Casa Labia, a tea stop with a prime view and touch of class.
I finally did it one rainy afternoon, when the officer in charge invited me to ‘look around, take pictures, make yourself at home’. I had no idea that the police wore so many hats – and uniforms for all occasions, crisp, pressed and medalled in rows of glass cases.
And just when I thought I’d seen it all, including Chester the taxidermied dapple-grey in his horsebox, the friendly officer guided me through to the courtroom scene, and the office display celebrating the Fingerprint Cop (the ‘first non-white forensic expert’). And finally down I went to the cells – dark and dismal as you would expect. Good place to do some research if you’re writing a crime novel.
Why go? Great for restoring respect for SAPS and to educate selves and children.
021 788 7035, www.showme.co.za/cape-town/ tourism/tourist-attractions/the-police-museumin-muizenberg
General Dealer Museum Stanford
“It was originally a general dealer, then a men’s bar, a wine bar, a place to buy picnics, a function space – but it never quite worked. Then it occurred to me that Stanford didn’t have a museum – so I turned it back into a general dealer – as a museum.”
A compulsive collector, Penny van der Berg, owner of the Stanford Hotel, has had so much fun with this corner-store museum, sourcing goodies from across the country and describing it as, “A little bit Selfridges, a little bit Stuttafords, using my own poetic licence.”
When we visited, it featured 1950s cocktail dresses, but Penny changes the displays each Bastille Day. So from 14 July this year, over and above the hats, the haberdashery, the garters and gloves, it is celebrating a century of vintage wedding dresses.
“The hotel turns 100 years old in 2020, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate,” says Penny, who has collected wedding dresses, one from every decade since 1920, from across the country and from France, where her sister lives.
The display of mannequins, some with glass eyes, moulded shoes, flexible limbs, even a Twiggy lookalike, are a story in themselves.
Why go? A shopper and fashionista’s delight. 082 781 1704, www.stanfordvillage.co.za
While work on the new hangar at the Air Force Museum at Ysterplaat is in progress, retired planes like this De Havilland Vampire are housed in the old one.
ABOVE: The number 18 in the Gangster Museum name signifies that all the gang numbers add up to 81 – the switching of digits symbolises that they are turning things around. RIGHT: “The purpose is to raise awareness, but more importantly to educate, inspire and uplift young would-be gangsters in the area,” says Siyabulela Daweti, museum director.
ABOVE: Outside the Strandveld Museum, the shoreline is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic, and savour the stories and the sea air. LEFT: With an eye and an ear for detail, Estie Fourie has a narrative for every artefact at the museum.
ABOVE LEFT: In an outbuilding on the Solms-Delta wine estate, the mini music museum is conveniently next to the deli and coffee shop. LEFT: The longing to make music gave rise to creative recycling producing oil-can guitars. ABOVE RIGHT: The grand old Ford Model A takes gleaming pride of place as the oldest motor on show at the L’Ormarins Motor Museum. RIGHT: The Motor Museum is spread among four large buildings around a dedicated central square on the L’Ormarins wine estate.
ABOVE: Special about the neatly painted butter and brown Genadendal complex, is the amount of care by the community that’s gone into researching, recording, and displaying. RIGHT: There is no talk of ghosts at Genadendal, but the spirit of residents’ past is almost tangible.
LEFT: Because watching the toy trains is compulsive, you’ll definitely need more than one R5 coin. BELOW: Built around 1805, the Toy & Miniature Museum is as cute as a doll’s house itself.
ABOVE: Easy to miss the SAPS museum as you drive the coast road to the Peninsula, but so worth a visit. ABOVE RIGHT: Chester the stuffed police mascot horse, housed in a box of his own. RIGHT: From the till to the drawers and dolls, everything feels like the real deal at the General Dealer Museum in Stanford.