National History Museum
 
 

History

The National Museum was founded on 20 July 1877 during a public meeting in Bloemfontein’s City Hall. Two preceding events facilitated the establishment of a museum: the so-called Philadelphia Exhibition and the availability of a building.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the start of the American Revolution, an international exposition was held in 1876 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The President of the Free State Republic, J.H. Brand, saw this as a great opportunity to introduce the Free State to the world by taking part in this first world fair. Several items were acquired specifically for the Philadelphia Exhibition, including ostrich feathers, ivory, unpolished diamonds and animal hides.

Raadsaal
National Museum displays 1878

A year after the Exhibiton, the government of the Free State Republic was requested to make the government building in St George Street (now the First Raadsaal Museum) available as a museum and to donate the objects that were exhibited in America to the museum. Most of the objects had however already been sold in America, but the government nevertheless agreed to make the building available and supported the establishment of a museum.

At the founding meeting a committee was elected, with Dr Hugh Exton appointed as the first Honorary Curator. In an open letter to the public, he requested "to collect together all that we can". The natural as well as cultural identity of the Museum expanded as a result of the diverse array of objects donated by the public.

The Museum was officially opened on 20 May 1878. At the time, fundraising was the responsibility of the committee, but a small subsidy was also received from the government. From 1881 until 1899, when the Anglo-Boer War broke out, the National Museum was supported by the Free State Government. The first employee, W. Corbitt, was appointed as a Caretaker in 1884.  After the resignation of Exton in 1888, Dr B.O. Kellner was appointed as Honorary Curator, a position he held until his death in 1918.  Kellner was the first qualified doctor in Bloemfontein and was Mayor of the city for nine years. 

The building soon became too small for the various exhibits and an extension, added to the western side of the Raadsaal, was occupied in January 1887. Another section, added to the eastern side of the Raadsaal, was completed in October 1891.

For the next 25 years, the Museum struggled to survive with inadequate funding and accommodation. The Government of the Union of South Africa at last responded by providing funds for the construction of a new building, with the new Museum (in its current location - 36 Aliwal Street) opening its doors on 4 January 1915.

Directors of the Museum
Dr E.C.N. van Hoepen, Dr A.C. Hoffman, Dr J.J. Oberholzer, Dr. C.M. Engelbrecht and Mr R.J. Nuttall

On 2 January 1922, Dr E.C.N. van Hoepen was appointed as the first full-time Director of the National Museum. He was appointed mainly on the grounds of his qualifications and "more especially, as it had been suggested by Government, that this Museum should specialize in Palaeontology". This represented a new phase in the development of the Museum. During Van Hoepen's term of office, emphasis was placed on research, especially palaeontological and archaeological research and the National Museum developed into an internationally recognized research institution. The Museum buildings were extended with the addition of two new wings, an office block and workrooms. Dr van Hoepen retired in 1950.

When Dr A.C. Hoffman was appointed Director in April 1951, the entire staff consisted of Hoffman and five assistants. At the end of his tenure as Director, the staff complement had increased to 23. Hoffman placed great emphasis on the educational function of the Museum and on his initiative excellent displays and dioramas were completed. Regarding research, the emphasis was mainly on Palaeontology, Anthropology and Archaeology. Dr Hoffman passed away unexpectedly while on a field trip in September 1969.  

The third Director, Dr J.J. Oberholzer, was instrumental in increasing numbers of Museum staff, from 26 in 1970 to 130 in 1985. The increased number of scientists allowed the Director to devote all his time to management and administration. Conservation and research became the responsibility of specific research departments and several new departments were established. Most of the satellite museums (First Raadsaal and Wagon Museums, Freshford House Museum and the Florisbad Quaternary Research Station) were also established during this time. Oberholzer was also instrumental in negotiating for the acquisition of an art museum for Bloemfontein. Dr Oberholzer resigned in 1985 to become Chief Director of the Durban Museums.

Dr C.M. Engelbrecht was appointed Director in 1986. At this time, the shortage of accommodation - offices as well as storage space - became critical. A "temporary" office block (still utilised today!) was erected, and additional space was rented in a building near the Museum. The transformation of Oliewenhuis (at the time the Bloemfontein residence of the President of South Africa) into an art museum of international standards was undertaken. Due to changes in National Government structures, the question of the Museum continuing to be administered as a nationally funded institution (as opposed to at provincial level) was hotly debated. Dr Engelbrecht, together with the Council, successfully opposed the proposal for the Museum to be managed by the Free State Province.  The Museum also entered the digital era, by digitising all databases of collection material.  Dr Engelbrecht retired in 2003.

In 2003, Mr Rick Nuttall, after a career as Museum Ornithologist, and a brief period as Deputy Director, was appointed as Director. Challenges during Nuttall’s term have included ensuring that the Museum remains positioned as a heritage institution of international standing in the transforming South African landscape, especially regarding heritage. Equally challenging has been the implementation of administrative and governance processes and procedures to address the ever-increasing compliance requirements of nationally-funded public institutions. In the face of change, the National Museum has however been able to maintain, and in some cases, expand on, vibrant heritage research and conservation initiatives that are the essential responsibilities of museums.


Sources

Van der Bank, D.A. 1997. Nasionale Museum Deel I. Stigting en vroeë geskiedenis.
Navorsinge van die Nasionale Museum, Bloemfontein
13(2):45-99.

Van der Bank, D.A. 1998. Nasionale Museum Deel II. Die Van Hoepen-era, 1922 - 1950.
Navorsinge van die Nasionale Museum, Bloemfontein
14(5):97-142.

Van der Bank, D.A. 2000. Nasionale Museum Deel III. A.C. Hoffman se direkteurskap, 1951 – 1969.
Navorsinge van die Nasionale Museum, Bloemfontein 16(5):85140.

Van der Bank, D.A. 2001. Nasionale Museum Deel IV. J.J. Oberholzer se direkteurskap, 1969 – 1985.
Navorsinge van die Nasionale Museum, Bloemfontein
17(4):69-124.