National History Museum


  • Multidisciplinary international expedition to KwaZulu-Natal Province

    10 February 2015

    Dr Ashley Kirk-Spriggs, curator of Entomology and Dr Vaughn Swart, University of the Free State, organized a 20-day multidisciplinary international expedition to KwaZulu-Natal Province (19 November–8 December 2014). The expedition comprised 18 participants namely Dr Ashley Kirk-Spriggs and Ms Eunice Letsobe (National Museum), Mr. Burgert Muller and Mrs. Chrizelda Stoffels (KwaZulu-Natal Museum, Pietermaritzburg), Prof. Steve Marshall (University of Guelph, Canada), Dr Daniel Whitmore, Dr Ben Price, Ms Elizabeth Allan and Dr Steen Dupont (Natural History Museum, London, United Kingdom), Dr Peter Kerr, Dr Shaun Winterton and Ms Laura Breitkreuz (California State Collection of Arthropods, United States), Dr Vaughn Swart and Ms Tanya Smit (University of the Free State) Dr Johann van As and Ms Michelle van As (University of the Free State, Qwaqwa Campus) and Dr Courtney Cook and Mr Edward Netherlands (North-West University, Potchefstroom).

    Participants worked on various specializations or sampling protocols, collecting insects (mainly Diptera, Hymenoptera, Lepidoptera and Odonata) for general collection development or for specific projects. Blood samples of amphibians and reptiles were also taken to study insect-borne pathogens. Prof. Steve Marshall captured images of living flies for use in the forthcoming Manual of Afrotropical Diptera.

    Fieldwork was conducted at Royal Natal National Park and Ndumo Game Reserve.

    Back row (from left):Courtney Cook, Ashley Kirk-Spriggs, Burgert Muller, Laura Breitkreuz, Stephen Marshall, Edward Netherlands, Vaughn Swart, Peter Kerr, Daniel Whitmore, Benjamin Price, Steen Dupont, Shaun Winterton. Front row (from left): Eunice Letsobe; Johann van As; Michelle van As; Tanya Smit; Chrizelda Stoffels; Elizabeth Allan.

  • The Inquisitive Mind: Science and Imagination

    11 December 2014

    This exhibition at Oliewenhuis Art Museum is a representation of collected heritage items –natural history and cultural history objects – from the collections of the National Museum, through the eyes of artists.  Oliewenhuis Art Museum Education Officer, Yolanda de Kock, came up with the brilliant idea to “pair” departments at the National Museum with contemporary South African artists to observe the investigations, results and activities of researchers and use this information as inspiration to create artworks. 

    The project of combining research, education and exhibition fits the mission of the National Museum perfectly: to provide heritage resources and an enjoyable experience to all people through quality research, conservation, education and exhibitions.

    The Inquisitive Mind: Science and Imagination can be viewed at Oliewenhuis Art Museum until 1 February 2015.


  • Remembering Mandela

    5 December 2014

    Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela

    18 July 1918 - 5 December 2013

  • New species of dinosaur ancestor found in South Africa

    14 November 2014

    A new species of the erythrosuchid archosauriform reptile Garjainia has been found near Paul Roux in the eastern Free State of South Africa. The new species, Garjainia madiba, so named after Nelson Mandela, is described by Gower et al. in the journal Plos ONE. It differs slightly from its sister species G. prima, which is found only in Russia. This dinosaur ancestor lived during the early Middle Triassic, some 247 million years ago. It reached a length of some 5 metres and was one of the dominant predators in South Africa at this time. “An analysis of its bone microstructure indicates rapid growth rates, consistent with data for many other Triassic archosauriforms, but also a high degree of flexibility as growth slowed during the unfavourable growing season” says Dr Jennifer Botha-Brink, a palaeontologist from the National Museum, Bloemfontein, and co-author on the paper. G. madiba is the geologically oldest erythrosuchid reptile known from the Southern Hemisphere, and demonstrates that these animals achieved a cosmopolitan biogeographical distribution by the end of the Early Triassic, within five million years of the end-Permian mass extinction, the most catastrophic mass extinction in Earth’s history.

  • Fossil turtles solve mystery

    7 November 2014
    Galápagos tortoise from Santa Cruz island (Photo: Markus Lambertz)
    Galápagos tortoise from Santa Cruz island (Photo: Markus Lambertz)

    Through careful study of modern and early fossil turtles (including terrapins and tortoises), researchers now have a better understanding of how turtles breathe and the evolutionary processes that helped shape their unique breathing apparatus and turtle shell. The findings reported in Nature Communications on 7 November help determine when and how the unique breathing apparatus of turtles evolved. Lead author Dr. Tyler Lyson of the Smithsonian Institution and Denver Museum of Nature and Science says, “Turtles have a bizarre body plan and one of the more puzzling aspects to this body plan is the fact that turtles have locked their ribs up into the iconic turtle shell. No other animal does this and the likely reason why is because ribs play such an important role in breathing in most animals including mammals, birds, crocodylians, and lizards.”

    Instead turtles have developed a unique abdominal muscular sling that wraps around their lungs and organs to help them breathe. When and how this mechanism evolved has been unknown. “It seemed pretty clear that the turtle shell and breathing mechanism evolved in tandem, but which happened first? It’s a bit of the chicken or the egg causality dilemma,” says Lyson.

    “We studied the anatomy and bone microstructure of the earliest fossil turtle, Eunotosaurus africanus and found that the muscle insertion markers indicating the presence of intercostal muscles, which are critical for breathing in most other animals, were absent, indicating that the modern turtle breathing apparatus was already in place around 260 million years ago” says Dr Jennifer Botha-Brink of the National Museum, Bloemfontein, the South African palaeontologist who analysed the Eunotosaurus thin sections. This animal shares many unique features with modern day turtles, but lacked a shell. A recognizable turtle shell doesn’t appear for another 50 million years. Lyson says “Eunotosaurus bridges the morphological gap between the early reptile body plan and the highly modified body plan of living turtles, making it the Archaeopteryx of turtles.”

    The study suggests that early in the evolution of the turtle body plan a gradual increase in body wall rigidity produced a division of function between the ribs and abdominal respiratory muscles. As the ribs broadened and stiffened the torso, they became less effective for breathing which caused the abdominal muscles to become specialized for breathing, which in turn freed up the ribs to eventually – approximately 50 million years later – to become fully integrated into the characteristic turtle shell.

    Lyson says he and his colleagues now plan to investigate reasons why the ribs of early turtles starting to broaden in the first place. “Broadened ribs are the first step in the general increase in body wall rigidity of early basal turtles, which ultimately leads to both the evolution of the turtle shell and this unique way of breathing. I plan to study this key aspect to get a better understanding why the ribs started to broaden.”

  • The First World War (1914-1918)

    2 September 2014
    Gas masks from the First World War
    Gas masks from the First World War

    The First World War (1914-1918) shaped the twentieth century.  Nothing like it had ever been seen before.  The war is remembered largely because it caused such massive loss of life—estimated at over 16 million.  To mark the centenary of the “Great War” (2014–2018), the National Museum has a temporary exhibition that will run until the end of the year.  The exhibition focuses on South Africa’s involvement in the War, such as the battle for Delville Wood where many South Africans lost their lives, and the sinking of the SS Mendi in 1917 where over 600 South Africans died.  At the same time, the refusal of Boer commanders to invade German South-West Africa lead to the Rebellion of 1914, and this event also forms part of the exhibition.  Black-and-white photographs capture the stark reality of the war and some unique First World War objects are on display, for example a FUG boot (thigh-length fleece-lined aviator's boot), gloves and cap worn by air force pilots, British and German memorabilia such as gas masks and uniforms, and even a French Adrian helmet (a metal helmet to protect soldiers in trenches from shrapnel, credited to Intendant-General August-Louis Adrian).

  • Basotho blankets on display at Oliewenhuis Art Museum

    6 June 2014
    Display of Basotho blankets
    Display of Basotho blankets

    15 May – 6 July 2014

    The Basotho blanket collection was made available on loan to the National Museum by the Robertson family from Ladybrand, who traded in Basotho blankets.  The uniqueness of this collection lies in its antiquity.  The collection includes a Sandringham mountain rug, or Mohodu, dating back to 1934, a Badges of the Brave blanket honouring those who fought in World War II (1939-1945) and a Batho ba Roma blanket made to commemorate Pope John Paul’s visit to Lesotho in 1988.  But certainly the most prestigious blanket in the collection is the Victoria England / Seanamarena or ‘chief’s blanket’.  Production of this type of blanket is restricted, making it more expensive and therefore a much sought after item.




    19 December 2013
    Part of the new Batho exhibition.
    Part of the new Batho exhibition.

    The National Museum in Bloemfontein boasts a new permanent exhibition. On 6 December an exhibition focusing on the history of Bloemfontein’s oldest existing township, Batho, was opened amid huge public interest. The official opening was preceded by a ceremony that included song and dance. Students from a local dance academy performed a dance drama depicting the township jive era of the 1940s and 1950s, and a choir of elderly Batho residents sang the well-known song ‘Mangaung’.

    Batho exhibition
    Mrs Aria Motlolometsi and a young visitor at the Batho exhibition
    The exhibition depicts the history of Batho in an interactive and visually exciting manner. Particularly striking is a realistic replica of a red brick house typical to Batho as well as a life-size projection of a short film shot in one of Batho’s streets. Visitors may also listen to sound clips from interviews conducted with Batho residents or read the transcribed text. This is possible thanks to audio-visual equipment sponsored by the Belgian and Flemish governments. Unique objects donated by Batho residents, such as an original pass book, are also on display.  

    Furthermore, a temporary photographic exhibition, giving a unique view of Batho and its residents, is on display in the Museum’s foyer. Most of the photographs were taken by the well-known Belgian photographer Johan Voets.

    For more information please contact Derek du Bruyn (051-4479609).