History  & memory

Iziko Social History Centre Comes Into Its Own


After a three-year programme of renovation and extension of the National Mutual Building in central Cape Town, the building has been handed back to Iziko Museums of Cape Town.

The CEO of Iziko Museums, Prof H.C. (Jatti) Bredekamp celebrated the renaming of the building as the Iziko Social History Centre on International Museum Day, 18 May 2010.

The building, which boasts a range of special features, has been turned into a world class museum facility for the housing of the reserve Social History collections.
The building was designed by Sir Herbert Baker and Francis Masey for The National Mutual Life Association of Australasia in 1905, with large-scale extensions following in 1933.

In 1989 the government of South Africa purchased the property to house the collections of the former South African Cultural History Museum, today an integral part of Iziko Museums of Cape Town. Minor alterations were undertaken at the time but the facility basically remained an office building.

At the start of Professor Bredekamp’s tenure as CEO of Iziko Museums, he approached the serving Minister of Arts and Culture, Dr Pallo Jordan, about the dire state of the building and the fact that it was not fit to house museum collections. Dr Jordan was shocked at the state of neglect and prioritised his response, providing substantial funding for the renovation programme, via the Department of Public Works.

The tender was allocated to GVK-Siya Zama Building Contractors, and renovations commenced in 2006, based on designs by the architects of Ngonyama Okpanum and Associates.

The Iziko Social History Centre will hold reserve collections and archives which relate to the very large and wide-ranging department of Social History. The collections include indigenous cultural material from southern Africa, artifacts from the colonial period of the Cape, including maritime and historical archaeology, as well as collections of world ceramics, furniture, coins and textiles, inter alia. The collections will be housed in a secure environment, with excellent temperature, humidity and fire prevention systems devised according to international best practice. New storage units will allow for improved access to the collections, both for exhibition and research purposes.

Most significantly, the Social History Centre will allow Iziko to reunite collections separated in the 1960s, when most of the colonial period collections (from the 1480s) in the South African Museum were transferred to the then South African Cultural History Museum. The African collections that remained behind will now be integrated to overcome the artificial divisions created by our colonial and apartheid past, and to improve research access. Moving the extensive collections to the Centre is currently in progress and, after their unpacking, researchers and interest groups will be able to access these by arrangement.

An important resource located at the Iziko Social History Centre is the Social History Library which has been re-opened to the public. The library focuses on the history and people of southern Africa, with a special interest in Cape Town and the Western Cape. A large collection of books and periodicals covers topics such as history, popular culture, furniture, ceramics, textiles and other decorative arts, historical paintings at the Cape, archaeology and architecture. Books and journals on anthropology, presently housed at the Iziko South African Museum, will in time be moved to this Library.

The Library is a reference library and not a lending library. The public are invited to make use of it for research, free of charge. The Library is open Monday to Friday between 10:00 and 16:00. It is advisable to arrange visits in advance on telephone 021 461 3375 or by sending an e-mail to the librarians: email: tmafungwa@iziko.org.za or bmbobo@iziko.org.za

The building will be officially launched during Heritage month, September 2010, with a special programme of events and seminars.

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