Albany Museum – Grahamstown’s Historical Treasure Trove
Founded on 11 September 1855, the Albany Museum is the second oldest museum in South Africa. It is a provincial museum which is funded by the Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture. Located in the Eastern Cape in the small city of Grahamstown, the Albany Museum is actually made up of six different buildings. These are the Natural Sciences Museum, the Observatory Museum, the History Museum, Fort Selwyn, the Old Provost military prison and the Drostdy Arch. What’s more, the museum enjoys an affiliation with Rhodes University which further adds to its importance in these changing times.
South Africa’s Albany Museum had relatively humble beginnings, growing out of the town’s Medical-Chirugical Society. The museum’s first curator was also the Town Clerk of Grahamstown, Mr. Glanville, and it was not until 1902 that the museum had a permanent home in Somerset Street. Today, this original building houses the core of the Natural Sciences Museum. It was the museum’s first director, Dr Selmar Schonland, who established the age-old ties between the Museum and Rhodes University. In 1902 Schonland addressed the Cape Parliament in an effort to establish a university in Grahamstown. He also managed to persuade the trustees of the Cecil Rhodes’ estate to donate funds. In return for their co-operation, the university was named the ‘Rhodes University College’. This was the start of a long and prosperous collaberation which has served to enrich both the museum and the university.
In 1941, the Albany Museum suffered a terrible loss when fire guttered the buildings. Fortunately the library, as well as the majority of the research collections, were salvaged. More than a decade later, the Hewitt and Rennie wings were added to the Natural Sciences Museum and the museum was extended to include the newly built 1820 Settlers Memorial Museum which was also built. Today this Memorial Museum is also known as the History Museum. In 1977 De Beers Consolidated Mines Limited purchased the Observatory and the Priest’s House which they soon set about restoring. Though the observatory was still in fairly good condition the building in which it was housed was in a terrible state and extensive renovations were needed to get it workable again. After restoring both buildings, they donated them to the Museum. Not long afterwards, the Cape Province saw fit to restore the Old provost military prison which was also donated at a later time.
Today the Museum enjoys an impressive collection of freshwater invertebrates, freshwater fishes, terrestrial insects, plants, birds and rocks and minerals. Add to this an excellent fossil collection as well as large amounts of Stone Age and Iron Age material and you will find that the museum will keep you entertained for hours. The History Museum has a large collection of artifacts that originated with the early 1820 settlers of the Eastern Cape while an excellent fine art collection captivates art lovers. The Albany Museum of South Africa continues to work in conjunction with Rhodes University – a union which benefits both parties. The Natural Sciences, History and Observatory Museum are open most days of the week while the Old Provost Prison and Fort Selwyn are opened on request. So visit the second oldest museum in the country and enjoy this great wealth of historical treasures.