A Walk through the History of English Literature in South Africa

The main function of any museum is to educate the public in regard to history and the people that helped shape it. At 87 Beautfort Street in Grahamstown, South Africa, is a museum that is dedicated to documenting the past while promoting the future. It is the National English Literary Museum. It serves as an establishment that collects, publishes and educates. Not only does it promote the English language in South Africa, but it also focuses on the brilliant minds that have contributed to the literary world through their talented expressions and perspectives that have spilled over into breathtaking poetry and literary works.

In 1972, the National English Literary Museum was established and now boasts a staggering collection of literary work. English works by South African writers, irrespective of their first language, have been added to the more than two hundred and fifty thousand records. The collections are also not limited to poetry or novels, but include plays, diaries, biographies, children’s books, journals, proofs, private correspondence, essays, memoirs and travelogues. Some the collection has been published in order for the work to reach a wider audience, both locally and abroad.

The museum also has a large variety of exhibitions and invites the public, along with schools and other educational institutions, to take a fascinating glimpse into the literary realms of the country. Thousands of manuscripts can also be found at the museum, which includes works of legendary writers such as Athol Fugard, Eric Pringle, James Ambrose Brown, Sarah Gertrude Millin and Reid Skinner. The National English Literary Museum has also undertaken a new project, to collect works done by black writers. It started in 1995 and is known as the Bibliography of Creative Writing and Literary Criticism by Black South Africans from 1800 to 1990. Previous censorship of black writers had left a large void in the documenting of South African literature, which the museum has undertaken to rectify. The museum has always had a policy of collecting material and literary works without prejudice, and hopes that even though some of the work done by South Africans has been lost forever, a repeat of the past can be avoided by promoting poetry, writing and literature to the youth of today.

All works collected by the museum are available to interested parties and the museum gladly shares its knowledge and pride in the authors of South Africa. It is a rare opportunity to discover the beauty of words and the imaginary worlds it opens doors to.