Iziko Social History Centre

  • World class museum facility
    The Iziko Social History Centre is a world-class museum facility for the housing of the reserve of South African Social History collections and archives. More info

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The collections of African Art in the Permanent Collection of the South African (SA) National Gallery mirror the histories of independence, division and democracy that have shaped the character of our country over the last century and a half.   Read more
The Ancient and Classical Cultures are well represented by artefacts from Egypt dating from the Predynastic to Graeco-Roman Periods.    Read more
This collection comprises mostly indigenous African artefacts, with a special emphasis on southern Africa. Objects from all over the world have also been collected for comparative purposes, such as Inuit artefacts to provide an example of hunter-gatherer material culture in environmental conditions very different from those in Africa.    Read more
The Modern Painting and Sculpture Collection contains excellent examples of many leading South African artists of the early and mid-20th Century, such as Gerard Sekoto, Alexis Preller, Irma Stern and Jacobus Hendrik Pierneef, all of whose artworks are very much in demand today. Modernism is not easy to define, but refers roughly to a period dating from the 1860s through to the 1970s, and is used to describe the styles and ideologies of art produced during that era.   Read more
The bird study skin collection focuses on South African species, but includes species from elsewhere in Africa as well as other regions of the world.   Read more
The Cenozoic period spans the Palaeogene (66 million years ago (Ma)) to the Quaternary (Holocene - present).   Read more
The ceramics in our collection originate from many parts of the world, mainly Asia, Europe, Africa, and in particular South Africa. Contemporary works by South African ceramic artists form an import and developing part of the collection.   Read more
Collection of Contemporary Paintings and Sculpture extends temporally from approximately the 1960s-1970s to the present day, and consists predominantly of works by South African artists. This is one of the most actively acquiring collections, and while the Art Collections acquisition policy considers the redress of historical omissions as vital to the collection, it is also forward-looking with regard to the output of emerging and established artists in South Africa.   Read more
The Iziko Slave Lodge hosts a display of Egyptian artefacts within the Iziko collection. The collection of Egyptian artefacts, however, span greater than what can be viewed in the upper level of the Iziko Slave Lodge.   Read more
The entomology collection includes about 1,000,000 pinned insects and about 30,000 alcohol preserved samples of insects, arachnids (scorpions, spiders, etc.) and myriapods (centipedes, millipedes, etc.). It is the oldest entomology collection in South Africa with specimens dating back to the 1860's, and it contains about 7,000 primary types, mainly those of Péringuey (beetles), Hesse (flies), Arnold (aculeate Hymenoptera), Purcell (arachnids) and Barnard (mainly aquatic insects).   Read more
The furniture collection contains a substantial amount of South African furniture, dating from the seventeenth to twentieth centuries. The emphasis of the collection is on Cape Furniture, originating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and is particularly well represented in the chair, table and armoire collections. Country and town furniture are represented; this collection includes some rare and unique items.    Read more
The glass collection includes items bearing the monogram of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), and the Rosa van Gelderen Collection, a small but representative collection depicting English Victorian glass. In the bottle collection is an empty bottle of Constantia Pontac, dating from 1791.   Read more
The Historical and Maritime Archaeological Collection is housed at the Iziko Social History Centre. The collection has an extensive variety of artefacts from several sites in and around Cape Town. The artefacts represent 87 land sites as well as 45 shipwrecks sites.     Read more
The historical collections of painting and sculpture within the Art Collections Department of Iziko Museums embrace a wide range of works for art that are both South African and foreign in origin.    Read more
Invertebrate palaeontology is the study of fossils of animals with no backbone or spine. Fossils are the remains or impressions of a once-living plant or animal found in rock and often hardened through natural processes. Invertebrates as the name suggests are animals that do not possess a vertebral column and this especially applies to the soft-bodied and smaller invertebrates such as worms and amoebae whose remains are poorly fossilised.    Read more
Invetebrates are animal species that do not posess or develop a vertebral collumn. Familiar examples of invertebrates include insects, worms, clams, crabs, octopuses, snails and starfish.     Read more
The Karoo is a vast semi-desert region that covers much of inland South Africa, and is considered a national treasure for its abundance of desert-adapted plant and animal life, as well as its world famous fossils. The Karoo rock outcrops have long been regarded as the largest and richest collecting grounds for fossils of a long extinct group of vertebrates known as therapsids or “mammal-like reptiles”.   Read more
The mammal study skin collection includes a wide range of southern African large and small mammal species. Plains zebras Equus burchelli, which formed part of Reinhold Rau’s initial quagga project are particularly well represented.   Read more
Being situated near, the Atlantic, Indian and Antarctic marine systems has resulted in a wide diversity of southern African and other marine fauna being held in the collections at Iziko South African Museum.   Read more
Invertebrates are animals with no spinal column who dominate the animal kingdom, making up at least 95% of known animal species. Similarly, marine invertebrates make up the vast majority of ocean life; or at least those visible to the naked eye.    Read more
Marine mammals are a large and diverse group of 129 species that include seals, whales, dolphins, walruses and even polar bears. They share relatively few biological characteristics, but are instead grouped together because of one common factor – they all rely on the ocean for their existence.  The Marine Mammal Collection includes a comprehensive collection of cetacean and Cape fur seal skeletal material, as well as those from other marine mammals.  Cetaceans (whales and dolphins) are the largest and most diverse order of marine mammals.   Read more
Marine vertebrates have a vertebral column, i.e. a spine and are by comparison to their invertebrate counter parts small in number, constituting only 4% of the sea’s animal kingdom. They are nonetheless considered among the most structurally complex organisms.     Read more
Cape Town's famous collection of 17th-century Dutch and Flemish paintings on view at the Old Town House.   Read more
The Iziko Natural History Collections stand among the oldest, richest and most distinctive collections in the country. Together, the millions of specimens chronicle the natural history of animals and plants from Southern Africa and across the world. In so doing, they tell a fascinating story of life on Earth – from the earliest origins to how life has evolved into what we have today.   Read more
The Numismatic Collection includes currencies, tokens, scrip, medals and medallions. The world coin collection ranges from ancient and classical times to the present.   Read more
Palaeontology is the study of the preserved remains or traces of plants, animals and organisms that died thousands to millions of years ago. These preserved remains are called fossils and are found in rocks and sediments. Fossils allow us to understand how the Earth has changed over time and how animals evolve to what they are today.   Read more
The collection has been augmented by welcome donations, such as the presentation of 50 photographic prints by Arthur Rothstein in 1976 by the US Government. In addition, individual photographers have supported the Gallery with extraordinary generosity: in 1981, Paul Alberts presented 76 photographic prints and, in 1986, David Goldblatt presented 182 prints of his work. More recently, Struan Robertson donated 505 prints and his entire archive of negatives in 2003. Without such open-handedness, the Photographic Collection of the Iziko Department of Art Collections would be infinitely poorer. Between 2002 and 2005, we were fortunate to have been awarded funding for acquisitions by both the National Lotteries Board and the Department of Arts and Culture, which directly benefited the Photography and New Media Collections   Read more
All drawing media, except silver-point, are represented and all types of print media are covered in its holdings. The early historical prints include examples by artists such as Martin Schongauer, Michael Wohlgemnut and Albrecht Dürer. The collection has a representative collection of South African prints and drawings from the early 20th century onwards and this area is its main focus with regard to acquisitions.   Read more
The Rocks and Minerals Collections at the Iziko Museum of South Africa include a fine collection of calcite, a large collection from the former Tsumeb Mines in Namibia, rhodochrosite, which is found in Hotazel in the Northern Cape as well as diamonds of many different shapes and colours. There is also a unique meteorite collection, including both iron and stony chondrites and a rare carbonaceous chondrite.      Read more
Of special interest is the silver collection, especially the Cape silver. There are several interesting items of Cape commemorative silver. Apart from European silver, there are also silver items from Malaysia and Russia   Read more
The bulk of this collection, which boasts works by British artists such as Sir Thomas Lawrence, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Sir William Beechey, Sir Henry Raeburn, Henry Alken, Samuel Alken Junior, Charles Henderson, John Herring Senior, James Pollard, John Sartorius and Dean Wolstenholme Senior.    Read more
A gift of British Art to South Africa, part of the permanent collection at the Iziko South African National Gallery.   Read more
The nucleus of the original collections was established in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as part of the historical, archaeological and ethnographic collections of the South African Museum (SAM), and later the South African Cultural History Museum (SACHM).   Read more
Terrestrial vertebrates are commonplace, distributed across the globe even though vertebrates, as a whole, make up a fraction of animal diversity. Other than that they’re land-based animals with vertebral columns (spines or backbones) they’re also characterised by their well-defined joints and digits (fingers and toes). In scientific jargon, terrestrial vertebrates are known as Tetrapoda, in reference to these limbs.    Read more
Iziko holds an extremely large textile collection which includes flags, household linen, Indonesian ikats and batiks, Oriental carpets, samples and embroideries, as well as tapestries.   Read more
Toys are important for understanding the material world of childhood and changing patterns of socialization. The Toy Collection contains mainly commercially-manufactured dolls, marionettes, soft toys, games and a range of metal and plastic vehicles and trains, as well as indigenous African toys.    Read more
The transport collection contains about thirty coaches, wagons and carts – most being part of the Isaacs Collection – and bicycles.   Read more
The weaponry collection is yet another rich and diverse collection within the Iziko Social History Collections department, containing different types of firearms, stabbing weapons, artillery, protective garments, shields, throwing weapons and many more.   Read more
The William Fehr collection is exhibited at the Castle of Good Hope and Rust en Vreugd. The Castle, Cape Town’s oldest existing building, houses the component of oil paintings, furniture and decorative arts. Rust en Vreugd, a fine example of colonial eighteenth century urban architecture, houses the art on paper – prints, drawings and watercolours.    Read more
A large collection of woodworking tools enhances the furniture collection and the majority of the tools were documented and donated by Captain W. J. Van der Merwe.    Read more

The Iziko Social History Centre is home to the collections and staff of the Social History Collections department of Iziko Museums of South Africa.

The department encompasses major collections of southern African archealogical, indigenous and colonial material culture as well as international and contemporary collections. Highlights include the southern African pre-colonial archeaology (Middle aand Late Stone Age periods), San rock art, Khoe-San clothing, indigenous beadwork, southern African basketry, indigenous ceramics, and the Bleek-Lloyd Collection of 19th Century San drawings. Also included are postal stones from Table Bay, the William Fehr Collection of paintings, drawings and prints of early Cape Town and South Africa, maritime ship models and photographs, South African numismatics and philately, photography, Cape silver and colonial furniture. International collections feature the Judge Davis Collection of Chinese ceramics, Asian export ceramics, ancient Greek vases and the Sir Flinders Petrie Collection of ancient Egyptian objects. 

The department is growing its contemporary South African collections, including ceramics, popular culture and oral history. It has opened the way for debate on its collections and its legacy of museum practice, including human remains in the Physical Anthropology collection. 

The Social History department is commited to researching exhibition and programmes that generate new knowledge, caring for our tangible and intangible heritage, and making our collections increasingly accessible.

The department is responsible for some of the most significant historical sites in Cape Town, including the Dutch East India Company (VOC) Slave Lodge, amongst other historically significant buildings. 

The Iziko Social History Centre in Church Square at dusk
The Iziko Social History Centre is a world-class facility to house artefacts from our social history collections
The furniture storage rooms within the Iziko Social History Centre

The Iziko Social History Centre on Church Square was previously known as the National Mutual Building.

The building, which had accomodated collections of the former South African Cultural History Museum, was in very poor shape when the Department of Arts and Culture-funded programme of renovation began in 2006. The renovations programme transformed the building into a state-of-the-art museum storage and research facility, while carefully conserving its historical features. 

In September 2010 it reopened under its new name, the Iziko Social History Centre.

The heritage significance of the centre is that it unites collections that were seperated under apartheid. 

During the late 1950s to early 1960s, the colonial history collections in the South African Museum were transferred to a new museum known as the South African Cultural History Museum. Pre-colonial archaeological and African ethnographic collections remained at the South African Museum, amongst natural history collections. 

Today, these artificially divided collections are being integrated to enable us to tell new stories and begin new conversations. Pre-colonial archaeology collections, however, remain at the Iziko South African Museum due to space constraints, as further extensions to the Social History Centre would have contravened heritage guidelines. 

Exterior of the newly transformed Iziko Social History Centre
Domed archway above the entrance to the Iziko Social History Centre

The NMLA was founded in Melbourne, Australia, by John Montgomery Templeton in 1869. The NMLA insurance business was then extendeed to New Zealand, South Africa, England, Sri Lanka, India and other countries. 

Cape Town operations began in 1897, with agencies established in cities and towns throughout the country. The NMLA's head office in Cape Town operated from various premises until a decision was taken to erect a purpose-built building. In 1903, transfer was taken of a property on Church Square owned by Dr Edward Barnard Fuller. 

Between 1810 and 1819, this property belonged to gingerbread baker Fredrik Gilowy, and the widow of John Snook operated a lodging house there between 1856 and 1862. Arthur Green, a photographer who toured the Eastern Cape in the mid-1850s, also lived at this address in 1862.

Conveyancer and general agent, Ryk le Sueur, lived and worked here from the mid-1860s to late 1880s.

Plans for the new NMLA building on Church Square were prepared by architect, Francis Masey (1861-1912), at the time in partnership with the prominent architect, Sir Herbert Baker. Although Baker was to remain closely involved in the design, Masey was primarily responsible and supervised the construction. 

Completed in 1905, the first NMLA building had a grey stone facing of Paarl granite with two elongated front facing gables and a steep roof with a central tower. 

During 1929, the NMLA acquired two further properies, both to the right of the 1905 building. One was the former Resident Magistrate's Offices, stretching from Church Square to Plein Street. 

The second was purchased from the estate of James Brittain, law and general agents. 

The Brittian building had earlier also served as a booking office for the post and passenger cart travelling to Caledon and Eerste River. 

Cape Town architects John Perry and William John Delbridge were engaged to design the significantly larger NMLA building. The Plein Street extension was provided with a granite facade showing an Art Deco inspiration.

On Church Square, a colonnade appears at ground level, with ornate entrance porticos and decorative bronze doors - the central archway providing natural light for the first floor boardroom. 

The top left hand gable bears the date 1905, referring to the earlier Baker and Masey building, and the top right hand gable, the date 1933. 

Church Square was created during the early 18th century when plots owned by residents were cut back to make way for a public square. The Square took its name from the Dutch Reformed Church or Groote Kerk.

The church's graveyard was situated between the church and the Slave Lodge, which is the reason why Parliament Street was originally called Graave or Grave Street.

Spin Street was named after the short-lived zilde spinnerij or silk spinning works on the corner of Spin and Plein Streets during the early 18th century. It is believed that slave children from the Lodge worked there during the afternoons.

Freed slaves lived on the Square and in its vicinity. For instance, Armosyn Claasz, matron of the Slave Lodge in the late 1690s and manumitted in 1704, lived behind the Lodge in Graave Street on a property granted to her in 1708. In 1811, Rachel van de Kaap was listed in the Cape Town Almanacs and Directories, (which are housed in the National Library of South Africa) as residing on Church Square. 

There is a story that slaves were sold under a tree in Church Square and that, forbidden from entering the church, they also gathered under a tree there. The so-called 'old slave tree' stood in front of the Hilliard's building for many years, but was cut down in 1916, its stump remaining until 1951 when Hilliard's was demolished to widen Spin and Mostert Streets.

Today, a plaque on the traffic island in Spin Street serves as a reminder of the 'old slave tree'. During the 2nd half of the 19th century John Joemat was a familiar face in Church Square. He sold fruit and sweets under the slave tree, claiming that he had been bought and sold as a slave under the very tree.

Slaves formed part of the households and property of slave owners living on the Square. In 1800, barber surgeon, Carel Philip Zastron's widow, Anna Wilhelmina Woeke, owned five male slaves - July van Mosambiek, Michiel van Bengalen, Samson vvan Mosambiek, Thomas van de Kaap and Damon van Mosambiek.  July van Mosambiek worked in the cellars as Zastron also had wine warehouses, and Michiel van Bengalen was the cook. 

The female slaves were Rachel van Mosambiek, Roosje van Mosambiek and Regina van Malabar. The Zastron house was a double-storey with a typical layout of front rooms or voorkamers to the left and the right of the entrance hall, an eating hall or gaandery at the back, and bedrooms upstairs. Much later, the property became part of the 1933 extension of the National Mutual Building. 

The Cape Town Almanacs and Directories list the mainly non-slave inhabitants of Cape Town, including people who lived on Church Square during the 19th century. Prominent people in Cape society, such as Francois de Lettre, a merchant and later French Consul, are listed as having lived on the Square. De Lettre was married to Elisabeth Susana Nothling, sister of the wife of Chevalier Francois Renier Duminy (1747-1811), a high-ranking Dutch East India Company official. Duminy and his wife, Johanna Margaretha Nothling, also lived on the Square, between 1778 and 1786. 

Missionary and humanitarian, Reverend Dr John Phillip (1777-1851), lived in the corner house on Church Square between 1822 and 1846. He was Superintendent of the London Missionary Society of South Africa. His house was linked to the Union Chapel, which was the first Congregational Church in South Africa. Philip campaigned for improved rigths for Khoe-San and Xhosa people. 

His residence served as a home for travelling missionaries, amongst them Robert Moffat and David Livingstone. Fighters for press freedom, such as John Fairbairn and Thomas Pringle, were frequent visitors. Later, the site of Philip's house and Union Chapel became the home of Civil Service Club. 

Phillip, impressed by the new English infant school system, founded the first such institution at the Cape. The school was attended by slave and free children. Later, an infant school under William Buchanan, was established on the corner of Church Square and Grave Street. 

For years, landmark buildings such as the Colonial Orphan Chamber and Trust Company, and the South African Association for the Administration of Estates were situated next to each other on the Spin Street side of Church Square. 

Church Square was paved and turned into an open urban space, after serving as a parking area for over 100 years. In 2008 a memorial was unveiled, created by Wilma Cruise and Gavin Younge, and installed on the Square as a reminder of Cape Town's slave history. It comprises 11 granite blcks engraved with texts referring to rebellion and resistance, emancipation and freedom, and the contribution that slaves made to the development of Cape Town.

The area is taking on a more culturally diverse character, reflecting, in turn, the changes in South Africa. Seating and greenery have been introduced, and on occasion, performance art enlivens the Square. 

Stories of the residents and business activities that occupied the Square over the years provide fascinating glimpses into the City and the developing and constantly changing South Africa. There still remain many more stories waiting to be unearthed around the microcosm of Church Square and the Iziko Social History Centre.

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About the Museum

After a three-year programme of renovation and extension of the National Mutual Building on Church Square, it was handed back to Iziko during a media preview event held on International Museum Day, 18 May 2010.

The event also marked the renaming of the building as the Iziko Social History Centre. The renovated building boasts a range of special features and has been turned into a world-class museum facility for the housing of the reserve Social History collections and archives.

These include indigenous cultural material from southern Africa, artefacts from the colonial period of the Cape, including maritime and historical archaeology, as well as collections of world ceramics, furniture, coins and textiles, among others. The collections will be housed in a secure environment, with excellent temperature, humidity and fire prevention systems devised according to international best practice.