The rather solemn exterior of the building belies the hive of activity underway behind the elegant stone façade of the National Mutual Building on Cape Town’s historic Church Square.
Formerly the site of slave auctions, it is now home to the Social History Centre housing several collections and more than 150 000 artefacts, many of which have been moved from the South African Museum.
The artefacts are being gradually unpacked, a process which started in 2010 when a major renovation and expansion of the Social History Centre was completed, with state-of-the-art storage facilities custom designed for the collections, to be housed in temperature-controlled vaults.
For the staff involved in the unpacking, every day brings new surprises as the contents are carefully catalogued and stored in bespoke storage drawers for future access.
The range and age of the objects require special care. The textile collection for examples includes delicate, old fabrics and centuries old dresses. The clothes provide a rich insight into the city’s colonial past and include clothes worn by affluent individuals as well as dresses that are thought to have been worn by slaves.
The museum’s artefacts associated with slavery are of special interest as Capetonians grapple with the significance of this part of the city’s history and heritage. Items from these collections have been loaned to a new Smithsonian institution, the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opens its doors in Washington DC on 24 November 2016. The centre’s collections are in demand internationally with agreements in place with the Rijks Museum in Amsterdam and the British Museum.
In addition to rehousing its historic collections Iziko Museums continue to collect in the areas of oral history, popular history and ceramics in addition to collections of toys, musical instruments, beadwork, textiles and clothing, weaving and baskets. Access to the collections is possible through arrangement with the Centre’s staff.
For more information see www.iziko.org.za