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20 years of DITSONG

WORDS: Sandi Mackenzie, Annabell Lebethe and Tersia Perregil

2019 marks 20 years since DITSONG: Museums of South Africa was first formed as the Northern Flagship Institution (NFI). Since the amalgamation, the museums have strengthened and grown their collections and are now celebrated as spaces ‘where cultures come alive’.
     Reflecting the spirit of unity of all South Africans and equality for all citizens, which became a reality for the first time in the 1994 elections in South Africa, The Cultural Institution’s Act, promulgated in 1998, amalgamated three disparate museums, namely The Transvaal Museum (a natural history museum), The SA National Museum of Military History and The Cultural History Museum.
     This was not an unexpected development following the international establishment of museum conglomerates such as the Smithsonian Institution in the USA, the Imperial War Museums in the UK, The Tokyo National Museum in Japan and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, Australia – each with a number of sites, research centres and specific subject-related smaller museums under a central administration.

DITSONG Museum South Africa heritage
Sammy Marks Museum

The DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History (DNMNH), was first established as The Staats Museum in 1892 for the SA Republic, but after The South African War (The Second Anglo Boer War, 1899 – 1902), this became the Transvaal Museum, officially renamed in 1912. In addition to the zoological and botanical collections, the museum gathered items covering subjects such as archaeology, palaeontology, anthropology and later included cultural items. These cultural collections were housed on the lower floor of the Transvaal Museum.

DITSONG Museum South Africa heritage
Museum of Natural History

The amalgamation of these museums, firstly into the Northern Flagship Institution in 1999 and then DITSONG: Museums of South Africa (DMSA) in 2010, was driven by a need to streamline administrative, financial and personnel functions to allow the greatest flow of capital possible to the collections and professional staff of all three museums and their sites, and to allow for the development of self-sustainability. For this purpose, the museums were divided into three components, operational, technical and administration being run by the museums, and corporate services run by an executive management. After the name change to DMSA, these three splits evolved into research, collection management and public programmes.

DITSONG Museum South Africa heritage
National Museum of Cultural History

As with all large projects, many challenges have arisen, namely: a disproportionate allocation of finances among the museums that is historical in structure; inequality of salary and remuneration across equivalent levels of professional and other staff; an overlap in collection subjects between museums and sites; and logistical difficulties exacerbated by the distance between the three main museums and sites.
     Although progress has been slow in resolving these problems, and massive attrition of professional staff has occurred, considerable progress has been made in ensuring that these glaring differences have been minimised and will continue to be minimised through the realignment to be implemented this year.

There are, however, rewards for the hard work of the past 20 years and many of these can be seen in the growth of collections.
      The DNMMH has seen the arrival of the Douglas C-47 Dakota Transport Aircraft; the Oliphant Armoured Recovery Vehicle; the Aérospatiale Alouette III Light Utility Helicopter and the FN AS 24 Light Airborne Vehicle (Trike), all of which are valuable additions to the Aviation and Armoured Fighting Vehicle Collections.
     The only Honoris Crux Gold with diamonds ever struck, a full set of the Umkhonto we Sizwe and Azanian People’s Liberation Army, the old Homelands (such as Transkei and Bophuthatswana) Armed Forces service, efficiency and gallantry medals were donated to the museum.


To read more about the history of the three major museums, the amalgamation, challenges and rewards at DITSONG: Museums of South Africa, purchase the April 2019 issue of Creative Feel or, to continue supporting our role in the arts and culture sector, subscribe to our monthly magazine from only R180.oo per year.

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