There are incredible museums in Gauteng that reveal South Africa’s history. Make sure to add all of these to your list of things to do and see in this vibrant city.
The Apartheid Museum
This museum is often combined with a day spent in the sprawling township of Soweto, providing a fitting introduction to SA’s past. Its story is told with film footage, photographs, text panels and 22 individual exhibitions. The Apartheid Museum presents the historical system of apartheid, which dominated South Africa in the 20th century in clear, graphic and sometimes chilling terms. The experience is made powerful and comprehensible due to the discreet elements that make up the exhibitions, which despite their often-horrific content are always clean, clear and audible.
‘Liberation Struggle’ Museums
In the heady days of democratic South Africa, a clutch of new museums opened their doors in Gauteng, exhibiting aspects of the liberation struggle. All make use of high-tech exhibits, narrating their stories poignantly.
- The establishment of the Constitutional Court on the site of a former prison gave rise to Constitution Hill. Filled with symbolism of freedom and transparency, the site offers tours of buildings that once held heroes of the struggle captive, and now house the court that ensures human rights for all.
- Liliesleaf, the underground safe house of ANC activists in the 1960s, was the site of a police raid in 1964 that resulted in the Rivonia Trial, which saw Mandela sentenced to life.
- The Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum in Soweto highlights the 1976 uprising of students, and is named for the first youngster to be killed in the tragedy. Also in the township, the one-time Orlando West residence of the Mandela family, the matchbox-size Mandela House, is a popular stop where visitors can see Mandela memorabilia.
Interpretation Centre Complex, Cradle of Humankind World Heritage Site
The first stop in this location where early man first stood erect is the Maropeng Visitors Centre, where a series of interactive exhibits are designed for younger visitors. The theme of human development is very attractive because people see it as their own history, which interests them more than anything else. The storyline is the biography of humanity looked at in large. Homo naledi [a recent fossil discovery revealed in 2015] was a catalyst for huge renewed interest in the shared origins of humanity in Africa.
SAB World Of Beer
A museum to the process of beer making, as well as a conference venue, this facility is operated by South African Breweries and was voted South Africa’s top tourist attraction in 2009 and 2011. The museum is located in the Newtown cultural precinct, which Johannesburg has punted for the past few years as a hip and happening location, with mixed success. Besides World of Beer, Newtown hosts a number of museums including Sci-Bono Discovery Centre, Museum Africa and the Workers Museum. The Maboneng Precinct has a vibrant character and is a must-see for everyone visiting Johannesburg, as well as residents of Gauteng.
Despite the changes in SA and the spate of new museums formed in Gauteng, the Voortrekker Monument remains firmly placed on the itineraries of international visitors. It highlights a very specific period in our history, when the Voortrekkers left the Cape Colony in search of their own freedom and independence – this resonates with most visitors, even though it was very short-lived. The fact is this monument and museum represents and communicates a specific period is part of SA’s DNA. Most museums in the country have transformed their displays to include our post-1994 history, despite their themes, which often confuses foreigners, who are not familiar with the detail of our country’s transformation. The facility is the only Afrikaans monument to have been awarded Grade 1 National Heritage Site status post-1994.
Ditsong Museum of Natural History
Recording 50 000 visitors a year, this museum in central Pretoria has a few star attractions on the grounds – namely the skeleton of a whale fin and dinosaur models. Its human evolution display is a favourite of international visitors, who also take advantage of a behind-the-scenes tour of the Broom Room. Named after Dr Robert Broom, who discovered Mrs Ples, this room houses many of the most important fossils of early hominids in the world. The Austin Roberts bird hall is also popular, displaying over 870 Southern African bird species.
Pretoria Art Museum
Specialising in South African art the Pretoria Art Museum, located in the suburb of Arcadia, offers international visitors a good idea of all the different genres, cultures and media of choice on the local art scene. It has five different galleries in which exhibitions change often. An ongoing exhibition is titled ‘A Story of South African Art’ and paintings are selected from the museum’s own collection, including works by early 20th-century painters, the Resistance artists of the 1980s and artists of the 21st century.
Cullinan Diamond Mine
The village of Cullinan, with its quaint old sandstone miners’ cottages, now hosts eateries, galleries and boutiques deserving of more credit than they get. Both underground and surface tours of the mine, which has its own Big Hole, can be experienced. Participants can view diamond cutting and polishing in the two hours or so that it takes to tour the site. In Oak Street, a short walk away, there’s an open-air mining museum with old-time machinery, and not much further on visitors will find McHardy House Museum, a homestead left much the way it was when the mine’s first general manager, William McHardy, lived there at the time the famous Cullinan diamond was discovered.
Wits Art Museum
Going by the apt acronym of WAM, this museum is one of the attractions in the regenerating area of Braamfontein, which boasts much student life being part of the Wits University Cultural Precinct. Its design incorporates Guggenheim-type features and it houses an extraordinary collection of African art, including contemporary and historical art from South, West and Central Africa. Its rotating temporary exhibitions are reasons to keep returning.