10 of Durban's Top Museums

DAG |© Courtesy of Publicity Matters
DAG |© Courtesy of Publicity Matters
Photo of Shubnum Khan
13 September 2017

Durban may be known as a laid back seaside town but it has some historical gems tracing the city’s history tucked away in some beautiful old buildings. We take you through a list of the ten best museums in Durban.

Phansi Museum

A life size handcrafted wire motorcycle | © Courtesy Phansi Museum

This little museum is tucked away in an old house in the leafy suburbs of Glenwood. It boasts an array of local art with a special focus on art from southern Africa. The museum, run by Paul Mikula and curator, Sharon Crampton, is a little gem that reveals a real love for African art. It also hosts a number of small exhibitions that feature local artists throughout the year. The quaint museum in Roberts House features three levels with various galleries that focus on different aspects of culture. It has a research section and main exhibition gallery on the ground floor. The landing gallery hosts small intimate exhibitions of a browsing nature. The top floors feature giant puppets that are used to show traditional southern African dressing. No space is unused—even the underground cellar houses a beads and precious things exhibit. It’s a wonderfully intimate space that even hosts private tours for free. It’s easy to see this is a place packed not only with history but also with passion.

Natural Science Museum

The Natural Science Museum located in the heart of the Durban in the City Hall has been called one of the most utilized natural science museums in the country, since it attracts almost 300,000 visitors annually. There’s a boma storytelling area, a reconstruction of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, a nearly completed dodo, an Egyptian mummy, various diorama exhibitions, and plasma screens showing natural history scenery. There is a number of carefully choreographed reconstructed animal scenes showing animals in their natural habitats with accompanying sound effects. The Museum Research Centre also offers the public access to the third largest collection of birds in Africa. Tours are available, and best of all, entrance is free. To find out more, check out their website.

Mahatma Ghandi House

Ghandi as a young lawyer in Durban | © Unknown / WikiCommons

About 25 kilometers from central Durban on the north western edge of Inanda is a little museum that carries significant history linked to Durban’s large Indian population. The museum is at a settlement in Phoenix where Mahatma Ghandi lived for more than 20 years when he lived in South Africa. An important cog in the movement against apartheid, Mahatma Ghandi eventually left for India, where he gained worldwide respect and admiration as a pioneer in the nonviolent resistance movement. His home, which was rebuilt after it was damaged in the Inandda Riots of 1985, was turned into a museum to remind people of the impact and importance of Mahatma Ghandi in South Africa. The house was opened in 2000 by South African President at the time, Thabo Mbeki. Various charts and portraits that trace Ghandi’s family life and valiant struggle against racial and color discrimination are portrayed on the walls of the house. It is a rich and unexpected delight.

Sugar Terminal

This may seem an odd choice for a museum but the sugar terminal in Durban is filled with the history of the huge sugar cane trade that early KwaZulu-Natal was built on. The three enormous arched silos just past Maydon Wharf house more than half a million tons of sugar. The Sugar Terminal is the largest in southern Africa and one of the most advanced in the world. It handles and moves as much as 800 tons of sugar an hour, loading from the silos onto cargo ships in Durban’s harbor and then to all parts of the globe. Tours of the sugar terminal include video presentations on the process of how sugar is made from sugar cane and guided tours into gigantic silos where you’re allowed to take as much sugar as you can carry (in your hands!).

Durban Art Gallery

An exhibition inside DAG | © Courtesy Publicity Matters

More than a century old, the Durban Art Gallery was founded in 1892 and has hosted a collection of artworks that have seen the ushering in and the end of apartheid. Based right next to Durban’s iconic City Hall in the heart of the CBD, the museum also has an extensive natural science museum on the lower floor. It has hosted exhibits by artists like Penny Siopis and Andre Verster. While the museum hosts current exhibitions by local and internationally renowned artists, they also have a collection of artwork that dates back to the 15th century. The diversity of the gallery makes for accurate representation of the many histories of the KwaZulu-Natal region. If you contact them seven days before, they give tours to visitors, available in a number of different languages.

Killie Campbell Africana Museum

This museum housed in Muckleneuk, a neo-Cape Dutch style house that was formerly the home of Natal sugar farmer and politician, Sir Marshall Campbell, is an internationally renowned and unique collection of rare resources. The collection is comprised of the Killie Campbell Africana Library, Mashu Museum of Ethnology, William Campbell Furniture and Art Collection, and the Jo Thorpe Collection of African Art. The collections were established by Sir Campbell’s son and daughter and on the day of the death of his daughter in 1965, the collection was left to the University of Natal. The Killie Campbell Africana Library has one of the best book collections on South Africa, together with a rich documentary of oral and photographic archives on the history of the region over two centuries. The Mashu Museum of Ethnology contains this region’s finest collections of African cultural artifacts.

Old Court House Museum

© Mariannebritsstrodl / WikiCommons

Once a courthouse, the Old Court House is the oldest public building in the central business district of Durban. It was loop-holed during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. It witnessed both the South African Wars and the Bhambatha Uprising. It also served as a canteen and recruitment center during the two World Wars and then later as a library, before being converted into Durban’s biggest history museum. Today, the Old Court House Museum is a two-story exhibition space that tells the history of the area and the people that have played an integral role in the making of Durban’s identity in South Africa. The Durban Room of the museum has fascinating exhibits, which include replicas of Henry Francis Fynn’s cottage, a sugar cane press, haberdashery store, and pharmacy of yesteryear. Many of the original clothing styles and pieces have been immortalized in the Costume Room.

Port Natal Maritime Museum

With Durban being the busiest port in Africa, it’s well worth visiting the Port Natal Maritime Museum off Durban’s Esplanade to learn more about the city’s maritime history. This tribute to local seafaring traditions is set on Durban’s harbor coast backed by wide views of the bay. Besides educational programs, you can also view ships on display. The largest of the three ships is the SAS Durban, a 42-year-old naval minesweeper. The 75-year-old Ulundi, with its coal-fired engine, is the oldest of the ships on display. The Britannia Exhibition Hall offers exhibits that encompass the entire nautical experience, from weather prediction equipment to navigation by stars and communication equipment linking ships at sea to dry land. You can wander through the engine rooms anticipating the heat, explore the galleys and imagine how it was for sailors from yesteryear.

Old House Museum

© Janek Szymanowski / WikiCommons

This museum may not be everyone’s cup of tea but observing the lives of the rich from the past can be fascinating. The site of the Old House Museum was donated to the city by George Churton Collins, built by the Durban Town Council, and opened on June 12, 1954. It represents Durban’s first example of the elite class lifestyle introduced by the Victorian Settlers to the region. The museum features a recreation of the home of one of Durban’s most prominent families, the Robinsons; Sir John Robinson was Natal’s first Prime Minister, and also owned the Natal Mercury, Durban’s daily morning paper that still runs today. The displays document the lifestyle of the upper middle class settlers—pieces on display include antique furniture, oil paintings, clocks and china, with life-sized mannequins of the family dressed in the fashion of the day. It’s a unique look into the intimate surroundings of Durban’s elite in the past.

KwaMuhle Museum

Kwa muhle is a Zulu term that means “the place of the good one,” and was named in reference to its first manager, Mr. Marwick. Mr. Marwick helped 7,000 Zulu people escape Gauteng during the Anglo-Boer War. He was instrumental in saving the lives of thousands of native South Africans in a time when their blood was sought by settlers and farmers. The building was once the headquarters of the cities’ infamous Native Administration Department and the center of Durban’s harsh system of labor control crucial to the running of the unjust apartheid system. It’s now been transformed into a museum seeking to reflect Durban’s urban growth and the history of its residents from a range of perspectives. The museum explores what life was like in and around Durban during and leading up to the apartheid era. The exhibits include photographic prints of township life, photographs, videos, and reflections on the contributions of people who laid the foundations of Durban’s development as one of Africa’s leading cities. As with many of the public museums in Durban run by the municipality, entrance is free.

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