ONE of Durban’s most unique cultural beacons, the Phansi Museum is the perfect place to visit this Africa Day! This day is celebrated every year to commemorate the founding of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), precursor of the African Union (AU), created on May 25, 1963.
Africa Day has become a day of celebration for Africans and people of African descent all over the world and has even turned into Africa Month which is celebrated throughout the month of May. Celebrate African unity, culture and diversity by visiting the Phansi Museum in May.
The Phansi Museum is located in the picturesque neighborhood of Glenwood. The House of African History houses some of the greatest collections of arts, crafts and traditional objects across the country. Nestled in a green oasis of native trees, in what was once the home of the Roberts family, the Phansi Museum is a rich source of African culture and history, with some artifacts dating back to early colonialism and apartheid .
The museum was declared a national monument in 1980. It was built in 1898 and housed Esther Roberts, one of South Africa’s first female anthropologists. Esther stood in silence for several days outside City Hall with her solidarity group called Black Sash, lamenting the injustices suffered by black people during apartheid. She died more than 10 years before the liberation of South Africa. The road where the Phansi Museum is located today bears his name.
Phumzile Nkosi, the museum’s curator and director, said Roberts was an activist and art collector. “She was a freedom fighter, serving for the Black Sash, and she also collected African artifacts before she died. She knew the importance of our history and was dedicated to ensuring it was not lost. That’s the purpose of this museum, to preserve our history and pass it on,” Nkosi said.
In IsiZulu, ‘phansi’ means below or below, and it is a reference to the basement location where the Phansi Museum began.
Nkosi has worked at the Phansi Museum since 1996 and is a wealth of information on African history and artifacts, as she is also the museum’s main tour guide. According to Nkosi, the museum has antiquities that are over 150 years old. “The museum started in the basement of this house, and that’s where we keep our oldest pieces. We have pearls in the basement from 1860!
The museum director said the artworks came from all over Africa. “Half of the pieces in the museum were collected from the Roberts family and friends of the Roberts family and the other half were collected through donations or local art vendors, who we are also looking for.”
“Some sellers are proud that their items are displayed and kept in a museum. Others have changed their lives and no longer need them. The collection focuses on the lives of ordinary people in our region, which they do , why and how to use the materials, and the skills and influences available and prevalent at the time,” Nkosi said.
Most works of art are simple objects made by rural people for use in their daily lives – a life deeply influenced by local traditions. Life-size dolls, showing ceremonial dress from different regions and cultures of South Africa, are on display, along with examples of beadwork dating back to the 19th century. Headrests, meat platters, carved spoons and Zulu pots are also on display.
The museum offers guided tours led by guides who know many of the traditions and exhibits, and are also part of the creative world that keeps producing more and more amazing things. For those wishing to visit the areas and meet some of the people who initiated the collection, contact the Phansi Museum to arrange a visit. According to Nkosi, self-guided tours will soon be possible via a downloadable PDF.
If you want to step back in time, visit the Phansi Museum located at 500 Esther Roberts Road.
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