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On the relic hunt in Durban

Durban - From looking up at the stars, to peering into the eyes of a Tyrannosaurus-Rex, KwaZulu-Natal’s museums provide a fresh alternative to peering into a computer screen when it comes to learning about the world in which we live.

You can transport yourself back in time to explore our country’s rich history, or learn about the ships that keep our port city economically afloat, if you venture into some of Durban’s museums.

ON LAND: The Ulundi is the oldest surviving pilot tug in South Africa and can be seen at the Port Natal Maritime Museum. Pictures: Gcina Ndwalane. Credit: INDEPENDENT NEWSPAPERS

Just off Durban’s waterfront, you will find an ode to the port city. The Port Natal Maritime Museum, nestled in the Durban Harbour, offers an insight into the influence of maritime culture on local life, as well as the rigours and romance of lives lived at sea. Visitors to the museum will learn about the evolution of maritime vessels, from coal-fired to oil-fired and finally to the diesel-powered SAS Durban.

The exhibition hall covers 170 years of Durban harbour’s history, from its humble beginnings to the engineering involved in its transformation to the commercial hub that it is today.

The Ulundi, one of the vessels that visitors can view up-close, is the oldest surviving pilot tug in South Africa and began life in 1927.

If you’re more of a science buff, the Durban Natural Science Museum might be more up your alley.

Located in the City Hall, the museum houses a life-sized reconstruction of a Tyrannosaurus-Rex, taxidermy animal specimens and a mummy.

The Hall of Earth Sciences Gallery takes visitors on a journey through time, from Earth’s beginnings over 4 billion years ago to the appearance of human life.

Visitors can also enjoy close-up contact with real animal specimens and human anatomy models in the KwaZuzulwazi (which means place of discovery) Science Centre , as well as experience the world of science and technology through hands-on displays. Among the historical exhibits at the Durban Natural Science Museum are the displays of the mummy of Peten-Amen, who lived in Egypt 2 300 years ago, as well as one of the world’s five most complete skeletons of the extinct bird, the Dodo.

The museum also houses the Hall of Amphibians and Reptiles, where visitors can identify Southern African snakes and lizards, and gaze upon the fearsome Nile crocodile.

Sindisiwe Nzama, of the Durban Natural Science Museum, explained that museums were important facilities for recording our biological heritage.

“We use the knowledge gained to encourage responsible interaction with the environment through programmes and exhibitions. Given the declining rate of our natural resources, it is vital for people to come to the museum so that they will be exposed to world-class collections, innovative education programmes and interactive exhibitions, to ensure the wise and sustainable use of our planet’s resources,” Nzama said.

The Inanda Heritage Route takes visitors through some of KwaZulu-Natal’s most important historical sites. It is here that Mahatma Gandhi began his passive resistance movement and those who visit the Pheonix Settlement can see where he lived, as well as his International Printing Press.

There is also a museum at the settlement where visitors can learn more about this rich vein of South African history. Inanda is also the place that Dr John L Dube, the ANC’s first president, called his home, and the Heritage Route allows visitors a glimpse of Dube’s home and grave.

For those in Pietermaritzburg, the KwaZulu-Natal Museum is home to eight natural history and ten cultural history galleries. One of the highlights is the reconstruction of an 18th century Pietermaritzburg street.

Visitors can see what shops, stables and homes looked like during that era.

A scale recreation of a Drakensberg cave with rock art drawings, as well as the wooden deck of a wrecked trading vessel can be found in the Towns and Trade Exhibition.

For those with an interest in astronomy, The Space Centre in Port Edward is unique in that it contains the largest private collection of astronomical goods in Africa. “The aim is to spark the minds and imaginations of the visitors,” says director of The Space Centre Graham Geary. The Space Centre opened 20 years ago and provides answers to the myths and truths of the constellations.

Whether it is looking up into the heavens with telescopes or learning about the world above us on their giant screens, visitors are provided with an interactive environment in which to learn about space.

The museum at the centre contains ancient and modern telescopes, and information collected every night by the observatory can be seen by visitors at the planetarium.

So when you want to learn a little more about the world around you, instead of hunching over a keyboard and staring into a little box of information, visit a museum. Experience the scale of the dinosaurs, go to the home of Ghandi, see the vessels that helped Durban become the city that it is, and look through a telescope towards the stars above you. There’s a wealth of information, so take the kids along too. - Independent on Saturday

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