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Day at the museum

By Nerine Dorman

Cape Town - Most born-and-bred Capetonians might remember school outings to the SA Museum. I recall my first all too well, and how I balked at entering the dinosaur exhibit just shy of the entrance foyer, which featured looming dark beasts in their diorama. The first bit I noticed was their eerily gleaming eyes and oh my what big teeth…

A dinosaur skeleton at the Iziko Museum Dinosaur Exhibition. Picture Leon lestradeThe baboon Kees, faithful companion on Le Vaillaint's journey.A dinosaur skeleton at the Iziko Museum Dinosaur Exhibition. Picture Leon lestrade

The years, however, weren’t kind to the museum. Although subsequent visits as I grew up were no less wonder filled, I noticed the sad, ratty state of the mammals in their rather mortuary-like exhibition hall, or the gradually increasing lacklustre and moth-eaten appearance of the quetzal’s once-verdant plumage in the bird exhibit, as well as other signs of attrition.

But I loved the museum then, and I love it still for all the curiosities and memories it contains, and am so glad to see that despite tough economic climes and much uncertainty the museum has become more dynamic in recent years.

I’ve gone on to see the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year in the past, so really looked forward to doing so again this year, and wasn’t disappointed. There’s something to be said for these photographers who travel to the ends of the earth and suffer great extremes in environment to bring back these images.

Then again, who knows where you will encounter that proverbial Kodak moment. Some visuals are captured in the photographer’s backyard while others occur in the air above extinct volcanoes or in the frigid Antarctic where majestic emperor penguins rocket through water.

Hats off to these folks. I’m blown away. While there were ample shots capturing nature’s beauty, the exhibition also touches on mankind’s impact on the environment. The image of storks feeding on a monstrous pile of garbage was one such. Detailed captions about the pictures are provided. Perhaps the photograph that I’ll remember with greatest fondness was that of the red fox pouncing on mice in the snow.

The exhibition runs until March 4 and you pay extra to see it in addition to the regular entrance fee to the museum (in total this comes to R30 an adult).

Recently, a friend mentioned The King’s Map, and having heard about the adventures of one François Le Vaillant often enough for the name to stick in my memory, I was quite keen to see the exhibition running until May 26.

Although visitors are given only a taste of this intrepid French explorer’s discoveries, you certainly need quite a bit of time to do justice to the many watercolours of the sometimes rather fanciful depictions of people, landscapes, birds, animals and plants. In addition, there’s quite a bit of information provided while you wander through the exhibition space.

Central to the exhibit is the venerable King’s Map itself, and I wasn’t at all prepared for not only its size (about as large as a very big six-seater dinner table) but also the sheer detail of the work that went into it. I could have spent hours immersed in the finer detail which included botanical drawings, and images of birds and animals encountered during Le Vaillant’s explorations.

What’s even more mind-boggling is that this exquisite work of art has been kept in storage all these years and this is the first time it’s been shown to the public. For an artefact that is more than 220 years old, the King’s Map is priceless and well worth poring over, and the fact that it’s been preserved in such a remarkable state makes it special.

While parts of the museum have changed for the better (the Shark World exhibit beckoned, but I was running short on time) my inner six-year-old just about had palpitations when I stopped by the African Dinosaurs section (after texting back to the office that I’d been waylaid by dinosaurs – I’m sure that went over well with my boss).

Not only were there some of the most lifelike reconstructions of dinosaurs I’d ever seen (I had to blink twice in case they moved), but the actual replicas of giants took my breath away. I always knew dinosaurs were big, but, really so big?

I also had reason to pause and consider exactly how old dinosaurs really are. We like to think of mankind as being ancient, but we’re not even blips on the radar when it comes to considering the staggering time periods that passed before the first mammal-like reptiles started scurrying about.

Oh, and Africa has some really cool, weird-looking dinos, or so says my wide-eyed inner child.

The SA Museum is well worth the visit if you’re in the mood to sneak away during your lunch hour (c’mon, were you really going to spend that R20 on a sugary soft drink and a packet of crisps?), but beware, one hour easily becomes two. There’s always one more thing to peer at around every corner, not to mention the regular attractions such as the Planetarium, Darwin and the Cape, the Whale Well and Marine Exhibit, among others.

If you’d like to rest your weary feet, you can enjoy cake and tea at the small coffee shop, and trust me, you’ll need to. Time has a habit of slipping by within those history-rich walls.

Situated at 25 Queen Victoria Street, Gardens, the SA Museum is open daily from 10am to 5pm (closed on Workers’ Day and Christmas Day). Entrance fees are R20 for adults (19 and older), R10 for students and SA pensioners, and free for visitors under 18, as well as free entrance on selected commemorative days.

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