Wednesday, October 7, 2015

THE PHANSI MUSEUM - A repository of cultural diversity and authenticity

Sharon Crampton, previously curator of Oliewenhuis Art Museum in Bloemfontein and Director of the African Art Centre in Durban has recently been appointed as the Director of the Phansi Museum a non-profit, public benefit organisation governed by the Phansi Museum Trust.
The Museum occupies three floors of one of the few domestic national historic monuments in the city, Roberts House.  The stately home situated in Esther Roberts Road (previously Frere Road) was built by the parents of Esther Roberts, one of the first female anthropologists in South Africa in 1896 and was declared a national monument in 1980.
The word phansi, pronounced punzi means below or beneath in Zulu and acknowledges the origin or birthplace of ancestral spirits and the place of birth of what is now known as the Phansi Museum.

From a small private collection of artefacts and craftwork in the basement of Roberts House the Museum was accorded private museum status in 2000 and currently houses one of the largest and most spectacular publicly accessible collections of southern African artefacts dating back to the 19th Century, including garments, beadwork, jewellery, earplugs, meat platters and headrests, snuff spoons, tobacco pipes and utensils.
The Phansi Museum has a spectacularly rich collection of over 5 000 artefacts and provides visitors of all ages with a unique cultural experience and brings to life the ethnic diversity of Southern African artisans and craft people.   Highlights of the collection include excellent examples of telephone wire basketsrenowned weavers, including Bheki Dlamini, Ntombifuthi Magwaza, Elliot Mkhize, and Alfred Ntuli.  The collection wire weaving in Southern Africa and epitomizes a myriad of themes, colour palettes, shapes and sizes.  Alongside the telephone wire baskets, are outstanding examples of Ilala Palm baskets by Reuben Ndwandwe, Angeline Masuku and Beauty Nxgongo and clay pots by the Nala family from Eshowe.  These vessels mostly originally served as containers for food and liquid and were consequently linked to the rituals that were observed in the preparation and consumption of food and beverages.
In 2015, the Phansi Museum was fortunate enough to receive on loan the collection of the late Frank Jolles, one of the world’s leading scholars of South African beadwork and African material culture artefacts.  The collection, which is available for research purposes comprises a fine selection of wedding cloaks (izikoti), clay vessels and exceptionally carved milk pails and platters.
A premier attraction of the Museum is the extraordinary collection of 30 life-sized puppets clothed in the ceremonial attire representing various ethnographic districts.  Each puppet has a very specific dress code; the colour, material and design of clothing and jewellery indicating where the wearer is from, their age, gender and social status.  The puppets have travelled to other Museums in South Africa and to New York and have been seen and admired by thousands.   Their design is based both on the marionettes which are strung from the traditional Zulu Maskanda musician’s guitar, to dance as he plays; and the traditional Zulu ‘fertility doll’.  The puppets are suspended from cables several feet above the floor in the museum’s display areas.
Presently the Phansi Museum is undergoing several structural alterations and modifications to improve displays and presentations and to include spaces to host temporary exhibitions, educational programmes, workshops and outreach projects.    Although we embrace the traditional Museum objectives of collecting, documenting, preserving and disseminating our rich indigenous culture, our aim is to redefine our role in society by increasing our responsibility in shaping community identity and bringing different community groups together.  The Phansi Museum collection has reach and resonance and honours the extraordinary ability of ordinary people to shape South Africa’s cultural heritage.   By partnering with local authorities and institutions, we aim at providing a stimulating public space where people of all backgrounds can come together and be inspired.   We are committed to ensuring that individuals have access to high-quality museum experiences and to initiating active dialogue with potential and existing audiences and special interest groups.  Our vision is to be considered as a Museum which stands out as exceptional.
Visiting the Phansi Museum offers a fun and fascinating look at the cultural history that shaped South Africa and the blend of backgrounds and ethnicities that make us so unique.   We offer personal guided tours which bring patrons face to face with our past and present through fascinating stories and anecdotes.

Phansi Museum, Roberts House, 500 Esther Roberts Road, Glenwood, Durban, South Africa Tel +27 31 206 2889 - Fax +27 31 206 1590 - email:   or