Visiting the East London Museum

It was a little overcast when we left Nine of Cups bobbing peacefully in the Buffalo River. We hadn't launched the dinghy in ages. The Yamaha outboard fired up on the first pull. (Hooray!) It felt good to have the dink in the water again as we headed the short distance across the river to Latimer's Landing. We checked in with the national police quickly and got permission to tie up the dinghy at their little floating dock. latimers landing

The city is too far away to walk and we were advised that “elderly people” (did they mean us?) were especially targeted for mugging and theft in the area. Being prudent (and lazy), we hopped a cab and headed to the Vincent Shopping Center about 10km (6 miles) away. With lunch and free internet under our belts at the Mugg & Bean and a new dongle from Vodacom for on-board internet, we took another taxi to the nearby East London Museum.

east london museum front entrance

Established in 1921, the East London Museum is considered to be one of the most interesting natural and cultural history museums in the country. It was much larger than we expected and its primary claim to fame is the coelacanth (pronounced seel-ah-canth … who knew?), a “funky fish with limb-like fins” presumed to be extinct 50+ million years ago and caught in a nearby river in 1938. Two rooms of the museum are dedicated to the coelacanth as are t-shirts, Wedgwood commemorative plates, stickers, banners and various and sundry other souvenir items. According to National Geographic, “Many scientists believe that the unique characteristics of the coelacanth represent an early step in the evolution of fish to terrestrial four-legged animals like amphibians.” Very cool, indeed!

coelacanth collage

There was even a steampunk coelacanth on the museum's front lawn!

steampunk coelacanth at the east london museum

After much to-do and hoopla following the discovery of the coelacanth in South Africa, marine biologists discovered they weren't really extinct after all. They, of course, put out a reward for the capture of any others. These deep-sea creatures are elusive and reclusive and though they are now considered endangered, they are still found in the Indian Ocean near the Comoros Islands and near Sulawesi, Indonesia.

coelacanth headlines at east london museum

Enough about weird fish ... the museum had much more to offer. Plaster casts of human footprints dated at 120,000+ years were on display, providing evidence of the earliest homosapiens in Africa. In all honesty, we had to use our imagination to determine these were human footprints at all. But we leave the imagination to the paleontologists.

oldest footprints at east london museum

Also on display was the 36,000 year old Hofmeyr skull, more compelling evidence that Africa is the birthplace of modern man.

hofmeyr skull at the east london museum

There was a small maritime history section with a display of “great guns” salvaged from old Spanish and Portuguese shipwrecks off the coast.

great guns at the east london museum

The rest of the natural history display was kind of tired. Some of the info placards were missing and, in some cases, the displays were missing altogether with torn, yellowed signs indicating they'd be replaced shortly. Some displays were tucked in dark corners. There were several discrepancies in the information provided between one display and another. Though on the one hand we appreciated seeing animals we'd not seen in the wild before, it was disconcerting to see the specimens in such sad shape … faded, missing feathers, a hole in a crocodile specimen, thin, lusterless fur on some mammals, faded butterfly wings. Like most museums, however, we assume lack of funds plays a big role in the museum's ability to maintain and upgrade.

One photo on display showed a whole drawer full of Cape Parrot specimens proudly tucked away for posterity. Seems it would have been better to let them live in the wild and multiply, so they wouldn't be on the endangered list in the first place. Of course, it's loss of habitat that's the culprit, but still … Another display provided insight into old versus new taxidermy and preservation techniques. It's seems a shame to kill in order to preserve. But that's just us …. moving along.

cape parrot specimens at the east london museum

On the cultural side, the displays of period costumes, furniture and early life in Eastern Cape was well done.

early easter cape life at the east london museum

We especially like the extensive and very distinctive beadwork collection and exhibits on the Xhosa people, native to this area in the Eastern Cape. The isiXhosa language uses “clicks” as part of its word sounds. As we were leaving the museum, we asked a Xhosa man to pronounced “Xhosa” for us. It's (Click)-oh-suh. I tried. He repeated. I tried. He chuckled, then repeated. This might take awhile. Want a lesson in isiXhosa?

xhosa display at east london museum