Poor air-conditioning damaging KZN Museum’s artefacts

2018-10-11 15:45
Stuffed animal displays are bearing the brunt of poorly maintained airconditioning.

Stuffed animal displays are bearing the brunt of poorly maintained airconditioning. (Ian Carbutt)

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Pietermaritzburg's 112-year-old KwaZulu-Natal Museum, home to some of the most important and celebrated South African heritage collections, is at risk of losing priceless and irreplaceable artefacts. 

This is reportedly due to poorly maintained airconditioning within the museum damaging artefacts, especially the animal exhibits, as temperatures constantly fluctuate when the building should remain cool and dry at all times.

At first glance, the brightly coloured exhibits, and collection of indigenous and exotic animals appear to be in excellent condition, however, if one takes a closer look one begins to see the cracks.

Ros Devereaux of Amafa Heritage KZN said that the KZN Museum was opened in 1906 and is listed as a grade three heritage resource.

“It has been very well maintained by the National Department of Public Works,” said Devereaux. “However, the 1970s addition/exhibit that was added to in the 1990s has some structural problems that need to be addressed.”

She said if the issues are not addressed “they may impact on the museum’s capacity to maintain its collection and may pose health and safety risks to the museum staff and visitors to that part of the building”.

Examining the animal exhibits, cracks are visible on the skins of the zebra, lions, giraffe and some of the other mammals on display behind glass. According to an informed source, this is because the temperature in the museum is not regulated. “Some of the exhibits are very old. Some of them are between 50 and 60 years old but because of the temperature fluctuation in Pietermaritzburg the skins of the exhibits expand in the heat and contract in the cold, causing them to crack,” said the source.

It was reported that an airconditioning plant was installed above the museum 15 years ago at a cost of R6 million but that there had been no proper maintenance contract in place.

The air conditioning unit for the museum that was installed 15 years ago.

Water damage to walls, ceilings and the wooden floors can also be seen.

“In an ideal climate, the taxidermied animals can last between 200 and 400 years. The oldest exhibit is the ostrich which was put on display in the museum in 1906, making it 112 years old.

“The temperature should stay cool and dry so that the exhibits can be properly preserved.

“The collections were recently evaluated and some are worth millions of rands and cannot just be replaced. Once they are gone, they are gone.”

Water damage to the floor of the KwaZulu-Natal Museum in Jabu Ndlovu Street.

KZN Museum archaeologist Gavin Whitelaw said however the museum was well looked after and is “one of the top museums in the country in terms of research, conservation and education”.

KZN Public Works spokesperson Mbulelo Baloyi said the museum was the responsibility of the national Arts and Culture Department.

He said if work needed to be done on the museum, a request would have to come through from Arts and Culture, which it had not.

The Department of Arts and Culture had not responded to media queries yesterday.

Damage to the ceiling of the museum. 

Caring for the exhibits is not easy

Caring for the museum exhibits is not all plain sailing. When taxidermy first began, taxidermists used arsenic and cyanide to preserve mammals.

Because of this, the glass cases at the KZN Museum cannot be opened unless a person is wearing protective gear.

The Witness was told that some years ago a staff member who had tried to wash a polar bear displayed in one of the glass cases, quickly found that her hair and fingernails began falling out. This was due to the toxins that had been used to preserve the animal.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg

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