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Museum Africa Complex, Newtown, Johannesburg

Museum Africa, Newtown, JohannesburgThe Museum Africa Complex in Newtown Johannesburg, is the place to visit if you are interested in the very diverse and seldom exhibited cultural history of Africa and its people – and how this history has shaped their lives and attitudes today.

Housed in a beautifully restored old building next to the Market Theatre, the museum also has several “mini-museums” in the same complex, including the Geological Museum, the Bensusan Museum of Photography, the Museum of South African Rock Art, with its impressive collection, and the Bernberg Museum of Fashion. The museum also manages the James Hall Museum of Transport, the largest and most comprehensive museum of land transport in South Africa, based in Pioneers’ Park, Rosettenville Road, La Rochelle, and the Workers Museum in Newtown.

The founder of the the Africana Museum, was Gaspard Gubbins, who died in 1935. His private collection is the bedrock of Museum Africa, and includes Thomas Baines paintings as well as early Portuguese explorer maps of Africa and works by naturalist William John Burchell. The collected works of art contain many local artists as well as Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist paintings.

The museum’s primary focus is on the indigenous African cultures – their history, archaeology, and linguistics. Visits places like Kemet, now known as Egypt, Kush (Sudan) and Punt (Somalia), which the ancients called ‘God’s country’ in their glory years, when the first civilisations thrived before colonialism. There are life-like displays of shanty towns and shebeens that give a true feeling of life in the townships and squatter camps. One of the highlights is an Iron-Age Tswana house, including a furnace for working iron.

Some of the cultural displays
Shanty Town, Museum Africa Exhibit
Shanty Town, Museum Africa Exhibit

One of the main displays covers the Treason Trial where more than 150 people including Nelson Mandela, Albert Luthuli and Walter Sisulu, were charged with treason.

Another section looks at Cartoons in social and political context with accompanying text and images. The cartoons, dating as far back as the late 1700’s and running through to the present, give us an insight into the times.

On the Johannesburg tracks section, you will follow the lives of eight gay, lesbian and trans-gender people of different racial groups.  It tells the story of the city from a different perspective, and shows that “the gay experience” is part of the very fabric of Johannesburg.

The exhibition, My Culture, will help you explore and understand our cultural groups; what they are, how they change over time. Almost 500 South African cultural groups, from Afrikaner through Chopi and Khoekhoen to Xhosa – have been identified. See how the cultural backgrounds of the groups are reflected in their clothing, utensils, tools, adornments, games, pictures and  photographs.

One of exhibitions, Sounds of the City, traces South African music from the Marabi music and dance of the 1920s slum yards to the township jazz of a Sophiatown shebeen, bringing this world vividly to life.

The “Johannesburg Transformations” exhibit examines the dramatic effect that gold mining has had on the economic and social development of Johannesburg. Train loads of transient workers were drawn from their homes and thrown into a world of deep shaft mines by day, and hostels and shebeens by night.

Another long-term exhibition that continues to draw visitors to Museum Africa is Gandhi’s Johannesburg, the birthplace of Satyagraha – the resistance to tyranny through mass civil disobedience. Mahatma Gandhi  was a leading political and spiritual figure in the Indian independence movement. In 1893, after studying in London, he came to South Africa to work as a lawyer, and from 1904 to 1913 he lived in Johannesburg.


The Bensusan Museum of Photography, Museum Africa, Newtown, JohannesburgThe Bensusan Museum of Photography

Housed on the top floor of Museum Africa, the Bensusan Museum of Photography grew from the collection of ex-Mayor of Johannesburg and amateur photographer, Dr. Arthur Bensusan.

The museum features one of the world’s most extensive collections of photographic equipment, recording the development of the technical aspects of photography from the its birth in the early 19th century, when polished silver plates and silver chemicals on paper were the tools, to modern digital photography.

Not only is there a feast of photos, there are rare items, records and documents including a negative taken by the inventor of photography, William Fox Talbot, dating back to 1835. As part of the photographic display, visitors can see one of only five camera obscuras in the country. Similar to a periscope, the camera obscura provides a 360% view of surrounding Newtown.

The Geology Museum, Museum Africa, Newtown, JohannesburgThe Geology Museum

The Geology Museum displays South Africa’s fascinating geological heritage, which includes remnants of an ancient continent; one of the oldest and largest meteorite impact craters in the world, important fossils; the largest deposit of gold worldwide and a replica of the largest diamond ever found.

The Geology Museum has more than 15 000 examples of rocks, gems and minerals from Southern Africa, including many samples from the Tsumeb area of Namibia, the Witwatersrand reefs and the Okiep area, and is one of the best geological collections in South Africa.

Bernberg Museum of Costume and Fashion, Museum Africa, Newtown, JohannesburgBernberg Museum of Fashion

The displays at the Bernberg Museum of Fashion explain why and how clothing has changed and how the fashions of the past influence those of today.


The recently launched Imbali shop at Museum Africa has an exciting range of high quality handmade craft and design products including homeware, textiles and funky jewellery. Imbali is a non-profit organisation involved in art education and craft training.

Admission: Free. Exhibition hours are Tuesday to Sunday from 09h00 to 17h00. The museum is closed on Mondays.

Mary Fitzgerald Square offers central open air parking for Museum Africa and the Market Theatre precinct. Tel: +27(0)11 833-5624: E-mail: Address: 121 Bree Street, Newtown, Johannesburg

More info on the Johannesburg area


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