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Text and photographs Ron Swilling
Treasure troves often go unnoticed. It is easy to bypass the museums of a country while exploring and travelling, but if you find yourself in the capital city Windhoek with a few hours to spare, pay a visit to these fascinating museums.
Museums are often jam-packed with information, enabling a more enriching understanding of a place and its people. Namibia, a geological destination of note, has a rich fossil history. It also has a rich ethnic diversity, with each group having specific rituals and customs, from matriarchal lineages to intriguing hairdos. In Windhoek’s museums, you can wander through hundreds of years of Earth history, walk past dinosaurs and pay a visit to Nama traditional houses and Herero homesteads – all free of charge and a hop and skip away from the city centre.
1. National Earth Sciences Museum
A fantasia of fossils and fossil history, the Geological Survey Museum is hidden away at the Ministry of Mines and Energy in Aviation Road, just past the Safari Court Hotel. It is a must-do for anyone with a geological bent and interest in the natural world, mineral specimens or the history of the planet.
Diamonds and dinosaurs
Encompassing a long Earth history with geological specimens dating as far back as 750 million years, all marked and well displayed, this geological museum is a gem. A dinosaur trackway leading to a model of a Massospondylus that lived 200 million years ago, discovered in the Etjo Sandstone Formation in the Waterberg Plateau Park, takes centre stage with a fossilised skeleton from the Triassic period of an Erythrosuchus or thecodont, a group of reptiles that gave rise to crocodiles and dinosaurs.
A Namdeb Diamond display and information of mining sites around Namibia fill the other half of the exhibition hall. Intriguing exhibits include artefacts with geological origins found in the kitchen and bathroom, ranging from salt to stainless steel; Gibeon meteorites from the most extensive meteorite shower on Earth; and a treasure trove of sparkling mineral specimens. This area is a ‘wow’ of a museum to astonish, excite and inspire.
Baboons, elephants, dung beetles and eggshells
Surrounding the dinosaur displays in the museum are fascinating fossil exhibits set against paintings by Christine Marais, serving as stylish, colourful and descriptive backdrops lining the walls. The fossils range from ancient stromatolites to an extinct baboon skull dating back two million years with everything in between and all things extraordinary. It is a display to dazzle, with primitive teeth of the gomphothere, an ancestor of the elephant, to fossils of dung beetle balls and eggshell relics found at Etosha Pan left by an ancestor to the ostrich. Interestingly, many of the fossils are from a wetter environment when sea extended over southern Namibia. Fossil remains dating from 16 million years ago also give important clues regarding the age of the Namib, establishing it as one of the oldest deserts in the world.
Open: only on request. Tel: 298 2186.
2. Owela Museum
Namibia’s two national museums, the Owela museum and the Alte Feste, situated in Robert Mugabe Avenue, offer insight into an entirely different, yet equally interesting aspect of the country. They are a celebration of culture, providing information about Namibia’s captivating ethnic groups, members of whom visitors meet along their way, filling in many of the gaps of a journey.
The Owela Museum’s name comes from the popular owela game played extensively in Africa. Although called by different names, groups of people are often found sitting outside playing the game on the large carved stone ‘board’. The museum is also more formally known as the National Museum of Namibia. While one section of the museum contains a wealth of information about the Himba, Herero, Nama and San peoples, the other presents oodles of enlightening facts and figures relevant to the country.
A museum for the history of a people
Typical homesteads and everyday objects on display in the museum balance well with all the information. A mud-and-dung Himba hut and a cattle kraal bordered by thick mopane branches satisfy the eye, while information on ceremonies, jewellery, subsistence and political structure feeds the brain. The Nama display is just as attractive. It features everything from a typical grass hut and tortoise-shell powder box to the story of the Nama people. The San (Bushman) exhibit meanwhile delves deeper into the history and exploitation of these marginalised people, exploring their identity and culture.
For the inquisitive mind
Don’t be deceived by the traditional layout in the second section of the museum. On closer inspection, there is much to absorb that is bound to leave your head spinning. Why is Namibia the cheetah capital of the world? What do the Himba headdresses symbolise? Why is mahangu the most important crop for the Oshiwambo-speaking people of the north? You’ll find the answers in this section. Read up about the welwitschia plant; the extinct elephant remains dug up at Zoo Park on Independence Avenue, and the history of the ivory trade in Namibia. This section of the museum has many interesting morsels that fit together with the excellent cultural display to create a delicious and generous meal to satisfy a curious appetite.
Open: Mon – Fri: 9.00 – 18.00. Entrance: free. Tel: 2934376.
3. Alte Feste Museum
The building housing the Alte Feste is a museum in its own right. The Alte Feste crests a hill overlooking the valley and is the old fort built by the German colonial Schutztruppe in the early 1890s as protection for the settlers and accommodation for the troops. The sculpture that used to dominate the front (now moved to the courtyard) was the Equestrian Memorial or Reiter Denkmal commemorating those who lost their lives in the 1904–1907 German-Nama/Herero war. Many of the Alte Feste’s displays in transferred to the new, modern and impressive-looking Independence Museum.
Rock Art galore
The second section of the museum is well worth a visit to learn about Namibia’s rock art –past, present and future. Here you will find an informative display about Namibia’s three rock art sites. Apollo 11 in the Huns Mountains is famous for its 27 000-year-old engraving discovered in 1969 at the time of the moon landing. Not as old, but just as marvellous, are the Twyfelfontein rock engravings, which are a highlight of any visit to Namibia. The Brandberg is known for its relatively newer paintings, including that of the White Lady, which is not white nor a lady, but rather a medicine man bearing a chalice. The spiritual significance of the rock art is explored, providing additional information to those visiting the sites.
Open: Mon – Fri: 9.00 – 18.00, Sat – Sun: 10.00 – 12.00, 14.00 – 18.00 (winter time closing time is 17.00). Entrance: free. Tel: 293 4376.
4. Namibia Independence Memorial Museum
5. TransNamib Railway Museum
For a varied collection of railway bric-a-brac from switchboards to signs and scales, pay a visit to the TransNamib Railway Museum, situated in the quaint old train station on Bahnhof Street. A score of interesting photographs line the walls, including several of the Swakopmund Jetty built in 1904 and maps depicting the routes of the first railways in the country.
Open: 9.00 to 12.00 and 14.00 to 16.00. Tel: 298 2186.
This article was originally published in print edition of the Travel News Namibia Autumn 2013 publication under the title All things Extraordinary.