An Educational Expedition

You might have hated history class in school, but Bloemfontein’s wonderful museums will delight inquisitive minds


Bloemfontein is a curious place, where you get smalltown hospitality in a rapidly expanding city. The judicial capital of South Africa has been a major player in the shaping of our country’s history and the many museums dotted in and around town pay tribute to the creation of the stories of our past.

The National Museum in Aliwal Street, focuses on natural history, cultural history and art. The collections date back to 1877 and the displays are comprised of rarities from around the world. The African Cultures and Archaeology exhibits are not only interesting and informative, but expertly curated. A favourite among visitors is the historical street scene depicting life in the early 20th Century, and kids enjoy the live displays showcasing, among other things, boa constrictors, a terrapin, platannas, and two live cockroach displays. Be prepared to spend a few hours here, as you’ll find something unusual and interesting in every exhibit.

If you’re interested in language development, take a stroll along President Brand Street, also known as Bloemfontein’s historical mile, where you’ll find classic sandstone buildings lining the streets. Walk in the footsteps of many a dignitary until you reach the 3rd Raadsaal, home to The National Afrikaans Literary Museum and Research Centre (NALN). It is located in the beautiful Old Free State Government Building and includes an estimated three-quarters of a million items in their archive of material and information on the history, development and scope of literature, music and drama in the Afrikaans language. You can also view furniture and other effects of writers and literary personalities. In front of the building, you’ll find the historic tree garden where busts of writers, musicians and dramatists have been installed in their shade.

On your visit to President Brand Street, you can also walk past the 4th Raadsaal, which is now home to the Free State Provincial Legislature and the Old Presidency Museum. This museum used to be the main residence for the last three presidents of the Orange Free State and shows off their presidential life and history. It’s a fascinating peep into the opulent Victorian lifestyle they had the privilege to lead between 1886 and 1899. Just a hop, skip and jump away, visit Freshford House Museum at 31 Kellner Street, in the vibey Westdene area of Bloemfontein. This is one of only a few houses of the Edwardian Period that still exist in the city. Designed and built by architect John Edwin Harrison for himself and his wife Kate Caroline, the house displays the opulence of the upper middle class of the time. Completed in 1897, the house, with its symmetrical façade, bay windows, unplastered red brick walls and corrugated iron roof is a typical example of the Bloemfontein residences of the period. The National Museum acquired the property in 1982 and it was opened as a museum in 1986.

Further learning

Spend a morning visiting the Anglo-Boer War Museum and National Women’s Memorial. The War Museum houses the largest Anglo Boer War collection in the world and provides visitors with an insight into the course and development of the war. They have approximately 35,000 historical and cultural heritage items and the seven display halls, as well as the outside exhibitions, provide the visitor with an overview of the background, impact and suffering caused by the Anglo-Boer War.

Close by, The National Women’s Memorial standstowering into the skies. President MT Steyn felt strongly that a memorial dedicated to the women and children who suffered during the war had to be erected. It was decided that “the time has come to erect a monument on South African soil to the glorious memory of the mothers, women and children, who, during the recent war, passed away, or had otherwise suffered bitterly, either in the concentration camps or outside”. Designed by architect Frans Soff and sculpted by Anton van Wouw, it was unveiled on 16 December 1913. The memorial consists of an obelisk of about 35m in height and low, semi-circular walls on both sides. The central bronze, sketched by Emily Hobhouse, depicts two women mourning a dying child in the Springfontein concentration camp.

If you’re a military buff, four other museums worth visiting are the First Raadsaal Museum, Wagon Museum, the South African Armour Museum and the Queen’s Fort Military Museum. The First Raadsaal Museum is housed in the oldest remaining building in Bloemfontein. The history of the establishment of the Free State is depicted here. On the same grounds, you’ll find the Wagon Museum, where a collection of historical wagons and carriages will delight young and old. At the South African Armour Museum, you’ll find an indoor and outdoor display of armoured fighting vehicles, a vehicle hangar with several restored vehicles, a National Monument housing The Wall of Remembrance, a research library and The Gun Barrel gift shop with fabulous finds to take home. In Church Street, you’ll find the Queen’s Fort Military Museum, where exhibitions depict all the military conflicts that raged in the Free State from 1820 to present day. It was once used as a military hospital, military headquarters and a jail. On the outside of the museum they display armoured vehicles, cannons and an Impala fighter jet.

After a morning of intense history, head to Oliewenhuis Art Museum for a late lunch and a stroll around the permanent art exhibition, as well as the roving exhibitions on the ground floor. This Neo-Dutch style mansion located on Grant’s Hill, served as residence for the Governor General of the Union of South Africa from 1942. After the establishment of the Republic of South Africa in 1961, Oliewenhuis became the official residence for the State Presidents of South Africa during official visits to Bloemfontein. The gardens of this interesting museum have a colourful African carousel, outside art installations and short walking trails. Oliewenhuis has something for every member of the family and you’ll leave with full tummies, creative inspiration and a mandate to return to Bloemfontein soon.

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