New life for an old treasure: the Observatory Museum is open for business again!
Colourful outfits, music and dancing marked a street parade and ribbon-cutting ceremony outside the Observatory Museum in Bathurst Street to mark its official re-opening on Friday 6 September. Five local learners made their schools proud and were awarded prizes ranging from laptops to school bags for an essay on the Eastern Frontier War, focusing on the San.
The Museum was closed last year while the Department of Public Works undertook extensive renovations to the structure, built in 1850. A popular tourist attraction, its origins as a Victorian family house cum workplace for Henry Carter Galpin mean it contains displays from the original jewellers shop, clock maker’s workshop, optics laboratory and astronomical observatory. It was the site of the identification of the first diamond in South Africa, the ‘Eureka’, in 1867.
The Observatory Museum is also the site of the first and oldest camera obscura in the southern hemisphere, built in 1882, and includes an unusual Meridian Room. There, Galpin calculated that Makhanda is 14 minutes behind Durban time, the standard for South Africa. The Museum houses valuable collections of optical instruments, optical toys and games, clocks, and watches, Victorian artefacts, paintings, décor, crockery, kitchen utensils, clothing, toys, bicycles and tricycles, and important dioramas of Victorian life. This museum is used for History tours and Science lessons.
Opening events included a talk by Curator Emeritus of History at Albany Museum, Fleur Way-Jones, on ‘The life and times of Galpin: the significance of the Observatory Museum today’ in the Diamond Room. She related the fascinating history of the building and the family that lived there. Re-telling the story of Henry C. Carter Galpin, the inventor, astronomer, meteorologist and businessman, Fleur described how the family lived at Number 10 Bathurst Street, and grew with the birth of seven sons. The family had a business that was called ‘HC Galpin Watchmaker and Jeweller.” Galpin’s descendants from Kenton-on-Sea attemded the talk.
The building was restored by De Beers in 1982 but parts of it were in a bad state of repair and needed attention. In 2017 the Department of Public Works stepped in. The restoration project focused on a complete restoration of the building in its entirety including the roof, fencing, floors and the walls.
Graeme College Grade 10 learner Wothando Funani was the winner of the history essay competition. Learners were required to focus on the San in the Eastern Frontier War, choosing any 10 to 20 years between 1812 and 1879. Essay writers were required to discuss whether the contact was peaceful and or beneficial to both groups of choice, looking at the cultural exchange in language, economy and religion.
Runner up was Ntsika Secondary School’s Aqhamile Yose and third was Athandiwe Ndayi, from Nombulelo Secondary School. Athandiwe also delivered an inspiring explanation of the colours on the South African flag. Learner Support Agent Benetashia Jodwana collected the fourth and fifth prizes on behalf of Mary Waters learners Charlotte Helme (4th) and Megan Manza (5th).
The Sarah Baartman District office of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture gave the winners prizes as follows: first prize (laptop and printer), second prize (laptop and external hard drive, third prize (notepad with keyboard), fourth prize (tablet), fifth prize (Oxford Dictionary and school bag).
The Clock Tower is now working. According to Dutch Reformed Church Minister Strauss de Jager, this is thanks to Corrie Botha. Approached because the Church had for a period housed the Galpin clock, De Jager put the Museum in touch with Botha.
“I saw the clock keeping time recently and spoke to Corrie again,” Strauss told Grocott’s Mail. “He confirmed that he worked on it and had to do some minor repairs on the clock face mechanisms.”
Back in the days, locals would set their watched by the time on the Galpin’s clock tower. Only one of its kind, it has gone through various stages. The first one was built by Galpin, the second one Galpin bought from England, and it is miniature version of the High Court of Justice in London.
Heritage Day is 24 September and as part of the build-up, the Albany Museum decided to focus on the Observatory Museum story. Observatory Museum is the prime tourist attraction in the Eastern Cape. It is open weekdays from 9am to 6.30pm.