Highlighting our South African Collection

Highlighting our South African Collection

Working in the International History Collection, Courtney Powell is the Victoria University of Wellington Summer Scholar for 2021 exploring object histories from South Africa. Here, Courtney introduces the project, with more updates to come.

The first South African objects to enter Te Papa’s collections were donations to the then Colonial Museum in 1900 and the collection has continued to grow through the 20th and 21st centuries to the present day. When searching on Collections Online for items relating to South Africa, there are 851 results for objects and 342 natural history specimens. This number is certainly significant and perhaps unexpected of a museum that is located so far away from the place of origin.

When first thinking about the collection, several questions come to mind: why does our national museum hold so many of these objects? When and how did they come into our care? Who was involved ­– in their creation, usage, care, exchange? What is their significance to Aotearoa New Zealand today?

A woman wearing blue gloves handles museum objects
The author with a selection of items from the South African Collection, 2022. Photo by Maarten Holl. Te Papa

Transnational connections

Te Papa’s collection of South African objects, part of the museum’s International History Collection, are relatively unknown and have largely been overlooked. However, there are many connections linking New Zealand and South Africa that reveal the importance of such a collection.

Connections between South Africa and Aotearoa New Zealand have occurred across their histories through politics, sports, culture, and war. Linkages include their status as colonies part of the British Empire (Cape Colony), both at separate times administered by Governor Sir George Grey (1812–1898). Troops from Aotearoa New Zealand volunteered to fight in the South African War (Second Boer War, 1899–1902). Both places continue to be key sporting opponents, and debates on Apartheid and playing South African teams were highly divisive across Aotearoa New Zealand from 1921–1980s.

A map opened on a table, being held in place by someone wearing blue gloves
Map, ‘Special Map of North-West, Cape Colony. Showing the Rebel Area.’, 1890s, South Africa. Published by Wood & Ortlepp. Gift of Mr PC Ryan, 1962. Te Papa (GH002169/1). Photo by Maarten Holl. Te Papa

Currently, Aotearoa New Zealand hosts a thriving South African diaspora with the 2018 census showing 46,392 respondents identifying with South African heritage. The majority of the respondents were born outside of Aotearoa New Zealand. New linkages are being made between contemporary South Africa and Aotearoa New Zealand.

The South African Collection

This research project will highlight the connections between Aotearoa New Zealand and South Africa through the items that we hold. So far, this work has included scouring the museum’s archives and databases to better understand the objects, how and why they’re here, and what that can mean for understanding not just Te Papa’s past, but its present.

The objects in the collection range from arrows, assegais (spears), axes, and shields; wooden and glass beaded bracelets, aprons, armbands; smoking pipes and snuffboxes; coins and letters. Then there is also the numerous specimens of South African flora and fauna from across KwaZulu-Natal, Johannesburg, Cape Recife, and the Eerste River housed in the Natural History Collection.

A numbers of shields being stored in the Te Papa History store
A selection of items in the South African Collection, 2022. Photo by Maarten Holl. Te Papa

The project so far

Te Papa’s predecessor was established in 1865 as the Colonial Museum. Since then it has gone through several evolutions: as the Dominion Museum in 1907, then the National Museum in 1972, to Te Papa in 1998, and records and information have undergone changes along with it. This meant the project has included a lot more record cleaning than expected. The transition from using physical records, now resting in the Tory Street archives, to modern digital systems has caused fragmented documentation at times.

There were many mysteries to unravel, with missing accession numbers, objects attributed to the wrong donor, and lost locations that made certain artefacts very hard to find and trace. The collection managers have been an immense help in assisting access to documentation. Though challenging, centralising the fragmented documentation has been important and I’m excited to share my findings with you.

Future posts in this series will highlight several significant South African objects in the collection and their donors. This will cover a range of time, from early objects to more recently collected items, those bought through purchases, at auction, and those donated to the museum. By drawing attention to the collection, the hope is that more knowledge and understanding can be shared about the context and cultures associated with these pieces.


  1. Thanks, I’m looking forward to the next blog.

  2. Several of my Ancestors were living at the Cape Colony before migrating to New Zealand ,along with Approx. 360 others .I wonder if any of those objects were taken to NZ with my Ancestors? It’s not the only connection our family has with South Africa, a cousin Founded the SACP,which morphed into the ANC over time.

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