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Reconciliation Month: Transformation of a Museum



The obelisk of the National Women’s Monument symbolizes “something important and meaningful”. The statues and relief panels are much more expressive than words and is evident of the suffering of women and children during the Anglo-Boer (South African) War. The origin of the War Museum of the Boer Republics adheres closely to the origin and erection of the National Women’s Monument. The suffering and hardship of women and children during the Anglo-Boer (South African) War made such a deep impression on President M.T. Steyn that he decided to pay homage to their remembrance. The Women’s Monument commission was created to assist with the accomplishment of this ideal.


The commission who was tasked with the erection of the Women’s Monument, became known as the National Women’s Monument Commission, and after the unveiling of the Monument, the commission began to receive more and more items connected to the war, from the public. Soon there was a strong desire with the commission to have a building on the same site as the Women’s Monument where small historic memorabilia could be collected, stored, saved and displayed. The funding had to come from their own ranks, as was the case for the Women’s Monument. Mr Gordon Fraser, secretary of the commission, felt so strongly about this that he started raising funds for a building and soon the planning of a suitable building could commence. A special requirement was that the design and style of the building must be in harmony with the Monument by incorporating sandstone and aspects such as the Monument’s ring wall in the building’s design.
The Pretoria architect and designer of the Women’s Monument, Frans Soff, was the obvious choice for designing the building.

On 26 October 1929 Die Volksblad reported that the envisaged museum was another step closer to reality, considering that the Commission had started asking for tenders to erect the building. According to the newspaper, this museum would consist of not only exhibition space, but also have enough storage space for antiques from the Anglo-Boer (South African) War period.

Building operations commenced in January 1930 and it was hoped that it should be completed by the end of July 1931. The Museum would convey the full story of the suffering and hardship of the burghers on commando and as prisoners of war, and the suffering, pain and grief of the women and children in the concentration camps.

The corner stone of the new building was laid by Senator W.J.C. Brebner, the oldest member of the Commission. Construction of the museum building continued and it was officially known from 4 June 1930 as the War Museum and was completed at the end of July 1931. Attention was then given to the finishing of the interior, preparing the collections for exhibition and constructing the exhibitions.

On 17 September 1931 it was reported that the War Museum would officially be opened by General JBM Hertzog, then Prime Minister of the Union of South Africa, on 30 September 1931.

On that day at 17:00, a large crowd gathered in front of the building to hear General Hertzog say: “Who ever thought that the nation would recover within 29 years after the War and that we can now look to each other in confidence... today the National Women’s Monument stands there as remembrance of times of the past and today we open a building to refresh our remembrance of 1902 for the future”. He referred to General De Wet and President Steyn as the “great men” in the history of the Afrikaner and declared that… “If this museum is primarily of significance to the Afrikaans-speaking South African (to the Boer) it is no expression of hostility or ill-will. It is like that monument, a help in preserving our past and all it means! An inducement to strive for the cause we believe is right”. With these words he officially opened the War Museum.

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Mr Barend (Ben) H. van Rensburg,
1929 – 1968

Mr van Rensburg was appointed as the first director of the War Museum.

The National Women’s Monument Commission made an appeal on 11 August 1930 to the public for donations of objects which had a connection with the Anglo-Boer (South African) War. The response was overwhelming with donations not only received from South Africa, but also from the Netherlands and Germany.

One of the first and largest collections received by the War Museum, consisted of 229 photographs about the Anglo-Boer (South African) War, donated by Dr Otto Krause. This was followed by the Groskamp collection of 375 photographs.

Although the Museum increased in popularity and expanded, by 1952 the building required serious attention, so much so, that it was even reported in the media. As a result, the National Women''s Monument Commission finally handed over its supervision of the Museum to the State on 1 April 1953, after which it operated as an independent Museum with its own governing body (Council) with Uncle Ben (as Mr van Rensburg was known) appointed as the first director of this institution.
The renovation of the Museum would also include the construction of a double-storey wing on the north side. The reason for the addition was that the exhibition space in the Museum became too small, and the lack of space in the Museum itself made it difficult for many visitors to enter at the same time, because it quickly became overcrowded.

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Mr Carel J. Pienaar.
1969 – 1977

Since 1965, Mr Van Rensburg advocated for the addition of a new wing on the east side of the existing building. This ideal was accomplished during Mr Pienaar’s term of office when Adv CR Swart, then a member of the War Museum’s Council, laid the cornerstone of this new wing in May 1977. The building operations were completed the same year. The renovations included not just the addition of an administrative wing, but also a new entrance, an auditorium, a new lawn sprinkler system and a new parking lot.

Ex-President CR Swart laid the corner stone of the new wing on 31 May 1977. He was a member of the Women’s Monument commission and served on the War Museum’s Council.

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Mr Peet Delport
1978 – 1990

During Mr. Delport's term the penultimate structural change to the Museum Building was completed at the end of 1979, when the building's basement was converted into a showroom for the tile tablos from the Netherlands and the construction of the administrative wing. During this period, work also began on beautifying the grounds and even converting it as an extension of the museum. Outdoor exhibits such as the zinc block house, train and military equipment such as guns and carriages were obtained and placed on display. Other projects that followed were the three monuments by Danie de Jager, in the 1980s.

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Colonel Frik Jacobs
1991 – 2008.

With the 100th anniversary of the Anglo-Boer (South African) War in 1999, the War Museum once again took the lead in various projects, despite a changing political situation, funds and changing views on the war and role players. In the run-up to the 100th anniversary of the war in 1999, new exhibitions were created for the Botha Hall.

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Mr L.J. Pretorius
2009 -

A new decade of progress and transformation.

“The vision of the War Museum is to be an institution of excellence through which the inclusivity and suffering of the entire population during the Anglo-Boer (South African) War is portrayed, to convey the message that negotiation is always preferable to war.”

In June 2009 Tokkie Pretorius took over as Fifth Director of the War Museum from Colonel Frik Jacobs, who retired in 2008. In 2010 a new Sol Plaaje Hall was established in the Museum, to showcase and focus on the involvement of Black South Africans in the War, including the Agterryers, who fought with the Boers, the Black Soldiers who fought with the British and the black women and children who suffered in the black concentration camps.

In 2013 the Agterryer statue was added to the statue group of the Museum. With adding this statue, a long-time goal was realised by being able to bring tribute to the Agterryers, who bravely fought alongside the Boers during the war. In 2014 Tokkie Pretorius received the Chancellor’s Medal of the University of the Free State for the responsible transformation of the War Museum.

In 2015 a new modern Sol Plaatje Hall was constructed, giving the Museum the opportunity to also add the Lord Roberts Hall to the Museum. The Lord Roberts Hall showcased the British involvement in the war. With the new Sol Plaatje and Lord Roberts Halls, the Museum was able to showcase all the role players who participated in the war, and also show the universal suffering that was experienced by all South Africans during the war.

The Garden of Remembrance was opened in 2015 by the Minister of Sport, Arts and Culture, Mr Nathi'' Mthethwa, where the names of black and white women and children who died can be found on the walls of the monument, showing the universal suffering of the women and children of South Africa during the war.

In 2019, the Paardeberg Museum was moved from its original location near the battlefield to the grounds of the War Museum, because of vandalism at the original site. A new exhibition was created to show the battle in which about 4000 burghers were taken prisoner of war. Also, in the same year, the statue of President M.T. Steyn was moved from the University of the Free State campus to the grounds of the Museum, where the statue was placed into historical context and adds to the historiography of the Museum.

In 2020, to commemorate the children who experienced the terrible war, a Children’s Labyrinth was created with quotes of children describing their experiences during the war.

With COVID 19, the Museum also became aware of the need for an effective museum service through new dynamics in the field of technology. For this reason, the Museum''s data system was expanded. This has enabled the Museum to provide an effective service at all levels, in the midst of COVID 19 and the associated constraints brought about by the pandemic. The Museum added their Online Exhibition feature to their website and could therefore still supply the public with interesting information about the war, in the comfort of their homes, until they could visit the Museum again.

The Museum has experienced many ups and downs in its 90 years, but because of dedicated Directors and Staff members, the Museum strived to be the best it could be. The War Museum is dedicated to keep the memory of the War alive, by showcasing and focussing on the tragedy of the war and educating all who visit the Museum on the universal pain and suffering that all South Africans experienced during this dreadful time in our history.

Here is to another successful 90 years for the War Museum.
Soli Deo gloria.

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Posted: 2021/10/27 (14:08:18)

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