Book Review Type: 
Battle of the Books

Treasures of the Africana Museum by Anna H Smith, published by Purnell, 1977. 80 pages , measures 11 ins. X  8 ins. This is one of those books, which since the reorganization of Johannesburg cultural life and the move of some but perhaps not all treasures of Johannesburg to Museum Africa in Newtown, has itself become a treasure. Perhaps museum upheavals are a casual by-product of political transformations and like the Rhodes statue at UCT, who really knows what to do with the now neglected and officially unappreciated object d'art of bygone colonial days. This book all embracingly captures the extraordinary richness and depth of the old Africana museum which was housed on the top floors of the Johannesburg City Library.

From the time of the Perry design of the early 1930s, it was an odd expectation that the city library should also be a theatre and several museums wrapped into one. Flo Bird and I and I am sure many other citizens fell in love with Johannesburg as children when we could see a stage coach, Frascati's bar, the mayoral chains, the model of an ocean liner, geological treasures and a grandfather clock all inside the halls of the Library. These treasures inspired dreams.


Book Cover


This book tells the story of the collection and in a series of excellent photographs visually presents medals, silver, furniture, ceramics, glass, old public transport, Johannesburg history, rock art and ethnography and much more besides. A city ought to have a sense of its past in a fine city museum  (there are many good examples around the world) and Museum Africa and the Transport museum are promising successors but are too neglected, unvisited and short of resources. The Bernberg Costume collection seems to have disappeared. Avoid a nostalgia for past times but enjoy this book to recall what Johannesburg museum people thought important to acquire and collect forty and more years ago. Also use the book as a quirky guide to tour Museum Africa to see what has survived, how it is displayed and how these treasures are now interpreted.  The endpapers show a  beautiful sepia photograph of the Johannesburg City Library and the forecourt garden fountains.


Munro Stars:  ****


Pictorial History of Johannesburg, compiled and Edited by Anna H Smith, City of Johannesburg Africana Museum, Frank Connock Publication no 3, published by Juta and co for the Africana Museum, Johannesburg 1956, 128 pages, measures 10ins x 13 ins. This large format, handsome album comprising, 400 black and white photographs was published as a celebratory volume for the city's 70th birthday. The front cover reproduces the 1939 Johannesburg crest and supporters with the full coat of arms replete with wax seals, azure ribbons and  fine calligraphy, while the back cover shows the original 1907 coat of arms by the British college of Heralds. Johannesburg acquired a completely new coat of arms in 2008 so both the earlier coats of arms are deep history, but go back In  Time to discover that by 1907 the transient mining town was well on its way to becoming a permanent city.


Book Cover


This large scale handsome book marks that transition from mining camp to enduring cosmopolitan city. The story is told in photographs of city fore bearers, buildings, sporting events, and memorable occasions with informative captions. Organized chronologically, it is still the sort of volume to page through for pleasure.  It is a good source for early Johannesburg photographs. There are three particularly fine aerial shots of down town Johannesburg in the 1950's. Best of all is the large reproduction sketch map of the Rand in 1886 measuring 150 Cms x 54 Cms, a facsimile of the John Hunter McLea sketch. It was a wonderful gift to the city and in turn the lucky owners of a copy of the 1956 pictorial history.


Munro Stars:  *****


Both these books are a must for a Johannesburg book collection and both exude civic pride in the town's mining origins, short history and rich treasures.  If it were a choice I would pick the Pictorial History because of the heraldic splendour of the covers and the remarkable series of photographs - they were sourced from the collection of the Africana museum and many were reproduced for the first time.


Munro Stars

***** A superb book , top reference source, recommended to the highest degree and has influenced me in some significant way.

**** A very good book, a worthy reference or an excellent read

*** Good effort and contains much of interest... the expected norm for a book

** Some merit, keeping in the library but not overly impressed

* Awful book not worth keeping

Tuesday, November 10, 2015 - 18:06
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