A lost and found museum in Bloemfontein

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A Bloemfontein museum’s collection is so interesting there’s now a book about it.

The past is another country, they say. Yet for many South Africans, the Anglo-Boer War (1899–1902) is still woven into family stories. A new book reminds us of the real people caught up in the conflict, by picturing some of the things they left behind.

The book showcased at the War Museum of the Boers Republic in Bloemfontein.

Bloemfontein’s long-standing War Museum of the Boer Republics has over 50000 objects in its archives and collections – but not all are on display. This book zones in on 100 of the most remarkable, and describes over 200 more for depth.

Some are wonderfully unexpected, like the carved cedar wood bugle made by a prisoner-of-war in Bermuda, or the rather stylish braai grill used by Lord Kitchener in the field. Kitchener was likely better fed than most – there is also a century-old army or ‘dog’ biscuit that a soldier gave up eating and used to write the names of his companions on instead.

Bloemfontein Anglo Boer War

These are some of the beautiful brooches carved out of bone, horn or wood, sent by POWs to loved ones. Photograph supplied.

There is a heart-breaking dress and bonnet, punctured by the stray bullet that killed the three-year-old boy wearing them (boys under three were often dressed as girls in the Victorian era – even young Boers). And some beautiful brooches carved out of bone, horn or wood, sent by POWs to loved ones. Sometimes a stern, bearded photo of the soldier was included in a frame.

There are objects more to war historians’ tastes, like the ingenious ‘train wrecker’: a stack of dynamite and a rifle bolt containing a round. The train’s weight would depress the trigger and fire the bullet into the dynamite.

But it’s the poignant possessions and battered keepsakes that remind you that behind the battles and lists of war, individuals lived and struggled and died. Like one HJR van Niekerk, whose artfully fashioned waistcoat was modified to hold bullets. The book is a fascinating document that does much to highlight the museum’s goal of promoting negotiation over conflict, always.

Read it

The Anglo-Boer War in 100 Objects by Jonathan Ball
Cost: R340

Visit

The museum is open 8:00 – 16.30 (Saturdays 10:00 – 17:00, Sundays from 11:00). Entry R10 per person. Monument Road, Oranjesig, Bloemfontein.

 

This review first appeared our bucket list January 2017 issue of Getaway magazine.

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