October is Transport Month in South Africa. The James Hall Museum of Transport in Johannesburg preserves and collects the country’s transport heritage. Here, from schoolchildren to motor enthusiasts, from tourists to ordinary citizens, everyone will find something to catch their eye.
The James Hall Museum of Transport houses South Africa’s opulent past in land transport. It contains vehicles from the 1600s to the present day. (Image: Priya Pitamber)
The further you walk into the James Hall Museum of Transport, the stronger the scent of petrol. This is because some of the motor vehicles still work and have petrol in their tanks.
The collections, says assistant museum curator Mandla Nkomo, start from the 1600s. “At the Transport Museum, we collect, preserve, and exhibit land transport and related items.” One of the newest additions to the museum is a dual electric car, made in South Africa in 2010.
Think every mode of land transport from carts to carriages, cycles to cars. Among the exhibitions are the old trams which operated in Johannesburg’s city centre, trains, buses, a mobile library, and fire engines.
Found in Rosettenville in the south of Johannesburg, the museum was established by James Hall, a city councillor in the 1960s. “He was an avid conservationist of items around heritage, including natural resources,” says Nkomo. “He approached the city and together, came to an understanding to open the museum.” That happened in 1964.
The soft-spoken Mandla Nkomo is the assistant museum curator at the James Hall Museum of Transport. (Image: Priya Pitamber)
Reasons to visit
Nkomo says the museum holds a lot of South Africa’s transport related heritage. “So people should come and see their heritage.
“People should visit to see how people lived and how they travelled.”
And of course, there is a lot to learn. “For example,” says Nkomo, “The first car came to South Africa in 1896.”
It was a Benz Velo and it was also exhibited in Pretoria for the then president, Paul Kruger. “The car was privately owned. At the time, everyone was riding wagons and horses.” Today, Benz Velo is known as Mercedes Benz.
Transport is integral
Nkomo says transport is important because it underlies every area of development in South Africa, and it helps to move resources around.
“Imagine the 1800s when gold was discovered in Johannesburg,” he says. “Those guys got here from overseas – they used steam ships, they got on an ox wagon and it took months to get from the Cape or KwaZulu-Natal to Johannesburg
“Imagine, that immigration wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for transport.”
He commended the improvements to the public transport system in the city, with the additions of the Gautrain and the Rea Vaya, Johannesburg’s Bus Rapid Transit system.
But he notices challenges still exist. “There is a decentralised plan of the cities. People don’t live where they work and have to travel long distances. More resources should be pumped into the system.”
Many of the vehicles in the museum are running, he adds. “There is pleasure in seeing the cars working.”
He envisions the museum becoming more interactive through these operational vehicles. Visitors may eventually be able to accompany museum staff when they safely drive the vehicles in a demarcated area, off the city’s streets.
“We want it to be a living museum so people can experience their heritage.”
What you need to know
The museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday, 9am to 5pm. Entrance is free, but donations are welcome. Booking is needed for school tours, clubs, and so on. See the website for more.
The museum is also one of the stops on the Johannesburg Sightseeing Red Tour Bus.
“The Transport Museum always appreciates help from anyone who has knowledge about cars,” says Nkomo. “You can come over and volunteer and help out.”
See images from the museum below:
(Images: Priya Pitamber)