Scoping the new Durban Natural Science Museum

You may have visited the Durban Natural Science Museum on the second floor of the Durban City Hall. It contains some of the most beautiful dioramas in the world.

In a filmed interview with Totem Media just before his death, Prof Phillip Tobias recalled how, when he was a young boy of 14, he used to lose himself in the Durban Natural Science Museum. He claimed that its exhibitions inspired him to pursue a career in genetic medicine and palaeontology. This reinforces the potential of a natural science museum to stimulate the imagination of young people.

On the one hand, young people of today have developed an appetite for highly interactive digital media and the sensational special effects of movies. Dioramas struggle to compete with the stimuli that excite, demand the attention and inspire the imagination of young minds. On the other hand, they face economic, social and environmental challenges that dioramas just do not speak to. They need exhibitions that offer meaningful opportunities to reflect on the challenges their communities face.

Time for a change? Durban may be on the verge of experiencing a whole new natural science museum, with a new name and logo designed by Totem.

It is widely accepted that the centre of Durban needs regeneration. A critical part of this is the cultural precinct that is planned for the Centrum site (bounded by Bram Fischer (Ordinance), Soldiers Way and Samora Machel Street (Aliwal Street)). This could include the public library, art gallery, planetarium, public parks, government offices and a new natural science museum.

The Durban Natural Science Museum already boasts a remarkable collection and internationally recognised expertise. The Centrum site offers an opportunity to re-imagine its exhibitions and design a learning experience that can meet the demands of a 21st century audience. 

Prof Tobias

“I just wish that I was a school boy in Durban again faced with the prospect of a magnificent new Durban Natural Science museum.”


Totem was approached by eThekwini municipality and asked to develop a scoping document that would:

  • clarify the core concepts of the museum
  • suggest a guiding educational methodology
  • outline the space requirements for a purpose built, eco-friendly building
  • explore some ideas around the exhibition narrative
  • illustrate the optimum use of interactive technology
  • estimate the exhibition costs
  • begin the discussion on sustainability.

In order to do this effectively Totem had to have a series of conversations with the stakeholders to establish their needs and vision.

All agreed that at the heart of the new Durban Natural Science museum would be its remarkable collections. The design of the museum would need to include spaces for receiving, sorting, fumigating, preserving, storing and studying specimens from the collections. It would also need to give the public a peek into the real treasures of DNSM.

The collections consist of much more than stuffed animals and specimens in jars. The curators and technicians of DNSM have used the remarkable collections of the museum to solve forensic mysteries, deal with rodent-born diseases, alleviate poverty caused by rodent crop damage, predict climate change through the behaviour of birds and help identify maggots that eat dead tissue from living human beings – rather than the ones that eat living tissue. The collections are vital for consultation to conservationists and for creating atlases of species like the Southern Bird Atlas Project. The collection represents what we know about biodiversity.

The stakeholders all agreed that the central theme of the museum was biodiversity – both as a broad theme and a specific concern for the eThekwini municipality. The term biodiversity refers to the variety of natural species and ecosystems that are found in any region. The world has a very serious biodiversity crisis on its hands. Species and ecosystems are being lost due to development, the over-harvesting of natural resources, the introduction of invasive alien species, global warming, etc.
To its credit eThekwini Municipality has made biodiversity a critical part of its Integrated Development Plan. It has been a pioneer in biodiversity planning and management as far as South African cities are concerned – long before biodiversity was embraced by national government. It recognises that its biodiversity is the most important factor in maintaining:

  • an environment that attracts visitors to the area;
  • the wellbeing of all its people;
  • ecosystem goods and services.

The range of ecological goods and services that Durban’s biodiversity provides includes things as diverse as the role of wetlands in preventing floods, the carbon sequestration provided by trees and grasslands, marine stocks for the fishing industry, traditional medicines and ecotourism. The quality and sustainability of these ecosystem goods and services depends on the quality and sustainability of eThekwini’s biodiversity.

South Africa is the third most biodiverse country after Brazil and Indonesia and is the only country in the world with more than one biodiversity hotspot. Durban is located in the middle of one of these hotspots, called the Maputaland-Pondoland-Albany Region. This includes terrestrial ecosystems (like grasslands and forests) and aquatic ecosystems (like rivers, oceans and estuaries). In Durban alone, there are over 2000 plant species, 82 terrestrial mammal species and 380 species of birds. There are also 69 species of reptiles, 25 endemic invertebrates (e.g. butterflies, millipedes and snails) and 37 frog species. However, many of the vegetation types where these species are found are under serious threat.

Councillor Obed Mlaba in ‘Our BioDiverse City’ (2009)

“Durban residents can be proud of the fact that eThekwini Municipality has been a pioneer in biodiversity planning and management since the late 1970’s, and that much of this work predates national legal and policy requirements.”

Along with Cape Town, eThekwini Municipality has participated in the Local Action for Biodiversity (LAB) Project, lead by ICLEI – Local Governments for Sustainability. In 2007, as part of their commitment to LAB, they carried out a biodiversity audit and developed a comprehensive Biodiversity Report.

The eThekwini Municipality’s commitment to biodiversity can also be seen in the commitment it showed to host a ‘carbon neutral’ 2010 FIFA World Cup and the way it is integrating poverty alleviation into its biodiversity strategies.

Ecosystem goods and services are not usually or easily measured in monetary terms, and there is a general failing by many people to understand the value of open space systems in cities. In most instances people who benefit from the natural resource base do so without having to pay for the goods and services that they use. If open space systems are conceptualised as ‘green infrastructure’, containing ecosystems that deliver a service much like a municipal water, road or community health system, then it becomes possible to value the open space system as a city asset in terms of its replacement cost. For example, what would it cost to build a canal to prevent flooding following the destruction of a wetland (i.e. a natural, existing and free flood attenuation asset)?

In 2003, using resource economics, the replacement cost of Durban’s environmental goods and services was valued at R3.1 billion per annum. This is excluding tourism, which counted for a further R3.5 billion per annum.

In KwaZulu-Natal the loss of biodiversity and the impact of climate change has already led to serious consequences like flooding. When wetlands are destroyed in the name of development there is nothing to absorb water during times of heavy rainfall. The loss of trees and vegetation also leads to soil erosion, which contributes further to floods and landslides. Global warming leads to shorter but more intense periods of rainfall, suddenly delivering more water than rivers can carry.

This is just one example of the relationship between human activity and the loss of biodiversity. The new DNSM will ask the question: How do we change our lifestyles to make our planet more sustainable?

As Totem suggested in its scoping document:
“We cannot play on people’s fear and guilt, bullying them into environmentally-friendly choices. We cannot scare people into lowering carbon emissions, recycling, saving endangered species, etc. We need to inspire people with a vision of an environmentally sustainable future that they want to live in. We need to involve them in the process of creating that vision – contributing their ideas of the future they want to live in.”

Totem suggested that the new natural science museum will need a unique identity to carry these important messages in a way that will be embraced by the people of Durban.

The new Durban Natural Science Museum will be:

  • a world-class natural science museum
  • a premier destination for visitors to KwaZulu-Natal
  • an integral part of the learning journeys of all people in and near Durban
  • an inspiration and stimulus for innovative problem solving for communities and their relationship to their environments
  • an internationally recognised centre of excellence for research and science education

Unlike the museums of the past, which focused on representing collections in cabinets and dioramas, the new natural science museum will be a fully immersive interactive experience. This aims to excite people about science as a way of developing a deep understanding of our world and finding stable solutions to the challenges that face us. This is not science as a collection of abstract facts that need to be memorised and regurgitated in an exam. This is science as a worldview – a science that connects us on a daily basis, and in everything we do, to all the living things and dynamic processes of our world. This is science as critical thinking, healthy scepticism and the ability to use evidence to project into possible futures.

The Durban Natural Science Museum already has a long track record in innovative exhibitions and educational programmes. Its team of exhibition designers and educators have a willingness to push the envelope with events like sleepovers dubbed after the popular film Night at the Museum; eating insect delicacies at the KwaNunu Science Festival; creating time capsules that will be opened at the Museum’s Bicentenary; as well as outreach programmes like KwaZuzulwazi in KwaMashu and the Maths, Science & Technology festival in Umlazi.

The DNSM boasts a long and successful history. It now has to adapt to the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century if it is to play a role in helping us all adapt.

Guy Redman

“No matter how old the DNSM becomes it remains young at heart through its staff, yet with all the wisdom and experience of a 120-year old through institutional memory – a virtue we must guard jealously going forward.”

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