Travelling heritage in mobile museum: bringing the past to people

By Justine van Heerden and Tim Forssman

Twenty-first century museums are primarily interested in two things: safeguarding cultural heritage and informing, educating and entertaining the public. However, as much knowledge that there is to gain from museums, and heritage that there is to experience at heritage sites, these are not activities that are equally available to all. Numerous museum visitor surveys have determined that the frequent museum visitor, on average, belongs to the upper socio-economic classes of society (Hood 1993). This means that a large portion of the population does not attend museums. There are many reasons to account for this, such as the cost of entrance fees, individuals being located far from museums and heritage sites, and exhibitions that do not accommodate all audiences. In South Africa, this also reinforces inequalities, and further disassociates people from their heritage.

To remedy this, the Hunter-Gatherer Archaeological Research Project, or HARP, designed an interactive, mobile museum. When we meet members of the community, give site tours, or interact with students, the museum travels with us and we use it to help teach people about the past. We are also studying the value of this approach by trying to determine how effective this type of heritage display is at improving access to heritage and how well this educates and informs the public about heritage, archaeological materials, and practices.

Previous Travelling and Mobile Museums

Travelling museums are not new. They became popular in the mid-twentieth century. One of the main goals was to make these exhibits available to people who were unable to visit museums and heritage sites. Many of these travelling museum programmes would visit rural communities as they were usually the ones with limited access to the museums located in cities. They further aimed to educate people in a range of subjects, to correct misconceptions, and to create an enjoyable experience (Diafuku 1963). The travelling exhibits were most commonly transported using a modified trailer, van or bus with the exhibits displayed on the sides of the interior.

Smaller more mobile museums have been regularly used in the past. For example, UNESCO began an initiative in 1962 to build experimental mobile museums that were to be displayed across Africa. These museums were connected to adult educational programs and discussed topics such as agriculture and health (Diafuku 1965). The Namibian Ministry of Education and Culture, along with the Museum Organisation and Volunteer Service Overseas (VSO), began a Mobile Museum Service in 1996 that would serve as an educational and developmental tool. The museum exhibitions were used in schools to improve curriculums and to aid the museums in the country to assist in formal education (Nias & Nias 1996). Botswana had a similar service at the time (the Botswana Mobile Museum and Education Service) that was consulted in order to begin this service in Namibia. This project also trained museum staff in the production of museum exhibits and showed schoolteachers how to use these exhibits in their curriculums (Nias & Nias 1996).

The HARP Travelling Museum

The aims of HARP’s travelling museum are threefold. It intends to make it easier for members of the public to access heritage and to see archaeological artefacts. It also aims to create an experience where people are allowed to interact, touch and hold the artefacts in the museum displays to get a sense of what these things feel like. The interactive component of the museum makes it possible for people who are, for example, visually impaired to experience heritage. Lastly, the museum strives to teach people about archaeology, the methods and theories used, and, more specifically, forager groups in the Mapungubwe area, a topic that has been largely neglected.

Our travelling museum consists of a basic frame with five drawers, each containing artefacts from different time periods. The order of the drawers replicates stratigraphy, which states that the oldest layer of deposit is at the bottom and those above it are young. In our museum, the lowest drawer contains the oldest artefacts and the ones above are progressively younger. The sides of the drawers have also been painted different colours to illustrate what the different strata in the walls of an excavation in an archaeological site might look like. At the bottom is the Earlier and Middle Stone Age display, which contains a few examples of stone tools that were prominent during those periods. The artefacts in the Later Stone Age display above it contains typical examples of stone tools found during this time, as well as organic material like bones and teeth. The next drawer has a rock art display, which Justine painted onto a rock slab, of four fat-tailed sheep from northern South Africa. We chose this image because it has multiple interpretations mostly linked to social contact between different groups, which is HARP’s main study theme. The Iron Age display follows and contains artefacts such as ceramics, beads, metal slag, and a decorated piece of an old grain storage bin. The artefacts in the top drawer are from a modern experiment carried out by Dr Nicole Sherwood. The display illustrates the different stages of stone tool production as well as how artefacts like formal stone tools and arrowheads were hafted and used. The presentation of this display also includes a demonstration of how bone pressure flaking was used to make stone tools.


The aim of the museum is to enhance and invigorate our project’s community outreach work and improve people’s relationship with heritage and our national past. Museums are not spaces that are easily accessed by all, and so the mobile aspect of our initiative tries to remedy this by bringing heritage to people instead of the other way around. The museum also lifts the glass from the traditional museum display cases to allows people to experience the past in a way they may not have done previously. This type of museum makes heritage more inclusive for all and it closes the gap between people and their pasts.

You can find the article in the March issue of Pretoria Historia.


Daifuku, H. 1963. Exhibitions in the Technically Underdeveloped Countries. Museums and Monuments X. Temporary and travelling exhibitions. Dusseldorf: UNESCO.

Daifuku, H. 1965. An experimental mobile museum for Tropical Africa. Museum International 18: 126-129.

Hood, M. 1993. After 70 Years of Audience Research, What Have We Learned? Who Comes to Museums, Who Does Not, and Why?. In: Thompson, D. et al. (eds) Visitor Studies: Theory, Research, and Practice: 16-27. Jacksonville: Visitors Studies Association.

Nias, C. & Nias, P. 1996. Nambia’s Mobile Museum Service. Museum International 48: 45-48.

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