EL Museum celebrates 96th anniversary

Last week saw the East London Museum celebrate its 96th birthday on Saturday.

The museum has been a core part of the city’s identity since its inception.

Its story began on July 19 1921, when then-mayor Captain J Neale and deputy mayor Dr James Bruce-Bays met with a group of other interested residents and first suggested organising their own Museum Society.

On November 28 1924, the society’s premises in Oxford Street were officially recognised as a provincial museum. These days, the location is home to X L Bazaars.

The museum would change locations multiple times throughout the years. The first move came in 1926, to 9 Gladstone Street. Four years later it moved again, down the road to 15 Gladstone Street.

A fundraising campaign was then organised as well as a £4,000 loan from the provincial government (roughly R5.5m in today’s money) which allowed it to move to a newly constructed venue next to the East London Technical College, which would later become Stirling High School.

Eventually, the museum found that their venue was too small to accommodate their growing collection and so the building was sold to the EL Technical College and their current building on Oxford Street, next to Selborne College and the future EL Guild Theatre (which would open 12 years later), was constructed.

It was officially opened on November 25 1950 by administrator of the Cape JG Carinus.

Of course, the most famous story to come from the museum was the discovery of the coelacanth in 1938.

The GO! & Express covered the tale in February this year in celebration of the late Majorie Courtenay-Latimer’s 113th birthday (“Rembembering Courtenay-Latimer, an East London icon”, February 27).

On December 22, 1938, Courtenay-Latimer received a call from her friend Captain Hendrik Goosen who reported that he’d found a strange -looking fish in his latest catch in the Chalumna River mouth.

The former museum curator couldn’t identify the fish at first so she had it transported back to the museum while she pored over her resource books.

This was no help and so Courtenay-Latimer had the fish preserved while she called on senior chemistry lecturer at Rhodes University Dr JLB Smith for assistance.

Smith was finally able to identify the creature as a coelacantch, a species that was thought to have been long extinct. It was formally named Latimeria chalumnae in honour of its discoverer and the rest, as they say, is history.

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