The South African National Museum of Military History, situated in Johannesburg in the Province of Gauteng, is the only museum of its kind in South Africa. It provides a nucleus of Museum and military history expertise in southern Africa.
During the First World War (1914 - 1918) many of the belligerent nations went to great lengths to collect and preserve the role of their soldiers during that conflict. At the conclusion of the war, Britain established by statute the Imperial War Museum as a memorial to the effort and sacrifice made by the men and women of the Empire during the war. South Africa had played a role during that war on the side of the Allies. However, the state neglected to preserve a record of this role in the form of a museum and, unfortunately, much of the material heritage relating to this period was dispersed.
This failure was recognized because in 1940, shortly after South Africa's entry in to the Second World War (1939 - 1945) Capt J Agar-Hamilton was appointed official historian of the Union Defence Forces. Capt Agar-Hamilton then formed an Historical Research Committee to ensure the preservation of documents and materials of military interest, therefore laying the foundation for the eventual establishment of a museum. The state also took the decision to create an official war art programme and, throughout the war, seven official war artists were appointed to the battlefronts where South Africans served. Together they produced a collection of around 850 works of art which also serve as an important source of reference to the country's role in the war.
The new museum, which became known as the South African National War Museum, was officially opened by the then Prime Minister of South Africa, Field Marshal J C Smuts on 29 August 1947, 60 years ago. At the opening ceremony, Smuts stated the following:
"...We are gathered here today to open what may not unfairly be looked upon as a memorial to the greatest united effort our country has ever been called upon to produce. Memorials, of course, have more than one use. They serve to remind us of what is past, of great deeds of heroism and sacrifice; they also serve as a pointer, and sometimes as a warning to the future.
It is in these senses that the South African War Museum may be regarded as a Memorial. It will remind us, I hope, not only of the part we played in the recent great struggle to save civilization, but also of the horrors, the loss of life and the devastation, and serve as a warning to us to create a world in which we shall never have to use again the weapons of death and destruction we see here today, or those dreadful weapons to follow them..."
He was referring to South Africa's participation in the Second World War and had pinpointed the raison d'etre of the Museum.
In 1975 the Museum's name was changed to the South African National Museum of Military History and its scope was expanded to include the history of all military conflict in which South Africans have played a part. Displays have changed over the years, new buildings have been added and, while preserving the military history of South Africans for generations to come, the Museum also serves as a popular and unusual venue for conferences and other functions.
The Museum is also regarded as the spiritual and a symbolic home for regular and reserve soldiers and veterans in South Africa and throughout the world. A number of veterans organizations view the Museum as their headquarters.
The Museum's collection of more than 44 000 items are divided into 37 separate categories and include the official South African war art (mentioned above) and photograph collections. The aviation collection contains some of the rarest aircraft in the world. For example, the Me 262 B-1a/U1 on display is the only night fighter version of this aircraft still in existence. Other categories cover such diverse fields as ordnance, armoured fighting vehicles, medals, uniforms, small arms, edged weapons, barrack & camping equipment, rations, religion, gifts & comforts, military music, graves & memorials, military insignia, communications, medicine, propaganda and vexillology, to name a few.
The Museum library has a unique collection of books, journals and archival material. Interviews are regularly conducted in the library as part of an ongoing oral history collection project. In this way, it ensures that previously unrecorded experiences of ordinary servicemen and women are preserved for posterity.
All the collections are curated and researched by graduates with many years of accumulated knowledge and expertise. Displays not only reflect historical aspects but also illustrate technological development in warfare. Two historic Bellman Hangars house a variety of thematic displays such as the Anglo-Zulu War, the Anglo-Boer War, South Africa's role in the First and Second World Wars, resistance movements such as Umkhonto-we-Sizwe, medicine in war, the development of combat uniforms and equipment, the development of firearms, resistance to war, and so on.
Some 80 000 visitors attend the Museum each year. The South African National Defence Force sends over thirty groups to the Museum a year and, on average, 162 schools visit the Museum annually. The Museum is responsible for the provision of exhibits and their curation at the Delville Wood Commemorative Museum in France.
The Museum is a component of the Northern Flagship Institution as well as being a member of the South African Museums Association, the International Council of Museums, the International Association of Museums of Arms and Military History, The Ordnance Society and the South African Association for the Conference Industry. The Friends of the SA National Museum of Military History support the Museum in a number of ways while the South African Military History Society is an affiliate of the Museum. A number of other organizations such the South African Arms and Ammunition Collectors Association, the South African Arms and Armour Society, the Johannesburg Branch of the International Plastic Modellers Society and the Warsaw Flights Commemoration Association are also considered stakeholders in the Museum.