SA Naval Museum turns 30

The former and current curator and staff of the SA Naval Museum in Simon’s Town celebrated the museum’s 30th anniversary.

The South African Naval Museum in Simon’s Town celebrated its 30th anniversary on Saturday, April 1.

The former curator, current curator and staff gathered at the museum on Thursday March 30 to mark the milestone.

The curator, Commander Lean Steyn, said a new “30 years” logo was unveiled and it adorned the birthday cake and 30 cupcakes.

The museum’s first curator, Commander Mac Bisset, who is regarded as the “father of the museum”, congratulated Commander Steyn and his staff on the achievement and wished them well for the future.

Commander Steyn said the museum’s origins date back to 1966 when a naval historical collection was displayed at the Castle of Good Hope in Cape Town.

In the mid-1970s, he said, the collection was moved to the Martello Tower in Simon’s Town and thereafter, Fort Wynyard, where it was enlarged to include a much wider display of naval-associated artefacts.

In 1988, investigation into the establishment of a museum for the SA Navy was launched and the project, dubbed Oubos, was registered at navy headquarters.

Commander Steyn said it was eventually decided that the most appropriate location for the new museum would be the former Royal Navy Mast House, which dates back to 1815, and the adjacent Dutch Store House, which dates back to 1743.

Both buildings are located in the historic West Yard of the Simon’s Town naval base.

On April 1, 1993 the new SA Naval Museum was opened by Chief of the South African Navy Vice Admiral Robert Simpson-Anderson.

The first phase of the new display comprised exhibitions of the historic clock tower and part of the sail loft while the second phase included using two ground-floor display areas and displays dealing with the history and functioning of the submarine, divers, and the weapons branch.

Commander Steyn said the navy had been involved in converting the building into a museum.

More recent additions to the museum display, he said, included the addition of a Westland Wasp maritime helicopter and the Leyland Cub fire tender.

“The new Mac Bisset Display Hall situated in the Dutch Store House now houses the transformation display, the Arctic-convoy display, the updated chiefs-of-the-navy display, and the 100-years-of-naval-forces display, and a popular feature of the living museum concept is the occasional firings of the museum’s rifled muzzle-loader cannon at Middle North Battery,” Commander Steyn said.

In November 2003, the navy decommissioned the last of its three Daphne Class submarines, the SAS Assegaai, in preparation for the introduction of the new Type 209 submarines.

A submission was made to the chief of the navy and the naval board to preserve the SAS Assegaai as an exhibit at the SA Naval Museum.

Approval was given and in December 2010 the submarine (still in the water) was opened to the public on a trial basis until 2015.

In May last year, a memorandum of agreement was signed between the navy and the Naval Heritage Trust, which will see the relocation of the submarine ashore to an area near Cole Point and the eventual reopening to the public in 2024, (“Plan to revive Simon’s Town sub museum,” Echo, December 1, 2022).

The museum gun and tower. Picture: Norman Larsen