The Observatory Museum: Magic, mirrors and mannequins

Most Grahamstown locals will recognise the powder blue walls of The Observatory Museum which has stood tall on Bathurst Street since the 1800s. The Museum is listed on many tourism sites as one of the town’s top attractions. Heather Cameron ventures inside the more than 100 year old walls to experience the famed Camera Obscura and walk through the historical exhibits, all while keeping a safe distance from the creepily life-like Victorian mannequins.

Bathurst Street is almost always abuzz with activity. Cars, shoppers, traders, donkeys and even the occasional goat, move up and down the road engaging in activities ranging from the mundane, such as the student going to have her eyes checked at Dr Davies optometrist, to the bizarre, like the sangoma who could be, and might still be, found working behind the OK Furniture store.

All of this activity can be viewed from roof of The Observatory Museum using the Southern Hemisphere’s only known Camera Obscura.

I found myself on the roof of the Observatory Museum, experiencing the magic of the camera, on an overcast Monday in May.

The powder blue brick walls of The Observatory Museum stand out against the peeling paint and fading brick visages of the neighbouring shops and businesses- aside from Dr Davies which is meticulously kept up by the owners.

The 19th century building was formerly a shop and, before that, home to watchmaker and jeweller Henry Carter Galpin who purchased the property in 1895 for £300.

Moses, a museum guide, met me in the foyer of the museum, which was quiet on that afternoon. I dropped my R5 on the receptionist’s counter and followed Moses upstairs.

He was quiet as we padded our way across the hardwood floors. He was quiet when we walked up the once-plush now slightly threadbare red carpet that covered the stairs. He was quiet still when we made it to the top landing and he pointed me towards a small, white-varnished wooden door.

The whole museum was quiet; a much appreciated reprieve from the boisterous bustle of Bathurst Street.

The small door was the entrance to an even smaller spiralling staircase. Moses led the way up the narrow steps and I trailed close behind him; my eyes followed the fraying edges of his jeans.

The brightness of the roof was a stark contrast to the dimness of the ever-spiralling staircase. Moses ushered me towards the room on the roof which housed the reason I had visited the museum; the Camera Obscura.

The Camera Obscura is a Victorian amusement, which in the past, was referred to as a ‘magic mirror of life’. The one in the Observatory sits on the very top of the building, between the clock tower and a flag pole turret.

In the middle of the small, dark room was a round, slightly indented table. Moses called it ‘the saucer’. He began talking then, advising me on where to stand and how to move around ‘the saucer’ to get the best vantage points of the camera’s projections.

He gripped one of the cords hanging from the ceiling and said, “I pull on this and the latch opens, the mirrors above move and I can angle the camera.” I still wasn’t sure how the projection would work but waited quietly for the alleged magic to begin.

He pulled down and light filtered in from the ceiling. As he pulled, Moses became a magician.

An image of the City Hall clock tower was reflected onto the centre of the table truly as if by magic. It was as clear as if I was looking down at a photograph. But cars, people, birds, the whole town was moving around it. Speaking technically, using specially placed mirrors and the light from the sun, the Camera Obscura reflects the town onto the table in real time.

Moses gave me a brief history of the town and historic places throughout as he re-angled the mirrors above and I shuffled around the table. “This is the cathedral…Rhodes University clock tower…The 1820 Settler’s Monument…PJ Olivier Afrikaans School…The new road to Port Elizabeth…The trees overlooking the area where Chief Makana attacked the settlers…The old road to Port Elizabeth…”

He recited the history from memory in a voice that was soft, melodic, practiced. It’s a voice that has grown tired from the repetitiveness of time.

Standing across the table from Moses in the dim light of the room, I had a good look at his face. His mouth carried out his script solidly. Years pulled at the edges of his rheumy eyes. I didn’t ask his age.

I made it around the table and back to the City Hall clock tower. Moses opened the door to the roof and watery sunlight filled the space. It lit up the National Arts Festival badge on his black fleece.

“Does it get busy during Fest?” I asked as he adjusted a cord hanging nearby.

“Yes, very. Lots of tourists”

“So you have to walk up and down all those stairs all day?!” He chuckled and closed the roof compartment.

Once the tour was finished, Moses encouraged me to take a walk through the rest of the museum. The Observatory Museum subsists mostly on donations so just before leaving, I scratched around in my backpack and dropped some coins into the middle of the saucer.

After stepping back through the small door, I slowly perused the rooms on each level, taking in the scarily life-like mannequins dressed in Victorian garb and illustrations outlining the museum’s history.

Today, the museum houses displays in its multiple storeys. These range from a display on the ground floor on the history of the Southern Nguni people who inhabited the area before the settlers arrived, set-ups of rooms found in typical Victorian homes, a meridian room, and an observatory room (including a telescope and strange alien sculpture) on the top floor.

The Observatory Museum was originally famous for being the place where the first diamond found in South Africa – the Eureka – was identified in 1867. Today, it is part of the Albany Museum complex, which is the second oldest museum in the country.

Visitors who make their way into the Observatory Museum in 2015, can still view the history of the Eureka in a display shown on the ground floor, but the real attraction nowadays is the Camera Obscura which sits on top of the floors of historical exhibitions.

My self-lead tour was abruptly ruined when I convinced myself I had seen one of the mannequins move. Realising how quiet it was and that I was in a room full of creepy, life-size plastic dummies, I became anxious, convinced one of the mannequins would spring to life and grab me at any minute, and semi-sprinted back downstairs.

In the end, I found myself in the gardens. The green greeted me quietly. Leaves tinkled hello in the wind and blades of grass bowed graciously at my arrival. It was calm and peaceful; a relief from the noise of the city and different from the magic of the mirrors on the roof. I stood absorbing the quiet it for a while— until movement in my periphery, with no identifiable source, caught my attention. The peace cracked as I imagined 200-year-old Settler ghosts, and the creepy life-like mannequins following me around the garden. I hurried back inside to find comfort in the presence of other living beings.

Waving goodbye to the receptionist and Moses, I took one last look at all the vintage ornaments placed in the foyer and enjoyed the quiet for a few more minutes. After that, it was back into the noise of Bathurst Street.


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