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We're like runners with batons but there is no one to hand over to. The words of Dr Sarah Gess, 74, a researcher at the Albany Museum since 1972. Gess retired in 2003 but opted to stay on at the Albany Museum's Department of Entomology and Arachnology to assure the survival of its internationally recognised collection.
Her husband Dr Fredrich Gess, 76, is the Department's current curator despite having officially retired from the position in 2001. And there are many other retirees in key positions at the Albany Museum waiting to hand over the baton to the next generation - but these new personnel have yet to materialise.
"This situation has been brewing for more than 10 years and presents a very real threat to the continued existence of the museum and the important research based there. We can't plan for the future and we can't get outside funding like this.This situation is not good for the collection and it's not good for our research," said Sarah Gess.
Museums across the province are facing a catastrophe as the provincial department responsible has failed to advertise, let alone, fill vacant positions. Why? Funding.
“We understand the predicament and sympathise with these dedicated individuals. We are doing our best but we are simply not being allocated enough funds,” said Similo Grootboom, Director of Museums and Heritage in the Eastern Cape, “What is happening at Albany Museum is a problem across the province: we are not being allocated enough funds at provincial level.”
Grootboom’s office falls under the Department of Sports, Recreation, Arts and Culture and despite its wide-ranging responsibility this department received only 1.2% of the 2012/2013 provincial budget, approximately R705 million.
Provincial priorities lie elsewhere: the Health and Education Departments receive approximately R41 billion combined, representing 73% of the budget. Despite Grootboom’s assurances that the department is lobbying for more funds, one museum insider, who wished to remain anonymous, believes that the posts have been “frozen” to make up for budget shortfalls in other departments: “What we are seeing is the systematic destruction of the museums in the Eastern Cape in an attempt to find money because they [local government] messed up in health and education.”
Health and education are certainly important to the nation but should museums be sacrificed? If museums were simply storehouses of exotic pickled animals and musty antiques then perhaps we could do without them. But the truth is that they are also the home of innovative and important research.
The Albany Museum, like most other museums, displays only a small percentage of its collections. These collections, including a fossil record dating back some 360 million years, form the basis for research into various fields that are essential to understanding both South Africa's heritage and its future.
In 2010 the Albany Natural History Museum’s Ichthyology Department was closed when its curator, Dr Jim Cambray, retired. Housing literally thousands of aquatic species, many of them unique, the collection is an important tool for researching biodiversity and water conservation and it was nearly lost. Fortunately, it was rescued from eventual destruction through neglect, by the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity which now houses and maintains the specimens.
“The whole show is falling apart: experts are not being replaced and eventually no one will be looking after the collections. This has a ripple effect on research and technical staff and skills,” said researcher at the institute, Wouter Holleman.
With health and education in South Africa in crisis it seems unlikely that good news from the provincial government will come any time soon for the museums.
Private funding is even less likely, with donors being “donor weary” or unwilling to commit funds without firm plans for the future. The grim reality which we must face is that despite their decades of incredible dedication, researchers and curators like the Gesses will soon be gone.
If this happens without finding skilled replacements the Albany Museum, which is 157 years old this year, will cease to function and we will lose scientific collections and research of inestimable value and potential.