The Mashu Museum of Ethnology and Jo Thorpe Collection

The establishment of a museum of African culture situated in Durban was the ideal of William Campbell.1 It was with this in mind that he and his sister Killie initiated what has become an extensive collection of material cultural artifacts, including metal-work, pottery, woodwork, basketry, musical instruments, costume and beadwork, from all the indigenous cultures of southern Africa.

Shaka basket



The collection was named in honour of Sir Marshall Campbell who, like his son William, had a great respect for the Zulu people, both father and son having been councillors to the AmaQadi clan from Inanda. The envisaged museum for Durban did not materialise, despite William's best efforts and thus the collection of artifacts remained at Muckleneuk. For many years items of traditional craft were displayed on bookshelves, tables and chests in the house, until the original back-kitchen was converted to an ethnographic gallery in 1972, several years after the Campbell Collections became part of the University of Natal (now KwaZulu-Natal).

The artistic heritage of the Zulu is exemplified in their beautifully crafted items of woodwork. Functional items like headrests and milk-pails possess a pleasing symmetry of line and proportion. Decorative motifs and techniques applied to such items, such as the contrasting of light-coloured indigenous woods with burnt relief carving, incised geometric zig-zags (amagwincigwinci) or a series of carved bosses (amasumpa), accord with the taste of the craft-workers' Zulu customers as well as showing the virtuosity of the specialist carver. Headrests are regional in style as they often form part of a bride's dowry commissioned by her father. In polygamous Zulu homesteads there will be a variety of headrest styles dependent upon the wives' areas of origin. Special to the woodwork holdings at Muckleneuk are walking sticks, staffs-of-office and knob-sticks in a variety of styles. Some are elegant and simple as befits the dignity of a Zulu elder, while others, intended for the 19th century European demand for curios, are finished with Zulu heads, girls carrying beer-pots or animals feared in Zulu folk-lore, like baboons, chameleons and owls


Traditionally Zulu pottery is a craft practised by women. Most items are connected to beer brewing and drinking which in turn is relevant to ritual communication with the ancestral-spirits (amaDlozi). In recent years both urban Zulu and art collectors have sought after pots made in Zululand. An interesting dichotomy has been observed to exist between the demands of Zulu customers and the concerns of art-collectors: the former are, "only interested in whether the pot is flawless (i.e. not cracked) and well-shaped, and not in whether it has a specific pattern on it or whether it has any pattern at all," 2 while the collectors are looking for ever more ornate patterns on the pots.

Thus nowadays, the earlier generation's more simple patterns of incised geometric motifs or simple raised bosses (amasumpa) are found alongside pots with spiralling rows of bosses, incised flowing plant forms or alphabetical shapes. The Sotho people are particularly adventurous potters and much of the distinctive pottery from the Rorke's Drift Studios is that of Sotho women from the neighbouring Nqutu area.

Also display are some small delicately made clay figurines by Samuel Makoanyane, an artist who worked during the 1930s; his portrayal of the Basuto warrior, with now-extinct swallow-shape shield and jackal-fur head ornament, is in fact a portrait of his own grandfather who was regimental leader under the renowned Sotho King Moshesh.

Killie Campbell acknowledged that the core of the ethnographic collection comprised some 250 watercolour studies of tribal costume by the artist Barbara Tyrrell. Each of Tyrrell's paintings is accompanied by detailed descriptive notes which in their entirety form a valuable record of the customs and ritual, ceremonial and social dress of the indigenous peoples of southern Africa. Some items of tribal dress were collected by the artist in the field: examples are a brass neck-ring (liphethu) worn by a Bathlokwa or Natal Sotho married woman, an Ndebele bride's blanket with finely worked motifs set in a white-ground, typical of the 1950s, and a rare doll worn by a Swazi youth on his waist-belt, so as to indicate that he is betrothed.3

Bhaca display
When the University of Natal took over the administration of the museum, the collecting policy continued to emphasize the costume and beadwork so amply illustrated by Barbara Tyrrell, but now concentrated upon the Zulu and related east coast groups. It is widely believed that beadwork is synonymous with the Zulu people: certainly the quantity of beadwork produced by the Zulu from the late 19th century to the present is staggering. A little-known fact is that beadwork varies in colour and pattern from region to region among the Zulu, and it is further subject to change over time, as the lives of the wearers are influenced by acculturation and modernization.

The trade in beads from India, Venice and Bohemia has its roots in South African history. W. Knyff, captain of the Dutch ship Stavenisse, wrecked off the Natal coast on 16 February 1686, reported: "... two Englishmen, who had some months previously lost their ship at Rio de Natal... being acquainted with the country and language, instructed us how to deal with the Natives, and willingly offered us their assistance toward our mutual preservation, together with a share in their merchandise consisting of copper rings and common beads, enough to find them and us in meat and bread for fifty years."4


Among the Zulu people in the 19th century, items of beadwork, mainly in the form of necklets, were given by girls as tokens that they accepted the attentions of their lovers. The absence of a written language combined with the fact that it was not etiquette for girls to express their feelings verbally, meant that the colours in beaded necklets came to have connotative meanings.


The girls themselves called such necklets,"izincwadi" (letters). A fair amount of beadwork is still worn by Zulu couples but schooling has meant that the earlier use of colours has been supplanted by writing as a motif in beadwork. Messages range from infatuation, "umuhle kimi" (you are handsome to me), enticement, "woza lavi wami" (come love me!), chastising, "unga jahi" (don't be in a hurry), indignation, "izuva lodeda" (if you don't trust me then go!), to humour, as in the case of an exasperated wife who made her illiterate husband a 'tie-shaped' necklet with the message, "izenzo zakho ziqeda uthando"(I am tired of your nonsense, grow up!).5

Umkomaas wedding
Umkomaas wedding
Only traditionalist Zulu will wear beadwork while Zulu Christians indicate their conversion by their western dress. This was largely owing to 19th century missionary perceptions that 'skin and feather wearing' was pagan. Nowadays traditionalist married women, especially brides, wear traditional dress and beadwork, such beadwork serving to communicate their position, concerns and expectations. It must however be noted that not all beadwork carries meaning: much of it is merely decorative (ihlobisa) and worn as such to honour (ukuhlonipha) the home, the ancestral spirits and to celebrate customary heritage itself.

The Trustees of the African Art Centre, Durban, generously donated the Jo Thorpe Collection of arts and crafts in 1997 with the proviso that the works maintain their integrity as a collection. Founding Director of the African Art Centre, Jo Thorpe created an outlet for African artworks, recognising the income-generating potential of KwaZulu-Natal's rich artistic heritage; Moreover between 1959 and 1995, she regularly put aside original and well crafted pieces for her special collection. These works are unique in that they were created mainly by Zulu artists and craftsmen for sale to tourists, art-collectors, museums and galleries. Thus the works in the Jo Thorpe Collection, unlike most other items in the Mashu Museum, were not intended for functional and traditional use: however they nevertheless borrow from the culture's traditional artistic idiom and world-view to create some wonderfully innovative pieces.




  1. In 1945 William Campbell offered the Durban City Council 10,000 pounds, plus upkeep for five years, towards such a museum. He hoped that it would engender, "the proud interest of the Zulu people in their own crafts and ancestries ...(and also foster)... better understanding between White and Black in this city and Province." 1952 Natal Daily News October 31. The Council hesitated to take up the offer as it was unwilling to bear the recurring financial responsibilities. The Natal Mercury November 1st 1952
  2. Reusch, D. 1996 "Reflections concerning the pottery from KwaMabaso, Msinga" in Zulu treasures: of kings and commoners Ulundi: KwaZulu Cultural Museum and Durban: Local History Museums. p. 122
  3. Winters, Y. 1994 Personal communication Barbara Tyrrell Durban (MM50, MM925 and MM358)
  4. Bird, J. 1965 The Annals of Natal: 1495 to 1845 Cape Town: C Struik Vol.1 p. 295
  5. The English translations are approximations of the Zulu phrases, which have to be pithy because of the limited size of the necklets themselves. (MM2873, MM3926, MM3344, MM3662, MM4192 and MM 3667)
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