Historic old building becomes an eyesore

The Old Townhouse Museum has been closed for the past three years, with no update about the progress of the upgrades.

Concerns have been raised about the Old Townhouse Museum on Greenmarket Square which looks to have fallen into a state of disrepair since it was closed for renovations three years ago.

The museum used to house the Michaelis collection, which consisted of a world-renowned selection of Netherlandish art from the seventeenth-century with works by Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Jacob van Ruisdael and Anthony van Dyck.

The CapeTowner quoted Iziko spokesman Brighton Khoza in 2016 saying that the museum was closed “until further notice”, (“Closed for repairs”, CapeTowner, September 1, 2016).

However, there was no update from Iziko, which owns the museum.

Former director of the South African Gallery and director of Art Collections at Iziko Museums, Marilyn Martin, who has written a book about, among other things, the neglect of the museums titled, Between Dreams and Realities, said the building had been closed down because Iziko had not maintained the electrical wiring system, and there had been a threat of fire.

The curators had then removed the paintings from the museum and put them in storage.

“Instead of moving swiftly to repair the building, they’ve allowed it to become semi-dilapidated. I believe there is serious structural damage inside.”

She said in talks with the management in charge of the repair work at the museum, she was told that Heritage Western Cape kept asking Iziko for information before they approved the work done on the building. It was unclear what sort of information was asked for.

“It seems like there is a back and forth and I really wanted to get to the bottom of it, but in the meantime, the building is falling apart.”

She said because of the significance of museums, she felt it should be handled at the highest management level.

CBD ward councillor Dave Bryant said there has been concerns with the state of the museums for a long time, particularly the Townhouse Museum, which was the first municipal office before they moved to the City Hall, and then to the Civic Centre, where it is currently housed.

He said there were ongoing issues, such as graffiti being sprayed on the building, and people sleeping on the steps and the space in the front.

“The building is in quite a derelict condition, but the space itself is secured.”

He said hopefully, if the management contract for the Greenmarket Square is approved by council, people will begin to see a vast improvement in the space and they will be able to keep a closer eye on the sites around it. He said the museums belong to a different sphere of government.

“All we can do as the City is to report the site as a problem building, however, it doesn’t tick the boxes, as the building itself is secured and we are not aware of any criminal activity.” He urged anyone with concerns about the museums to report it to either him, or the relevant authorities.

Central City Improvement District (CCID), security manager, Muneeb Hendricks, also expressed concern at the situation. “Not only has this beautiful, historic old building in the heart of the CBD become an eyesore, but there is also an increase in anti-social behaviour and vagrancy outside the building and in the area.

“We have deployed the CCID’s new safety ambassador team to address this problem, and we are also working with the custodians of the building, Iziko Museums, to address these areas of concern. We have also asked Mr Bryant, to take up the matter with the relevant authorities on a strategic level as the danger exists that this building could become a so-called ‘problem building’ very quickly.”

Ms Martin said another museum which had been closed for more than five years was Bertram House at Hiddingh Campus on Orange Street. “Bertram House was closed because it needed interior work, however, the work had not been done. There was a beautiful garden attached to the museum that is no more.”

Friends of the South African Museum declined to comment on the matter.

However, administrator Charlotte Honiball said she knew that an upgrade was taking place at all the buildings, and the museum at the Castle of Good Hope as well as the South African Museum had already been improved. She said she wasn’t aware of the vandalism at the Townhouse Museum.

The CapeTowner tried to get
a response from Iziko Museums
for two weeks, after which communications coordinator Ellen Agnew, said: “Over the past few weeks, Iziko has been inducting new members
of council, leaving little room for
anything else. Hopefully this process will be over shortly – so I’ll only receive answers for you from my manager, and senior management then.”

Heritage Western Cape referred us to Iziko Museums.