What the James Hall Museum of Transport holds – the heritage of transportation

James Hall

By Mamelodi Marakalala 

What I find most admirable about museums is their ability to turn everyday objects into cultural history. This then reminds us that our culture does not take place in bits and pieces, nor does it begin and end with particular creations. It is woven into all the filaments of our humanity and the meanings we have attached to the very things that have carried us through generations. 

“That’s why we have the museum, Matty, to remind us of how we came, and why; to start afresh and begin a new place from what we had learned and carried from the old,” writes American author Lois Lowry in the Messenger (2004) novel, a young adult story set in a dystopian world. This statement is quite fitting, even more so in the literal sense, when you start to think about museums such as the James Hall Museum of Transport. Technology has historically played a significant role in how we navigate through space and build cultures. 

With the number of halls in the museum, visitors are walked through transport systems, machines, and vehicles that graced the roads of Johannesburg between the 18th and 20th century; before the Toyota Quantum, Volkswagen Polo Vivo, Ford Ranger, and other automobiles that run endlessly on our freeways. The museum houses an immense collection of the vehicles themselves and photographic materials. 

South Africa’s earliest forms of transportation held at the museum are the animal-drawn two-wheeled carts, four-wheeled wagons, carriages, coaches, and trams. These horse- and oxen-powered vehicles, which were common even in ancient civilisations, are what the previous generations of Joburgers used to travel back and forth and move goods around the city, which was still in its humble beginnings. 

In February of 1964, vintage car enthusiast James “Jimmie” Hall worked with the City of Johannesburg to establish a space that would preserve a pivotal history of technology – the stories of how the people got around the city. As “the largest and most comprehensive museum of land transport in South Africa”, there are modes of transportation dating as far back as the 1870s in the James Hall Museum of Transport’s holdings. 

Taking over animal-drawn vehicles as the commonly used mode of transport of those times were the steam-powered rollers, wagons, jib cranes, buses, and tractors. In those days, some of them were used predominantly in the Witwatersrand mines. Some of the steam engine-powered machines housed at the James Hall Museum of Transport are still operational. 

The museum also houses the electric trams, the trolley, coach, and regular buses from a few decades ago. Some of the famous brands that made these larger vehicles were Daimler Motor Company, Guy Motors, Leyland Motors and Associated Equipment Company (AEC). What is even more interesting about the vehicles is that some of them still have out-of-home advertising. 

Words such as “Merry Christmas” and “THE QUICKEST WAY AT THE CHEAPEST FAIR IS BY BUS” on the side or front of some buses give us a glimpse into the social and economic development of South Africa during those decades. When we see present-day transit adverts like Netflix’s Stranger Things posters, Rain WiFi’s “don’t get left behind” messaging, and Nando’s delicious promotions on the side of the buses, we can acknowledge how we have evolved and the objects we have placed value on to move and communicate our collective ideas and subcultures.

One of the buses in the museum’s holdings, the 1952 RT London Bus, is still used for occasional tours around the city. Through these tours, older and younger generations of people have the opportunity to visit and learn about the histories that took place at Soweto historical sites such as the Hector Pieterson Memorial and Ferreira Gold Mine Shaft as well as Johannesburg mine areas that are now Main Street and Simmonds Street.

One of the museum’s halls is home to the most treasured form of transportation in our society, the motor car. The oldest car at the museum is the carriage-style 1900 Clément-Panhard manufactured by Panhard and Levassor in Paris. The latest is one of the four 2008 Joule electric cars created by Cape Town-based Optimal Energy but never went to market. 

The museum presents an idea, which applies to the other vehicles as well, that aesthetics such as the design of the body, features such as how the headlights and sidelights were mounted, and motor elements such as the wheel and other notable parts give us insight into design and technological advancements that evolved over the old years with the creation of each classical car. 

Within the tapestry of the city’s unfurling moments of our South African history and heritage were simplistic cycling vehicles such as the tandem (a bicycle that seats multiple people), penny farthings (the bicycles with a large wheel in the front and a much smaller wheel in the back), as well as the common bicycles, tricycles, and motorcycles for men, women, and children. Fire trucks and various fire-fighting equipment from the old Johannesburg and Randburg fire departments also occupy space at the museum. 

James Hall Museum of Transport lends itself as a time capsule for our generations to understand, celebrate, and continue the remarkable feats made in transportation. Their preservation is not only about the cars themselves and the technological innovations they sparked; it is also about the stories they carry about a multifaceted history. 

We are at liberty to contemplate the bus politics of apartheid and how transport systems were used to further acts of racial segregation. We can consider gender dynamics in public transport and the perpetuation of the discomfort of Black women in transit spaces. We can also make note of the accessibility to certain vehicles that are based on one’s class, a region’s infrastructure, and so on. And many other fabrics of society have been enabled through transportation, which ends up weaving different stories of the populace. Whether systemic or fortuitous, the creation and evolution of vehicles have led to changes and revolutions in society and culture. 

From a panoramic perspective, life was made much easier with the lessening of production and labour challenges and the broadening of destinations that came with vocational, familial, and recreational life. The invention of different vehicles also impacted the array of transit structures, urbanscapes, and the larger built environment industry. Moreover, the gradual long-term changes to the natural environment which have been especially troubling for humanity are not to be ignored. 

On account of their presence in the context of the museum space, vehicles have also been the subject of works in aesthetic design and fine art. The Museum of Modern Art’s 2021 showcase of 20th-century automobiles and automobile artworks. Titled Automania, the exhibition presented a glimpse into how enamoured, questioning, critical or averse the art world was when the roads were struck with rapidly ongoing innovations in transportation. 

Featured in the exhibition were the graphic lithograph Bil-Bol: Poster for Bil Aktiebolaget / Car Company Incorporated (1907) by Finnish painter Akseli Gallen-Kallela; the abstract oil work Speeding Automobile (1912) by Italian futurist painter Giacomo Balla; the silkscreen painting Orange Car Crash Fourteen Times (1963) by American pop culture artist Andy Warhol; the work on paper Design for the Studebaker Wagonaire Station Wagon (1963) by French-born American industrial designer Raymond Loewy Associates; and many more. 

The presence of land vehicles in the paintings depicting South African landscapes and street scenes familiar to many of us attest to how fundamentally immersed transportation has always been in our society. Peter Clarke’s The Fruit Vendor (1959) features a two-wheeled horse-drawn cart filled with fruit in the background. Clarke’s quest was the artistic exploration of the everyday life of his time and his works reveal the social, economic, international, and cultural circumstances and toils of the critical times in South Africa. 

The bicycle features multiple times in the works by Gerard Sekoto, including Bustling Street Scene (1961), The Bicycle Ride (1971), and The Bicycle (1973). The number of times we see a bicycle or hear of a cyclist in Sekoto’s hundreds of drawings and paintings, which present his allure with urban social life, speaks to how common this fairly affordable and environmentally friendly vehicle has been in our society. Woman Walking With Dog (1974), also by Sekoto, depicts a traffic jam on the road to the right of the woman walking her dog. This portrays how motor cars are almost as nested as the architecture is grounded in the cityscapes. 

Like many museums and heritage sites, the James Hall Museum also hosts public programmes and curates particular exhibitions around the different vehicle collections. This display of history in the museum space then removes the vehicles and photographs of the vehicles from their functional, technological contexts. By being objects of the museum and becoming recontextualised through art historical modes of display, the vehicles gain an aura to be appreciated by visitors and revered as artefacts of our heritage. 

Entry to the James Hall Museum of Transport is free between Tuesday and Sunday from 09:00 – 16:30, except on a few holidays. You can also follow the museum on Instagram to be informed of their upcoming events and the latest news. 

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