Bayworld Museum History
About Us

A Dynamic History since 1856

A visit to a well-run, well-supported museum such as Bayworld can be an exciting adventure and an exploration into all aspects of our environment, be it nature or culture.


The Port Elizabeth Museum at Bayworld is the third oldest museum in South Africa. In 1856 land was granted to the municipality for the erection of a town hall, municipal offices, library and Athenaeum. A small room was set aside in the Athenaeum for the collection of unusual natural history specimens. and the following notice appeared in the Eastern Province Herald of 2 September 1856. 

"Port Elizabeth Athenaeum
Patron: His Excellency, the Governor
A museum having been commenced in connection with this society, contributions addressed to the care of the secretary will be thankfully received and acknowledged.
By Order of the Committee
W.Selwyn, Honorary Secretary
Port Elizabeth September 2, 1856”


The response was apathetic and it was only in 1885 that the Museum acquired new premises in a room behind the Feathermarket Hall. It took a further twelve years before the institution became known as the Port Elizabeth Museum in 1897, with Mr Marshall as the first Curator.


In 1906 the somewhat badly run Museum received a welcome boost with the appointment of the dynamic Mr FW Fitzsimons as Director. He re-organised and extended the displays and soon had 7000 residents of the sleepy town of Port Elizabeth attending his “Popular Nights”, where the Museum offered exhibitions of live snakes and magic lantern shows. The collections expanded and rapidly outgrew the allocated space.


It was with relief that in 1919 the Museum was able to move to the luxurious mansion in Bird Street, bequeathed by AW Guthrie. The Snake Park opened in the spacious grounds - the first of its type worldwide. Demonstrations by snake handler, Johannes, were immensely popular. He is reputed to have been bitten on average once a year for the 30 years of employment, eventually dying of old age!


In 1933 a newly constructed Seal Pool opened, but the smell and guttural bickering and barking at night intruded on the lifestyle of the elite residents of Bird Street. Following a court case, the pool closed and the seals were banished.

During World War II, under the Directorship of Dr John Pringle, the Museum played a pivotal role in supplying snake serum to the SA Institute for Medical Research to be used by the Allied Forces serving in snake-infested areas of Africa.


In 1942 the Museum School was established, bringing a new, exciting method of education to many. Specimens, contained in suitable boxes, were sent to schools to further pupils’ knowledge of animals, plants and cultural objects.


Great excitement was generated in Port Elizabeth when King George VI of Great Britain and his family visited the Museum and Snake Park in 1947 on their Royal tour of South Africa.


The foundation stone of the present Port Elizabeth Museum Complex was laid on 11 November 1958 with the new Snake Park being constructed and opened a year later during Dr Geoff McLachlan’s tenure as Director. The transfer of all museum specimens from Bird Street to the new buildings on the beachfront included the large whale skeleton presently on display in the Marine Hall – a monumental task.


Dr John Grindley was the incumbent Director when the charming Georgian house museum in Central, No 7 Castle Hill, was incorporated into the Museum Complex in 1968. During that year too, on 12 December, the Dolphin Lake was opened with dolphin Dimple obligingly producing a calf that very morning. Dolly was christened after a nationwide competition to select a name. She died in February 2005 at the age of 37 years and was believed to be the oldest surviving dolphin conceived and born in an Oceanarium anywhere in the world.


The Tropical House, with its wonderful plants, bird life/flamingoes, crocodiles and Night House with nocturnal animals such as nagapies and owls, opened to the public in 1972. The striking murals on the exterior of the building were created by Port Elizabeth sculptor, Phil Kolbe.


During Dr John Wallace's period as Director, the education and research sectors of the Museum expanded rapidly with new classrooms, office space, laboratories and storerooms being built. The Museum shop and Ice-cream Parlour came into being and the Snake Park acquired a modern entrance. An innovative and immensely popular Children's Touch Museum was established in the small, redundant Old Post Office building across the road from the main complex. The Shipwreck and Maritime History Hall was opened in 1986 and won acclaim as the best of its type in South Africa.

Research in dinosaur palaeontology, sharks, marine mammals, maritime archaeology, local history and herpetology progressed apace during Dr Mike Raath's term as Director. Computers were introduced to all departments and rapid progress was made in the technological field. He oversaw the transition to the new democracy in 1994 and was fully involved in endeavouring to keep museums to the forefront in the new regime.

1996 - 1999

Mrs Sylvia van Zyl became Director in 1996. The courtyard and amphitheatre were built as part of an RDP project and a ramp for the disabled was incorporated into the present Museum building, utilising courtyard space. Progress was made in transforming Bayworld staff and Board of Trustees to be more representative of the population dynamics. The diverse and colourful Costume Hall opened in 1997, an exhibition on Sharks – Magnificent and Misunderstood was opened in 1999. Many temporary displays addressing current issues have since been hosted.

The Port Elizabeth Museum Complex was formally renamed Bayworld on 1 April 1999.

2000 - 2004

A bottlenose dolphin, Thunzi, was born on 6 September 2000 and in 2004 Dumisa was born on 27 September.

2007 - 2009

In 2007 the Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture granted R5,4 million for the revitalisation of Bayworld’s infrastructure. The former Tropical House was renovated and converted into a multipurpose exhibition and events centre (EEC).

In July 2008 a new exhibition, The First Inhabitants of the Bay, was opened. It is viewed as an important transformation effort representing the heritage of the Khoisan people of the Eastern Cape.

2009 saw the relocation of the two remaining dolphins, Domino and Dumisa, to Ocean Park in Hong Kong on a breeding loan.

2011 - 2013

In June 2011 Fred Kigozi took over the reigns from Sylvia van Zyl as Acting Museum Head, when he was deployed from the Amathole Museum in King William’s Town to Bayworld.

During 2011 and 2012 a new exhibition, History of Algoa Bay, was constructed and opened on 30 November 2012, funded by Standard Bank. Daniel Lityelinzima Bell was appointed as Acting Museum Head towards the end of August 2012.

Because of failing infrastructure, the Predator and Tropical Tanks were closed down in 2011. During 2012 and 2013 R8 million was received from the Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture for the redevelopment and refurbishment of the institution, mainly in the Oceanarium and the Snake Park. The Oceanarium was closed during this period and the seals relocated to Gauteng. A new seal presentation pool and a new grandstand were built. The facilities were re-opened to the public on 7 September 2013.


A new Museum Head was appointed, Mr Luvuyo Fitzgerald Mini, who assumed duties on 1 March 2016. On 1 July 2016, a formal agreement was signed between the Department of Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture and the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality. The NMBM is interested in taking over the Snake Park and Oceanarium with the MBDA acting as its agent, who will be responsible for the future development and refurbishment of the two components. The proposed redevelopment will ensure a world class visitor attraction with a totally unique experience.

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