‘These slides are accompanied by a letter, dated 25 May 1938, from then Prime Minister of South Africa Jan Christiaan Smuts to Professor Drennan [including a transcription to better understand his handwriting], who was Head of the Department of Anatomy at the time, asking if he could borrow some lecture slides. Smuts was very interested in science and had even published a book on human evolution in 1927, called Holism and Evolution (MacMillan & Co).
‘The letter reads:
Dear Professor Drennan,
I am anxious in my evening address at the Science Association meeting at Durban to show slides of the principal human types and skeletons found in South Africa and elsewhere. They help to keep the attention of the audience during the long strain of an address. Do you perhaps have any photos or sketches, which I could use for the purpose? I shall be grateful for any help you can give me. I leave Cape Town on Friday and thereafter my address is Irene, Transvaal.
Jan Christian Smuts.’
‘The slides Smuts would have borrowed were these old glass lecture slides of the 1930s. Smuts wanted type specimens – call them racial typologies if you must – ancient types, like the Skildergat Face also known as the Fish Hoek Skull, which represent the origins of humankind in South Africa. The Fish Hoek Skull was discovered here on the Cape Peninsula in the 1920s, and Drennan was very closely involved with it. Remember that Smuts was here in Cape Town, so he knew what was going on; he would have been interested in fossil sites, like Matjies River. Matjies River was excavated by an Afrikaans-speaking anthropologist out of Bloemfontein, named TF Dreyer. Both Dreyer and Drennan were major South African anthropologists in the 1930s and there is an extensive set of letters between them in these archives.
‘These slides were called “lantern slides”. They are on a glass plate and you have to have a very powerful light to project them; they used a carbon arc projector to show them. By the 1950s, we’d moved on to standard acetate sheet slides (of which we also have slews in the collection), which are also now out-dated due to digital technology. We have boxes of these lecture slides pertaining to human origins, early hominids – some of them are labelled, some of them are not. Some of them are of local import, which means they must have been made here.’ – Alan Morris