The main theme of the Huguenot Memorial Museum in Franschhoek is a remembrance of the history of the Huguenots before and after their arrival at the Cape of Good Hope.
The newly redesigned exhibition connects the history of local Huguenots to global issues of persecution, exile, belonging, identity and the legacies of refugees in their new homelands. A careful curation of the museum’s collection of artefacts illustrates the life of the Huguenots at the Cape. Six display rooms offer multi-layered interpretations, depicting a specific style history as well as reflecting the Huguenot’s experience as refugees and then as part of an immigrant community.
The newly redesigned exhibitions connect the local history of the Huguenots to global issues of persecution and refugeeism.
The elegant building that houses the museum is a reconstruction (using some of the original material) of Saasveld Manor House, which was built in the 18th century. Louis Michel Thibault, the renowned French architect, designed the house for Baron William Ferdinand van Reede van Oudtshoorn, its original owner.
The two outside buildings mark the positions of the coach house and cellar of the old Saasveld Manor House. The fine ornamentation is the work of Anton Anreith.
This is the first perfume museum in Africa. It is housed in the original Saasveld slave lodge. Its wide-ranging exhibits include antique masterpieces such as 2,000-year-old Roman perfume bottles. The on-site perfumery creates signature scents and offers state-of-the-art workshops led by expert perfumers. These are open to the public.
The exhibits in the Museum Annex showcase aspects of the Khoisan life in the area as well as the early history of Franschhoek. Of particular interest is the selection of the personal possessions and furniture of Huguenot families. Other exhibits feature the indigenous fynbos in this region. Temporary exhibits are also on display.
The exhibitions document the ruthless persecution of the Huguenots in France and their settlement at the Cape at the end of the 17th century.
A careful curation of the museum’s collection of furniture, Bibles, silverware, portraits, porcelain, and archival documents illustrates the life of the Huguenots at the Cape. Each artefact display offers multi-layered interpretations, reflecting a specific style history and a wider conceptual theme.
The sequence of the exhibits in the museum – reflecting the rotation of visitors as well as the historical progression – is:
The Flight exhibition centres on the experience of the thousands of Huguenots forced to flee their country, one of the largest emigrations of early modern times. The escapes had to be meticulously planned to avoid capture.
The exhibition room audio transports the visitor aboard a ship in stormy seas to the calmer but still troubled waters of arrival. There is a list of those who arrived at the Cape, with signatures found in archival documents next to some of the names.
Dutch and French Bibles and psalters were key items that Huguenots brought with them or purchased at the Cape. The sacred texts on display reflect the high value set on having one’s own copy. Legend has it that Pierre Jaubert smuggled Bible no. 2 (dated 1672) out of France in a loaf of bread.
The Bibles in the exhibit point to the role of the printing press in spreading the gospel in Europe and southern Africa.
Settled in harsh frontier areas, Huguenots marked out new identities in relation to the VOC authorities, fellow European free burghers, the indigenous inhabitants of the region and the Eastern slaves whom they later owned. Their first homes were basic – most of them had to build them from scratch – quite a remove from their previous homes. The museum’s chair collection reflects the ways their homes became more and more comfortable. The complex stories of their becoming part of a diverse socio-cultural landscape are inspiring.
Family ties, both within South Africa and beyond, were very important to the Huguenots. Unlike the Huguenots who settled in England, Ireland, Europe and the Atlantic seaboard, they were not able to maintain easy contact with those abroad. The threads that make up the fabric of the baptismal dresses displayed in the Family exhibit symbolise the permanent and essential way in which Huguenots became an integral part of South Africa. Large families like the Nels and the Jordaans testify to this.
Within a relatively short period, the Huguenots were assimilated. However, they and their descendants have made a significant and wide ranging contribution to the development of Afrikaans, religion, arts and culture, sport, the legal system, and the economy, especially the wine industry in South Africa. But it is the moral fibre of these refugees who fought for human rights and overcame the hardships of re-establishing themselves that gives their role in South Africa and beyond special significance.
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