Huguenot Society of South Africa
    The Huguenot Museum in Franschhoek

    The theme of the Huguenot Museum in Franschhoek is the history of the Huguenots before and after their arrival at the Cape of Good Hope.  

    The story of the Huguenots at the Cape begins with a difficult history of religious war and persecution in 16th century France. Via the Dutch Republic, a small number fled their homes to the Cape, mostly between 1688 and 1689. Their perilous journeys over mountains and sea to establish new lives and homes in a foreign land reflects the texture of refugee experiences around the world at different moments in time.

    The newly revamped exhibition connects the local history of the 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 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.

    All of the exhibition rooms have a core conceptual theme. A walking timeline forms the central spine of the museum. Starting with a Dutch wall clock made by a Huguenot descendant, key events in the French wars of religion are outlined against the long Huguenot struggle to practice their protestant faith in France. This history of persecution is put in perspective against the statistics of other local and global persecutions through time. The other exhibition rooms branch out from this timeline, into different aspects of the Huguenot story at the Cape.

    Flight centres on the experience, legacy and assimilation of the Huguenots forced to flee to different corners of the world in order to survive. The subtle room audio takes the visitor from the deck of a ship weathering a storm to the calmer but uneasy waters of arrival. Many did not survive the journey. A list of those who arrived at the Cape, and some of their signatures found in archival documents, acts as touchstone to their descendants.

    Sacred Texts: Dutch and French bibles and psalm books were some of the key items that Huguenots brought with them and purchased at the Cape. The story of these bibles is not just about owning a bible or having the freedom to practice one’s faith, but the power of the printing press to further Christianity’s reach in Europe and Southern Africa. These ancient bibles inspired the iconic bible in flight motif that can be found across various display spaces.Bibles

    Sacred Texts: Dutch and French bibles and psalm books were one of the key items that Huguenots brought with them and purchased at the Cape. The story of these bibles is not just about owning a bible or having the freedom to practice one’s faith, but the power of the printing press to further Christianity’s reach in Europe and Southern Africa. These ancient bibles inspired the iconic bible in flight motif that can be found across various display spaces.

    Home: Settled in harsh frontier areas, Huguenots marked out new identities in relation to the VOC authority, fellow European freeburghers, the indigenous inhabitants of the region and the Eastern slaves whom they later owned.  A nexus of social status, integration, and stratification defined their stories in complex ways within this landscape. The porcelain and chair artefact displays demonstrate some of this layered complexity.

    Family: At the heart of every refugee experience are the ties of family – those that were left behind or the family made in a new home. Connections stretch between generations, and across landscapes in farm ownership. Crochet work and baptismal dresses provide the material texture to these threads of familial and social connection.

    Legacy: In a crucible of different cultures in South Africa the legacy of the Huguenots has informed the development of language, religion, arts and culture and the tradition of wine making at the Cape. Portraits of Huguenot descendants, famous and unknown, fill a wall. Drawers of small family heirlooms testify to an inheritance of remembering, but also forgetting.

    THE SAASVELD BUILDING
     
    The museum is situated in the rebuilt Saasveld building, the elegant 18th century home of Baron Willem Ferdinand van Reede van Oudtshoorn. He erected it around 1791 on his estate (near the present day Kloof Street in Cape Town). The name comes from Saasveld Castle, in the eastern Netherlands, owned by the van Reedes from 14th century. It is likely that the architect was the Frenchman Louis Michel Thibault, and that the decorations on the building were done by the well-known sculptor Anton Anreith.
    In 1954 the Dutch Reformed congregation in Cape Town decided to demolish the building and to erect a youth hostel in its place. Attempts to prevent the demolition were unsuccessful. It was then proposed to erect the building elsewhere. In 1957 it was agreed to rebuild Saasveld in Franschhoek (some 70 km away), next to the Huguenot Monument for use as a museum dedicated to the story of the Huguenots. Before deconstruction, architect and UCT professor Pryce Lewis and his students measured and drew the building. Photographs were taken, parts preserved and bricks numbered. Many people think it was the first time in South Africa that demolished house was re-built in its original condition in new surroundings.

    The Museum opened in 1967 and this is the first time the exhibition has been significantly altered. The official launch was on 13 April 2019 – 331 years after the arrival of the first large group of Huguenots and on the anniversary of the day the Edict of Nantes was signed in 1598.