We all know Stellenbosch for its lush trees and gardens, its historic buildings framed by mountains, and its vibrant community of students, residents, and tourists alike. But what else is hidden beneath the canopy of oak leaves and buried beside their roots? For that question the Stellenbosch Museum has many answers.
Stellenbosch’s history begins long before Simon van der Stel founded his namesake town in 1679, and a fragment of this time before the European settlers arrived can be glimpsed inside the Village Museum on Ryneveld street, with artefacts left behind by the local Khoe peoples on display within. But perhaps the Village complex’s most famous relic is Schreuderhuis, built in 1709, and the oldest extant house in the whole of South Africa. At the Village Museum you can come inside this quaint little cottage and see for yourself what life was like in this early pioneering age.
If it’s the rich international trade legacy of the Dutch East India Company that piques your interest, the Village Museum’s period houses boast with the kind of finery the wealthier residents of old Stellenbosch enjoyed. In the late 18th century Blettermanhuis, a more typical Cape Dutch dwelling built by the last magistrate of Stellenbosch under the VOC, you can find fine porcelain from China and Japan, luxurious fabrics from India, and other artefacts that speak of a booming cultural exchange between east and west. Here is also an exhibition on the history of a more sordid line of trade, that of slavery, in reverence to the oft forgotten men, women, and children in the service of their more famous masters.
Then in Grosvenor House, just across the road beside the brilliant white steeple of the Moederkerk, a changing tide in South Africa’s history is to be seen in the increasingly English influence on the furnishings of this historic double-story patrician house. With its sweeping interior and manicured English garden, Grosvenor House speaks of a time of increasing luxury for these long-passed homeowners. Yet times were often still hard, as this home built to house eleven children saw only six of them reach adulthood.
Daily life continued to be fraught with danger well into the Victorian era when the fourth and final house in the Village Museum complex was built, Berghhuis, so named for vice-sheriff Olof Bergh who dwelled there in the mid-19th century. The narrow, gloomy passages and lavishly ornamented rooms conceal many of the perils of living in this age of invention. But there is also progress and innovation: in Berghhuis you will find one of the country’s first indoor stoves and, sans indoor plumbing, one of the first working indoor showers.
These days, however, instead of magistrates and vice-sheriffs, these four houses are inhabited by friendly ladies in period dress who are more than happy to share with you their histories.
One cannot talk about the Village Museum without mentioning Mr Petrus Lubbe, whose shoe hospital and cobbler’s now serves as our lobby. Many of his creations, as well as footwear from all over the world, are proudly displayed at the Lubbe Shoe Museum within the Village complex.
But the domestics isn’t all there was to life in early Stellenbosch. Die Braak, one of Stellenbosch’s open spaces, bears the Kruithuis, Stellenbosch’s first and foremost military installation, and the only building in town to bear the VOC emblem. It’s hard to miss the canons flanking its entrance, but there is much more inside: canons saved from a shipwreck, as well as munitions and military gear dating to the 18th and 19th centuries.
Though if you prefer your guns in the toy variety, the Toy Museum isn’t far away. Just down the road from the Kruithuis is the old Rhenish Parsonage, now a world of children’s wonder. Toys and miniatures from all of Stellenbosch’s eras and beyond lay in wait for you to enjoy. Come say hi to Shirley Temple and her cohort of dolls, or speed through the ages of automotive history at the toy car display. Or perhaps you just need that final bit of inspiration for your model train set – ours is sure to impress both young and old! From puppets to games to houses made of sugar, the Toy Museum is waiting.
The Stellenbosch Museum offers a variety of experiences, and we are happy to receive guests of all ages, places, and walks of life. In fact, we take pride in our educational programs which aim to teach our youth about our shared history and inspire them with a thirst for learning. It’s only right, given that Stellenbosch University itself saw its beginnings in what is now a classroom for receiving our younger visitors on their educational excursions.
The Stellenbosch Museum invites you to share in Stellenbosch and South Africa’s heritage, and we welcome you with open arms!