The Drostdy building is renowned for its rich and long history. However, few are familiar with its history as a museum, which is just as fascinating, albeit a little intricate. During the last 80 years, the Drostdy Museum has grown from a single building to a sprawling complex, with each section featuring a different aspect of Swellendam’s history.
The Drostdy Museum opened on the 20th of October 1943, on the bicentenary of the first “Heemraad of the Lower Breede River District”. The whole festivity ran from the 20th to the 24th of October 1943, starting off on Wednesday with the opening of the Drostdy Museum.
On a clear beautiful day, on the immaculate lawn of the Drostdy, the inauguration took place with music, dancers, and even an honour guard by school cadets.
The following day was the unveiling of the 1838 Monument, on the third there was the Lourens Trek with its wagon and oxen, as well as reenactments of the Rebellion of 1795, and a birthday party for the Swellengrebels at the Drostdy.
However, the Drostdy Museum’s story started as early as 1926 when Dr. Lance Lindenbergh Tomlinson led repeated efforts to preserve the Drostdy. It was the last Drostdy of the Dutch East India Company still in existence in South Africa. Dr. Tomlinson’s efforts finally paid off as the Drostdy was declared a National Monument in 1938. It was bought by the Union Government from the Steyn’s in that same year for the sum of £2000. Restorations on the building began in 1940, resulting in its current appearance mirroring that of 1844, with a slight modification in the gables – now featuring dormer gables in the front, while retaining its original gable-ends at the rear.
In 1941, the process of collecting objects for the Drostdy began. At the time of its opening, it housed 938 archive items, panels, and paintings. Dr. Tomlinson personally wrote endless letters to possible donors for specific artifacts. Today, the Museum boasts a collection of historical objects, including domestic utensils, farm implements and vehicles, tools and weapons, old costumes, and pictorial material relating to the area, among others.
The Museum continued to grow, and in 1947, the Old Gaol was purchased for £2500 by the Union Government and declared a Monument in 1951. During 1966-1967, it was extensively restored, and Sipiershuis, also known as the Gaoler’s Cottage, was bought from the Municipality at the same time.
The next development was the establishment of the Ambagswerf (Trades Yard). It was sparked as an idea by the then Director of the Department of Nature Conservation, Dr. Hey, after visiting an open-air museum in Europe. This segment of the Museum Complex is dedicated to the town’s artisans of the 18th and 19th centuries and showcases their trades exhibit through the display of their tools and equipment in each of the buildings. This also encompasses the wheat industry that played a major role in the Overberg’s heritage.
In 1971, the empty plot across the Drostdy was purchased for R3000. It was intended for offices and an administration building, which was never built, though it now houses the Zanddrift House that was rebuilt on this plot in 1977.
The Museum’s growth persisted. Upon Ms. Nita Steyn passing in 1974, Mayville was bequeathed to the Museum, as well as the remainder of her estate, totaling R38 000. This was to be used exclusively to restore and maintain Mayville. Mayville was opened to the public in 1978, together with the now-famous heritage rose garden designed by Gwen Fagan. A heritage rose garden to be enjoyed by all was not only a wish but one of the terms in Ms. Steyn’s bequest.
The Drostdy Museum’s latest acquisition was its present Administration Building at 18 Swellengrebel Street in 1978. In 1980, when the Museum’s offices relocated, they coincidentally acquired their first vehicle – a long wheel-base “light delivery vehicle.” Since the 1980s, the Museum has experienced significant changes. The Drostdy Museum’s government funding has seen a sharp decline and is anticipated to continue in this trend.
One of the prominent repercussions of these budget cuts is the scarcity of trained museologists and staff. Presently, the Museum heavily relies on revenue generated from ticket sales and donations from both the local community and the broader public. Fortunately, due to the steadfast support from the public, the Museum still stands tall. Its lawns remain meticulously kept, roses continue to blossom, and the white facades of the buildings stand out against the lush backdrop of the mountain. The Museum’s resilience and determination to persevere are admirable, underscoring its status as one of our most cherished National Monuments and as Swellendam’s prominent tourist attraction.
Thanks to Anja Smith for the information and resources
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