Centenary celebration for South Africa’s first house museum

  • Posted: Mar 7, 2014

Iziko Koopmans–de Wet House
Free entry on Monday, 10 March 2014

Iziko Museums of South Africa will commemorate the centenary of South Africa’s first house museum, offering free entry to Iziko Koopmans de–Wet House, on Monday, 10 March 2014. The house itself, originally built around 1700, still looks much the same today as it did then – a typical town house with symmetrical Neoclassical façade, and spacious rooms.

One hundred years ago, on 10 March 1914, people gathered at 35 Strand Street, Cape Town, to witness the opening of Koopmans-de Wet House. This national museum was named in honour of its last and most famous resident, Marie Koopmans-de Wet, who had died in 1906. During his address at the opening, Mr John Parker, Mayor of Cape Town at that time, spoke about the growing awareness and appreciation of local heritage in South Africa. He described how the opportunity to transform the house into a small but important museum had arisen after the deaths of its last two occupants, Marie Koopmans-de Wet and her sister Margaretha de Wet.

Mr Parker noted that the government availed £3,000 for the project, and that an appeal for public subscriptions had been made for additional funding. Approximately 30 municipalities from across the country gave money totalling £2,300, to which the city of Cape Town added a further sum of £500. Of all this money, £2,800 was used to buy the house, and the rest used for upkeep and the purchase of appropriate contents for the museum, most of which were selected from the original contents of the house.

The South African Museum (today Iziko South African Museum), established as early as 1825, was allocated responsibility for the care of the new museum, South Africa’s first house museum, and one of the Museum’s staff, Dr FW Purcell, volunteered to take on honorary curatorship. Under his supervision, until his death in 1919, each room was painstakingly restored, and the house became a centre where cultural treasures were exhibited in a domestic setting, though with little or no focus on the people who had lived there. Between 20,000 and 25,000 people visited the house annually between 1914 and 1925.

Marie Koopmans-de Wet, born in 1834, was the oldest child of Advocate Johannes de Wet and Adriana Horak. Marie married Johan Koopmans, an officer in the German Legion, in 1864. She was widowed 15 years later, and from that time lived in the family home in Strand Street with her sister, Margaretha, until Marie’s death in 1906.

Marie was energetic, charismatic, strong-minded, and passionate about Cape heritage. Her connections with people of influence helped to save several significant buildings in Cape Town from being demolished or damaged, most significantly the Castle of Good Hope at the time that the Cape Town Station was being built.

Marie was a well-known hostess who encouraged discussion and debate about political and cultural topics of the day. She received many personalities of high standing in her home, including Cecil John Rhodes and Paul Kruger. She liked to interact with promising young students, and encouraged learning and intellectual enrichment amongst them, to the extent that she allocated funds for study bursaries in her will.

She supported the Boer Republics during the South African War, and helped the Boer women and children in need (especially those imprisoned in concentration camps) by collecting clothing and supplies from all over the world on their behalf. The house became a depot of all that she collected, from where it was distributed to the various centres of need.

Today the house no longer displays the Victorian clutter of Marie’s era, with papered walls, thick tasseled curtains and plethora of trinkets. Over the years, the rooms have been reconstructed to illustrate an earlier period – the time of Marie’s grandmother, the widow Margaretha Smuts, around 1806. It displays amongst the best Cape furniture and silver, as well as the blue and white Chinese ceramics which were once so popular at the Cape, and much more.

But more than this, the interpretation in the house today tells the stories in an inclusive way of the lives of people who once lived and worked there – unfree and free, slave and slave owner. The widow Margaretha Smuts had five children, and she had seven slaves whose names and professions we know. Her house is a lone survivor, together with the Lutheran parsonage (today the Gold of Africa Museum), of the many homes, both humble and grand, which once existed in Strand Street and the alley-ways which led off it.

As the first house museum in the country, Koopmans-de Wet House remains a cultural centre that enhances insights into our heritage, and continues to encourage interactive participation in topical debates in ways far broader than Marie Koopmans-de Wet would ever have envisaged.

During this, its centenary year, a special exhibition is planned for August, titled Corsets and couture, which will display eight designer garments from the 1960s-1990s, created by Chris Levin and donated by Mark Coetzee. These garments will contrast with a typical black late-Victorian dress as would have been worn by Marie Koopmans-de Wet, highlighting the liberating changes in women’s wear 100 years later.

Guided tours available on request.

Enquiries: Wieke van Delen

Tel. 021 467 7203

Email wvandelen@iziko.org.za


Issued by: Melody Kleinsmith

Communications Coordinator: Institutional Advancement, Iziko Museums of South Africa

Telephone +27 (0) 21 481 3861                                   Facsimile +27 (0) 21 461 9620
Cell 073 107 4955                                                           E-mail mkleinsmith@iziko.org.za
Website http://www.iziko.org.za                            

On behalf of:     Office of the CEO, Iziko Museums of South Africa

Notes to editor:

About Iziko Museums of South Africa (Iziko)

Iziko operates 11 national museums, the Planetarium, the Social History Centre and three collection‑specific libraries in Cape Town.  The museums that make up Iziko have their own history and character, presenting extensive art, social and natural history collections that reflect our diverse African heritage.  Iziko is a public entity and non-profit organisation that brings together these museums under a single governance and leadership structure.  The organisation allows *free access to all individuals on commemorative days, (*excluding the Castle of Good Hope and Planetarium). Visit our webpage at www.iziko.org.za, join our online community on Facebook (www.facebook.com/IzikoMuseums) or follow us on Twitter (@Iziko_Museums) for regular updates on events, news and new exhibitions. 

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