The Reinet House is the premier museum of Graaff-Reinet, which is saying something in a town full of interesting museums.
It was formally the parsonage of the Dutch Reformed Church, and its most famous resident was the Scottish parson Andrew Murray. He and his family quickly became "the" family in Graaff-Reinet; the shutters of his study window have remained closed since the day of his death as a mark of respect...look at any photograph of the front of the building and look at the window to the right of the front door.
The house, built between 1806 and 1812, is huge, and it takes several hours to walk around, given the fascinating collections in the house, in the cellar and around the gardens outside.
The main floor shows the house as it was when Andrew Murray lived here, and, as always in these kinds of museums, the kitchen is the most interesting place!
In the cellar below, collections of odds and ends over the years have created an amazing sequence of rooms devoted to arts and crafts, medical care, even computing and telephony! There is a carriage house, a blacksmith's and yet more carriages, including some period hearses.
When it all gets too much, you can just sit under the shade of the trees or in the herb garden and chill out in the warm sun.
The Dutch Reformed Church in Graaff-Reinet is the symbol of the town. few small towns anywhere in the world can have such a spectacular centre-piece.
Constructed between April1886 and consecrated in 1887, the church is loosely modelled on Salisbury Cathedral in England. It must have been irritating to the townspeople when the nearby town of Aberdeen finished a church with a taller steeple!
The congregation were very active in helping to build this, the fourth church to be built here (although the first burnt to the ground before being completed). The stone was quarried at Adendorp, 10km from the twon, and they loaded the stone onto their ox-wagons to deliver it to the building site. The third church had a thatched roof, so the leap to a structure that resembled Salisbury Cathedral must have been quite a magnificent sight for the people of Graaff-Reinet!
The church is a wealthy one, owning extremely valuable silverware, and still attracts a large congregation to its doors on a Sunday, although not, perhaps, the 2000 that turned up on the 11th September 1887 for it's first service.
The William Roe Photographic Exhibition
Born in England in 1827, William Roe emigrated to South Africa in 1858 with his wife and three children. Although trained as a chemist, his real love was photography and he enroled at the London School of Photography. On his arrival, he opened a studio at Port Elizabeth but quickly moved his business to Graaff-Reinet. He opened a studio next to the library, and made a name for himself photographing the great, the good and the rich of the area. He was very active in the town, contributing much time and money to community developments in a number of areas, including water supply, irrigation and agriculture.He chronicled the life of the town through the latter part of the 19th Century and the first decade of the 20th Century, providing a fascinating glimpse of old Graaff-Reinet. Tragically, many photographs were lost for ever in a major fire at the museum in 1980.
Much of his photographic equipment is displayed, as well as many of his photographs (he recorded the building of the nearby dam for posterity). Although it is claimed that nature photography was his great love, it will be his photographs of the local social life that will be his legacy; sadly, of course, that social history largely excludes the black population.
When diamonds were discovered in Kimberley, Roe packed up his kit and set off for the town to photograph the activities there. Most of the well-known photographs of the time, showing the frenzied action in the Big Hole were taken by Roe, but are now credited only to a well-known diamond company!
I don't know if his photographs have ever been catalogued or professionally published.
The Sobukwe Exhibition
Now this is where it starts to get difficult for modern-day Graaff-Reinet. Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan-African Congress, was born and brought up in the town. Despite his very rational, well argued and polite way of struggling against apartheid and white rule, Sobukwe terrified the authorities. So much so that they went as far as passing a law to keep him in prison on Robben Island, where he was a contemporary of Mandela. He was considered so dangerous that he was kept not in the main prison but in a separate house there, and never allowed to mix with the other prisoners. Like Steve Biko after him, Sobukwe had little time for the white liberals who, they believed, enjoyed the luxury of being white and added nothing to the liberation fight. The PAC and the ANC never saw eye to eye, and the rifts remain to this day.
In provincial, inland, isolated and Afrikaner Graaff-Reinet, this educated, thoughtful and driven freedom fighter was an embarrassment, and the creation of the memorial to his life in the town's museum must rankle with the old guard. It's a dilemma with which the Afrikaner community will need to come to terms. (Sobukwe's birthplace in the township of Umasizakhe is also open to the public).
There are four main collections in the Old Library Museum. It all feels a little dusty and the interepetation is maybe a little "1960s", but the collections are a valuable and educational insight to the history of different people in Graaff-Reinet.
First up, to the left of the entrance, is the Rykie Pretorius Clothing Exhibition, presenting mainly women's clothing from the late 19th to mid 20th Century. Rykie Pretorius was a fashion journalist and collected a variety of clothing from far and wide. There is just enough to make it interesting, and not enough to be boring.
The Bushman Rock Art is indicative of the art found around South Africa, and especially in the Karoo. None of the work here is original - but it does give the visitor the chance to see realistic recreations of this interesting art form without travelling huge distances from one site to another.
Now this is what those old museums used to be like, eh? Glass cabinets of pieces of rock and fossil. Remember that old movie "One of our dinosaurs is missing"? Yes. Well this looks just like that stereotypical Victorian-era museum, hushed and very scientific. Except for one thing: the fossils found in this room were all found very close by, all within a couple of hundred of kilometres of Graaff-Reinet. The Karoo Supergroup of rock formations contains some of the richest veins of evidence of life on the ancient Gondwanaland continent. Nowhere else on earth is there such a profusion of fossils as this part of South Africa. Not far from Graaff-Reinet is a place where the footprints of dinosaurs can be clearly seen on a rock bed (not open to the public), and the discovery and interpretation of this is explained on a big panel to the left of the front door. A very brief description of the geology and fossils in this area is at the tourism bureau's website.
The Old Library museum in Church Street is home to four separate collections, each one of which is worth the visit. Next door is the Hester Rupert Museum of Art. Note that this isn't then end of the museums in Graaff-Reinet, with the ever-expanding Reinet House museum and the Old Residence just 100 metres away down Parsonage Street.
The Old Library dates from 1847, and is a beautiful building in its own right.
The museum (and others in the town) have a good selection of bokks about the town and its people.
The official opening hours are Monday to Friday 08:00-12:30 and 14:00-17:00 and 09:00-12:00 at the weekends, but when we were in town (December 2005), they were staying open through the lunch break.
(See separate review for details on the contents of the museum)
So why are they here? The answer is in tobacco!
The father of the Rembrandt tobacco empire, Anton Rupert, was born in the town in 1916 and his heart never really left the town. The Ruperts and the Oppenheimers ecame the two (competing?) South African dynasties that everyone watched with interest, as they gre progressively more fabulously wealthy. Both families ploughed money into philanthropic foundations (the guilt conscience of the super-rich?), and much of that largesse headed for Graaff-Reinet. The Hester Rupert Art Gallery is perhaps the most obvious, but there is also the John Rupert Theatre in town, and many of the oldest buildings in town were bought and renovated with Rupert money. The Pierneef panles are, I believe, actually on loan to the Rupert Foundation (rather than to Graaff-Reinet) from Transet, the South African rail operator.
Anton Rupert created an almost unrivalled empire (think Rothmans, Peter Stuyvesant) and he built it up from virtually nothing in the 1940s. Sadly, he died last week (18th January 2006); who knows how Graaff-Reinet will fare without their long-time benefactor, or to the glorious station panels that are on display in the old missionary church in Middle Street.
Perhaps one of the most stunning single art collections in southern Africa, the J.H. Pierneef "station panels" are currrently displayed in a former church building in Parsonage Street in Graaff-Reinet. It doesn't even merit a mention in the latest Rough Guide to South Africa - a little like a guidebook on Rome not mentioning the Trevi Fountain.
A former director of the Johannesburg Art Gallery suggested that "Pierneef painted Africa. His landscapes were different from anything seen in paint before. Baines, Oerder and others had painted the same scenes, but Pierneef saw them with new eyes. He created an original style out of this new subject matter".
Those new eyes created arguably the definitive views of South African (and Namibian) scenery for the concourse of the Johannesburg Railway Station. Painted between 1929 and 1932, they were deliberately painted to be seen from below, in reduced light, by busy commuters and travellers. They portray, beautifully and simply, the landscapes of this country. 28 larger panels and 4 smaller ones (of indigenous trees) watched over the station concourse until the construction of a new building left them nowhere to hang.
More on Pierneef's life and here
Unsurprisingly, given Pierneef's iconic status in 20th century art, many have come to associate his 'perfect landscape' with the apartheid concepts of 'perfect race' and his art has been deliberately used as a basis for some contemporary artists to savage the past. An interesting article on this phenomenon is here.
Whatever your views on the political nature of the station panels (or Pierneef in general), they do represent an artistic peiod in the history of South Africa, and their presence in Graaff-Reinet surely justifies a long trip here.
Graaff-Reinet is definitely a walking town, and its long history is on show for all to see, under big trees shading the pavement, along the long streets and in the whitewashed houses.
The town has a distinctive Wild West feel, yet it is also a modern town with modern facilities. The streets are quiet and everyone is friendly; no-one will bother you, but if you stop and ask someone a question, you will make a new friend. Friendliness is a definitie hallmark here.
Yet for all its tranquility and peacefulness, there is a paradox. During the Truth and Reconciliation Process in the 1990s, a former policeman from the town described, in menacing terms, how Graaff-Reinet was an Afrikaner town, saying that "In Graaff-Reinet even the dogs bark in Afrikans". We didn't feel this at all, and felt more at ease here than almost anywhere else in South Africa: everyone was friendly. The dogs sounded multilingual to us, anyway, and my daughter insists that one was definitely using a clicking sound!
However, it is easy in South Africa for white tourists like us to completely "miss" the tensions and the simmering issues, and this picturesque town sits below two suburban townships. A lack of time prevented us from visiting this area - or Mangaliso Robert Sobukwe's birthplace - and we feel bad about that.
Graaff-Reinet is pretty and it exudes charm, and is regularly voted one of the most popular small towns in the country.
We particularly enjoyed wandering the streets around Parsonage Street and those to the north of the church, where little seems to have changed in a long, long while.
You must see the Sunset in the valley of desolation, if you're lucky you can see the sun going down between the rocks. We had however the luck to see a kind of snowstorm, and totaly no view of the sun.
Amazing views of the dolerite columns and surrounding area. There are short walks to some of the look-out points and longer hiking trails if you want.
Right up the main road is a beautiful church, really stunning, you can miss it as you drive around it when going up north.