Feature: Introducing the Huguenot Museum, by Emma Dewhurst

Oil_painting_of_Clara_le_Heup_by_John_Giles_Eckhardt

Kent’s Rochester High Street is about to gain another gem: Britain’s first museum of Huguenot history opens on 13 May 2015. 

A quiet transformation has been effected at the heart of Rochester High Street. Since September 2014, the top two floors of the building which houses Medway’s Visitor Information Centre have been stripped back, re-envisaged and re-created as Britain’s very first museum of Huguenot history.

The driving force for this spectacular project came from trustees of The French Hospital, ‘La Providence’, founded in 1718 just a few doors down from the new museum to provide help and shelter to Huguenot settlers in need. It operates under the same principles today, offering independent accommodation to Huguenot descendants, with access to support nearby.

A desire to find a permanent home for the French Hospital’s private collections, and to tell the fascinating story behind these treasures, led to a successful application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to develop the new museum. The project was awarded £1.2M, which was match-funded by the French Hospital to bring the final sum to £1.5M.

Museum Director, Hannah Kay, tells me: “”It really is a hidden history that affects most of us in this country… The whole project has been led by the collections and the story and the desire to tell it.”

Fresh from working on the National Maritime Museum’s Nelson display, Kay’s appointment in July last year is one of many indications that at all points, quality and experience have been an essential part of the project’s mix.

A tour of the museum confirms this view: visitors who knew the building previously will be delighted by its elegant transformation. The evident attention to design, materials employed and the quality of workmanship pay compliment to the skills of the original Huguenot craftsmen.

The Museum

The first room in the Huguenot Museum

Given that the museum itself is housed in only three rooms, it is astonishing what has been achieved. Restrictions of floor space have led to imaginative solutions in the use of wall space to tell the Huguenot story. And a remarkable story it is. The Huguenots were French Protestants, driven out of France in 1685 by Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes, which had previously allowed for tolerance. Those who did stay were made to denounce their Protestant faith to the Pope and suffered brutally if caught observing their faith.

A water-damaged, beaten up Bible speaks volumes: Kay tells me it was put into dough and baked to avoid discovery. Large, life-size wall pictures based on original illustrations tell the story of the illegal migration of 500,000 Huguenots to elsewhere in Europe, or to America.  Some 50,000 made their perilous way across the Channel to England, where their many skills in the fields of crafts, science, arts, education and military leadership contributed to the formation of modern Britain.

The visitor experience is multi-fold, with ways in for all: short, punchy verbal snapshots punctuate the visual unfolding on the walls; a hands-on station allows for a tactile experience of Huguenot imports – luxurious silk, jewellery, clothes – and a film stop gives us five ‘Talking Heads’ of Huguenot descendants speaking today.

Huguenot Museum Interior

The final room introduces us to individual Huguenot faces in the sumptuous oil portraits from the collection, and allows us to make the connection between the Huguenot story and a million other refugee stories happening today. A wall graphic guides us through all the refugees to find themselves on our shores, of whom the Huguenots were the first. A few, small wall plaques throughout the exhibition voice the thoughts of contemporary refugees represented by an organisation called Refugee Action. Their words are thought-provoking and resonant.

The Learning Space

It is the Museum Director’s hope that a large majority of the visitors to the Museum on the first floor will attend the Learning Space on the second, a large, flexible space where visitors can take workshops to learn the skills of the Huguenot craftsmen, including jewellery making (there is a hotplate for silversmithing in a built-to-purpose crafts table); book-binding and more. A set of replica Huguenot school clothes await interactive visits from schools and a glass case will house pieces of the collection brought up to act as inspiration.

The Store

In the basement of the building a store has been made to keep safe artefacts and  documents donated to the Museum, which has already begun to extend its collections with objects from the National Archive and donations from the Museum of London.

“Our aim is to become a trusted repository,” says Kay. “We hope families out there of Huguenot descent will want to bequeath to the Museum.”

Already in the treasures on display for the opening is a 1767 christening gown in exquisite silk lent by a family at ‘La Providence’ which had been sitting in a box on top of a wardrobe…

The Archive

There is also a quiet calm room on the first floor dedicated to Huguenot research which Kay hopes will be used to check Huguenot ancestry, or research objects within the archive.

Every other country to which the Huguenots fled already have such a heritage centre. It is right and timely that the new Huguenot Museum will be ours. It is even more exciting that it is here, in our midst, fully accessible to all. One in six British people have Huguenot blood: here’s the story behind that fact, and perhaps the beginning of many new stories for us all.

The Huguenot Museum opens to the public on Wednesday 13 May. It is situated at 95 High Street, Rochester ME1 1LX. Opening times: Wednesday to Saturday 10am – 5pm. Tel: 01634 789347.

Admission: Adults £4, Concs £3, Family Ticket £10.00. Children under 5 go free. Receive 12 months free entry when you Gift Aid your entrance fee.

VOLUNTEER! The Huguenot Museum welcomes volunteers. If you would like to apply, or to know more, please get in touch with Hannah Kay, Museum Director, at director@huguenotheritagecentre.org.uk or call the number above.

This article first appeared as the main feature in the May 2015 issue of WOW magazine.

Portrait: Clara Le Heup, 1747 (oil on canvas) by John Giles Eckhardt, (fl.1740-79); The French Hospital, Rochester, Kent. [Reproduction permission from The Bridgeman Art Library required].