A South African-born entrepreneur is helping to bring the stories of her Huguenot ancestors to the world through VR-technology she has pioneered in Scotland.

Michelle Milnes (nee Cillié) set up the multi-award-winning proptech company, Property Studios, in Scotland eight years ago. Michelle was tracing the footsteps of her Huguenot great-grandfather from Wellington, who studied medicine at Edinburgh University, and remained in Scotland after falling in love with its rich cultural heritage.

Property Studios today leads the way in the property technology sector in the UK, offering photo-realistic, razor-sharp 3D and virtual-reality tours, CGIs, virtual staging, and computer-generated makeovers. It now counts some of the UK’s biggest property names, museums and galleries as clients and is expanding into European markets, Ethiopia, Australia and South Africa.

And it’s in the latter – Michelle’s homeland – that she’s sharing her lifelong interest in her ancestors, the Huguenots, the French protestants who fled persecution by the Catholic Church in the 17th Century. Of that diaspora of more than 160 000, only around 300 settled in South Africa, yet made an indelible mark on its culture as well as its genealogy.

That heritage – with its facets of power, belief, freedom and myth – provides fertile material for Michelle and her team to create a VR exploration of the Huguenot Memorial Museum in the town of Franschhoek (literally “French corner”) in the Cape Winelands. The technology allows anyone, from anywhere in the world, to virtually visit the museum in 3D, view the exhibits and listen to the curator talking about the pieces. 

Michelle says, “Our technology dovetails with the beautiful and evocative space and exhibits of the museum. Tracey Randle’s exquisite curation of objects – chairs, Bibles, crocheted goods, lanterns, clocks – allows an enriching and immersive multimedia exploration of the Huguenots’ world.

“It felt like an important project for me personally, but also a timely one in the larger context of forced migration and its human toll. There are now 26m refugees in the world; that’s the equivalent of the population of Cameroon.

“It’s part of an important, wider debate about displacement and national identity. Those debates happen around the world, and the online presence of the museum can leaven those discussions.”

Michelle adds that another fascinating aspect of the museum is the display of matrilineal ancestry: “Although the Huguenots lived in a stridently patriarchal society, the role of women is eloquently shown. Again, that’s an important debate for our time.”

Dr Andrew Kok, chair of the Huguenot Memorial Society of SA says, “The Huguenot Memorial Museum and adjoining Huguenot Monument tell the story of freedom from political and religious oppression. The moral strength and courage of the Huguenots places their story beyond the boundaries of time, place, ethnicity and religion. This is a must-do visit for everyone who believes in these values.”

You can take the VR tour in English or Afrikaans. The museum itself, in Franschhoek, is open, with Covid-prevention protocols in place.

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