The museum tells the story of the origins of the township and its rich farming history. Cambrai is a small town on the eastern side of the Mount Lofty Ranges along the River Marne and is within an extensive farming district. It was originally known as Rhine Villa and was one of the many Australian towns renamed during the First World War to remove any connection with German place names. In 1918 it was named after the Battle of Cambrai.
The museum consists of a small complex of buildings including a 1911 church building originally St John’s ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia) which in 1967 merged with the Church of Hope, UELCA (United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia to form St John’s Lutheran Church Cambrai, LCA (Lutheran Church of Australia), finally closing in 1968 before being purchased for the museum in 1971.
There is also Pietsch Cottage, originally built in the 1850s 3 km SE of the Melrose Rhine Station home belonging to Scottish pioneer George Melrose. This crudely constructed, pug and pine three room cottage was originally home to one of Melrose’s shepherd families. Eventually, the government reclaimed it under a type of exchange deal, so Melrose was able to enlarge his property. The story is told that it originally had an iron roof, which was stripped off in 1860 before the Government terminated the lease on it. In the early 1870s it became the home of JG Heinrich Pietsch when he bought the land and he raised eight children here with his wife Maria, née Vorwek, who he married on 2 October 1890. In 1928 a limestone concrete kitchen was built and it remained a home until Maria’s death in 1939 when it was abandoned as a result of the Government’s closer settlement scheme, which meant many small farms became unprofitable. It was dismantled by museum members and removed to its present location next to the church in 1972. It was later restored and reopened in 2008.
The Archives hold a large amount of historical artefacts and documents relating to this area, dating back to the turn of the century and an Archives Extension was built with financial support from the Mid Murray council and opened by the Mayor in 2001. In the same year a Centenary of Federation Time capsule was buried in the grounds, to be opened on 1 April 2101.
The museum has varied collection of agricultural equipment and tractors stored in a long shed at the back of the complex which also includes a typical South Australian bush shelter made out of mallee tree roots.