Happy Birthday to us! 20 years of Chippenham Museum

23rd March 2020 / Museum, Museum blog

“It started with a bang, but no one thought it would last. Chippenham just doesn’t want a museum, they said. Public interest, it was forecast, would fade and die. But a small group of volunteers, who organize the museum project in the ancient Yelde Hall, Chippenham have proved them all wrong”

The Chronicle – May 1964

On 23rd March 2000, the new Chippenham Museum and Heritage Centre opened its doors to the public for the first time.

The opening, in the former Magistrates building in the Market Place, was the culmination of five years of hard work and effort by all involved.

The idea of a museum was first put forward in the Victorian era but it wasn’t until 1963 that a group of local historians and volunteers, supported by the then Borough Council, took over the medieval Yelde Hall and launched an appeal for items.

So successful was the museum that new larger premises had to be found. With support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Wiltshire Council, North Wiltshire District Council, charities and donations, the museum relocated to two Georgian town houses said to be built on the site of King Alfred’s hunting lodge.

The museum also employed its first professional staff who developed the museum’s initial galleries on the ground floor. These told the story of significant moments in the town’s development. Many people will remember the talking King Alfred model and the Victorian school room and kitchen.

The first professional curator, Mike Stone, was appointed in 2000. Further Heritage Lottery funding allowed the museum to extend onto the second floor as well as creating storage for the museum’s growing collection. Research facilities and an education service for local schools were also set up with funding from the Town Council, the Borough Lands Charity and the Rotary Club.

In 2001 Chippenham’s newly enlarged Museum was formally opened by HRH the Duke of Edinburgh.

In the first 10 years the museums service grew rapidly with a team of professional staff supported by over 70 knowledgeable volunteers. By 2010 the museum had welcomed its 200,000 visitor. I was lucky enough to join this amazing team as curator in 2010 following Mike Stone’s retirement.

Shelf in a museum store filled with many brown glazed stoneware bottles

The last 10 years have seen continued development with visitor numbers increasing yearly. Over 35,000 objects have been collected, catalogued and cared for. Displays are constantly being changed and updated so that there is always something different to see.

In 2018 the addition of a gallery space, funded by Arts Council England, allowed bigger, better temporary exhibitions and the launch of a new annual project ARTSPACE@Chippenham Museum with the aim of showcasing the best of local and contemporary art. The exhibition programme is supported by a wider programme of workshops, special events and activities.

Exhibition of ceramic vessels on white plinths and framed drawings on blue walls

An improved frontage, new entrance and shop now shows more of the building’s Georgian splendor and also allows a better visitor welcome. This was recognized by a recent the Civic Society award and by a platinum award from the Chippenham BID for the great visit welcome provided by our volunteers, many of whom have been with the museum from its beginning

A Museum friends group, established to provide support to the museum, now has its own programme of events and has been successful in raising funds to purchase objects for our growing collection.

In January we were delighted to have been awarded Arts Council, England’s Museum Accreditation. This is awarded in recognition of the museum’s high professional standards and the work of our hard working museum team and volunteers.

And although we are currently closed until further notice, we will be re-opening soon with a brand new exhibition and updated displays, so watch this space!