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November 2010 Meeting Report

Saffron Walden Museum over 175 years by Carolyn Wingfield

This popular museum celebrated the 175th birthday of its founding in May 2010. It was built on the site of the Saffron Walden Castle and opened in May 1835, making it one of the oldest purpose built museums in the country. The founding fathers were Jabey Gibson, one of the Quaker Gibsons; John Player (of the cigarette family) and Richard Griffin, 3rd Lord Braybrooke of Audley End. Their aim was to “illustrate the arts, manufactures and habits of the different nations”. As the founders were very influential, artefacts from all over the world were quickly obtained. These included aboriginal objects from Australia and also vast quantities of natural history specimens and stuffed birds and animals, including a hippopotamus. One of the most famous of the early exhibits was a lion, known as Wallace. He was born in Edinburgh in 1812, the first African lion to be born in captivity, and was exhibited up and down the country: when he died in about 1837 his owner had him stuffed and donated him to the museum, where he has been ever since, by the Museum entrance!

A Queen Emma from Hawaii, as a result of a visit from Lord Harvey, an early Victorian missionary, donated some highly decorated barkcloth textiles. Some fine Mandarin Chinese ceramics were also amongst the earlier exhibits, one of which featured the ancient swastika motive, but in an anticlockwise orientation, unlike the hateful 20th century version.

A very unusual earlier exhibit was a stuffed elephant donated by Robert Dunn, after forming one of the prized exhibits of the Great Exhibition of 1851. Sadly, it slowly deteriorated and was later removed to a new home after about 1960, where it was kept outside when it rapidly disintegrated.

Now, the Museum has eight galleries covering archaeology; ancient Egypt; animals and plants; ceramics and glass; costumes; geology and world cultures. Amongst some of the more notable exhibits is a stuffed bittern from America, blown across the Atlantic in the 1820s; a very rare Viking necklace, which now forms the logo of the Museum; a 1948 TV costing £99 and a horse drawn carriage. There is also a superb collection of fossils, rare minerals and precious stones.

Because of limited space many objects are in storage, but hopefully, within a year, the new Saffron Walden Heritage Quest Centre in Thaxted Road will be open, where many more objects will be displayed.

The Museum and exhibits are owned by the Saffron Walden Museum Society, and managed in partnership with the Uttlesford District Council. The Museum is open Monday – Saturday from 10am, and Sundays / Bank Holidays from 2.00pm. It’s well worth a visit!

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