Paintings, railways and cannibal forks: What could you discover this year at some of Suffolk’s leading museums?

The Mid Suffolk Light Railway's annual war time re-enactment event

The Mid Suffolk Light Railway's annual war time re-enactment event - Credit: citizenside.com

Suffolk’s museums offer a wealth of heritage, culture and engineering to those who wander through their doors. EDMUND CROSTHWAITE takes a look at what three organisations will be offering visitors in 2016.

A print workshop at Gainsborough's House

A print workshop at Gainsborough's House - Credit: Gregg Brown

At Gainsborough’s House in Sudbury there are hopes a multi-million pound lottery grant could lead to new buildings and additional gallery space.

The museum is the birthplace of its namesake artist, first opening in 1961 since when it has steadily built up its collections and its offering to visitors.

Explaining the grant application director Mark Bills said there were a number of reasons for pursuing it.

He said: “One is to do better what we do. Secondly because we want to be more resilient, create more income streams, attract more visitors.


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“Thirdly because the town is behind us and being part of the revival of the town. We get a lot of local support in our projects.”

An extension to the property, which would overlook the landscapes which Gainsborough himself would have painted, would include a landscape learning studio, new rooms “to show Gainsborough in ways we haven’t before” and a community gallery.

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The museum will hear from the HLF about the bid in March and approval would come off the back of a successful 2015 thanks to the hard work of volunteers and staff.

“We have more than 200 volunteers and we couldn’t survive without them, but we also have a core of paid staff,” Mr Bills said.

“We have had the highest visitors in our history the last two years but we want more to come in.

George and Edward Goymer enjoying a day out at the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway.

George and Edward Goymer enjoying a day out at the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway. - Credit: Sarah Lucy brown

“We’re working with a Dutch gallery next year and borrowing some pictures from them.”

With regards to other aspects of the museum’s future Mr Bills said: “We get money from a variety of sources. One is the local authority but that is a very small percentage and it’s reducing year on year.

“The main way we get money is fundraising and earned income. Our earned income is the admissions, our shop, events.”

This income supplements the main source of incoming cash for the museum, grants and donations as well as things like people signing up to its friends support group – but the idea is to change that.

“We’re planning a project in which we can improve our earned income,” Mr Bills said.

“We’ll never lose the need to fundraise but we hope we will switch the proportions.”

Tucked away in the corner of a field in Brockford is the Mid-Suffolk Light Railway Museum, the county’s only standard gauge heritage line and a previous Suffolk Museum of the Year.

Trains running on the museum’s quarter-mile long demonstration line giving a small taste of what it was line to be an Edwardian traveller steadily making their way through the county’s countryside.

A key attraction in 2016 will be the introduction of a new coach. Press and publicity officer John Reeve said: “We are close to completing the restoration of a third coach, a Great Eastern four-wheel vehicle of 1865, which will enable us to run three coach trains for the first time since the railway closed in 1952.

Tobias Aldred, aged 1, admires Constable's Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows on show at Christchu

Tobias Aldred, aged 1, admires Constable's Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows on show at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. - Credit: Archant

“Our programme for this year features a number of special events which have been successful in bringing visitors and rail fans including Middy in the War years, the Rail ‘n’ Ale weekend, a two day steam gala and Santa Specials, all of which have proved to be effective cash cows.”

Locomotives and coaches on the line are museum artefacts in themselves, along with some original buildings, and together weather the vagaries of the British weather away from the shelter of the specially-built museum building which houses the charity’s smaller items.

Mr Reeve added: “We are also well on with the restoration of our own locomotive, which once complete, should have a significant impact on our finances in that we will not have to spend so much on hiring outside locomotives.

“The museum seeks to emphasise and retain the unique atmosphere of the original line as a rural railway backwater but much loved and appreciated by the community it served.

“As such all the vehicles and locomotives are as near as possible to the style of and age of its original operation.

“Excepting one emergency diesel all locomotives and rolling stock is of an age which could have been seen on the Middy although little if any of the actual vehicles have survived.”

The costs involved in running full-size trains, even over a short distance, are significant (there are large water and coal bills associated with steam engines for obvious reasons), so it helps that the only member of paid staff is a part-time cleaner – everyone else gives their time freely.

Mr Reeve said: “The survival of the museum depends on a core of volunteers, enthusiasts and supporters who carry all the functions and business of the MSLR acting unpaid.

“We do not receive regular funding from any local or national government or councils, however we have been reasonably successful since being voted Suffolk Museum of the Year for 2014 in attracting grants for both specific projects and general funds.”

Income also arrives in the form of ticket sales and support from the associated Middy Trading Company, which runs the museum’s refreshment room, shop and real ale bar The Kitchener Arms.

Long term the railway hopes to one day extend its running line a short distance in order to give passengers a longer ride but during this year the focus is on its big set piece operating days.

In Ipswich one of the most recognisable buildings in the town is Christchurch Mansion, part of the wider Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service.

Staff at the mansion are aiming this year to draw in more young people early in life, knowing a good experience will bring them back as they get older.

“It starts for us with our school visits because it’s about getting people into the museums when they’re young, having a really good experience at a young age we know brings them back,” said Jayne Austin, the Ipswich museums manager. “That’s really important.

“The development of the Egyptian gallery a few years ago increased the number of school visits and again that helps sustain that and boost the income.

“Our evening events programme for next year is another income source but it’s all reaching an additional audience.”

But it is not just about organised school visits – specialist events, perhaps not directly linked with the mansion’s collections but using its impressive spaces, are also being run with younger attendees in mind.

Mrs Austin said: “We are developing and expanding the range of events we do and it’s about ensuring those events are reaching a range of different audiences.”

Izzy Keith, the mansion’s collections and learning curator, added: “For the events, what’s really important that we’re trying this year is we’re providing a more diverse range of events in comparison to other years.

“What we’re trying to tell the people of Ipswich is if you haven’t been to the museum in years this is a space for you that you can come to and do fun things. You don’t just have to come and look at the displays.”

The mansion’s high standing amongst other museums means it can offer access to world famous collections, from spectacular Constable paintings (it has the largest collection of his oil paintings outside London and hosted his renowned Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows last year) to sometimes grisly artefacts.

“There was a missionary from the area who built up a collection up but, alas, got eaten, and we have the fork he possibly was eaten with. It’s a great story, people love grisly stories,” said Carole Jones, Ipswich Borough Councils development portfolio holder, who’s remit includes the town’s museums.

Talking about this year’s plans for Christchurch Mansion Mrs Austin said: “We have quite an exciting exhibitions programme planned for the Ipswich Arts School Gallery for next year.

“And the mansion is being refurbished this year which means we’ll have many upgrades and improvements which will enable us to do a lot more. The whole world is here really.”

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