Rural museum looking to brighter future

THE Museum of East Anglian Life has always had a reputation as being rather homespun with an agricultural bent displaying farm tools and machinery. KAREN HINDLE meets some of the people who are poised to change all that.

THE Museum of East Anglian Life has always had a reputation as being rather homespun with an agricultural bent displaying farm tools and machinery. KAREN HINDLE meets some of the people who are poised to change all that.

Set in 75 acres of beautiful grounds and countryside in the middle of Stowmarket, the Museum of East Anglian Life has attracted thousands of visitors over the generations since it opened 40 years ago.

It was set up to celebrate the rural and industrial past of Norfolk and Suffolk. While that is still the aim the museum is poised on the brink of greatness with a £1.771 million Heritage Lottery Fund grant.

Museum director Tony Butler and the volunteer trustees, chaired by Mike Argent, have put together a plan which will catapult the museum to the forefront of visitor attractions in the county.

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The aim is to widen the appeal of the museum so they can tap into another visitor stream including art lovers, theatre and dance lovers, gardeners and people who want to walk round the nature walks.

There are ambitious plans for permanent and temporary galleries, ceremonial rooms, and all with the common ideals of community, environment and sustainability running through them.

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To call it a museum might be something of a misnomer by the time they have finished.

To complete their plans - and to secure the lottery funding which has been pledged to them - they have to raise £830,000.

They are already half way and have a further two years to rake in the remaining £400,000 or so. Hence the launch of the MEAL Appeal.

At the end of the two year period they should have amassed £2.6million to transform buildings on the site.

Many people have asked what on earth could they possibly need £2.6milion for, but when you see what they are aiming to do, it is difficult to see how they are going to stretch it that far.

Tony said: “We are very good at getting a quart out of a pint pot. We are very inventive and we will do it.

“The lottery funding decision is fantastic, but now we have to do some work to realise our dreams for this place.”

And what dreams they are.

The museum that we have, probably, all visited as children, seeing the farm machinery, implements and animals will remain as it is.

Also the social enterprise schemes, which help equip people for the world of work will continue and expand.

At the moment a number of prisoners from Hollesley Bay are on the Stowmarket site learning new skills such as driving a forklift truck with a view to finding a job when they leave prison.

Mike said: “We had one lad here who was a keen mechanic. We had an old Land Rover and he stripped the whole thing down and rebuilt it. Another came who was a tree surgeon and he went through all our trees and gave them a brand new lease of life.

“These are practical skills which are transferable to the world of work.”

Some of them have been working on the walled garden which is also part of the renovation project.

But the main body of work will centre on the Abbott's House, a splendid, rare Grade 1** which will celebrate its 300th birthday next year.

Tony said: “It is a much more attractive building on the outside than it is on the inside.”

Mike added that the building was bought by the farming Longe family in the 20th century and after the death of the farmer himself, his two daughters lived there together until their deaths in the 1960s.

Towards the end of their lives the building was converted to make life easier for them including a stair lift and other facilities for the elderly women.

The renovated building will house exhibition and gallery space which will result in five permanent exhibition rooms, two temporary galleries and two ceremonial rooms to broaden the appeal even further.

Tony said the five permanent galleries will examine how a farm estate was run in the past and how sustainable it was.

Tony said: “We want to look at the whole issue of globalisation, climate change, sustainability but on a local level. We want to explore how a town could be self-sufficient. We want to look at travel and understanding the strengths of your locality.

“Kind of 'think globally, act locally'.”

He added: “We have lots of material that we cannot show at the moment because we don't have an environmentally controlled space.

“We have workers costumes, farm implements, sheep and horse boots, but none of these can be on permanent display because they are too fragile.”

Within the exhibition rooms there are also plans to look at the image of the inhabitants of East Anglia from within and without.

“We want to know what it was and is like to be an East Anglian. What does it mean to the people who live here? We want to celebrate the uniqueness of life here.

“We also want to look at the hidden, more difficult aspects of life in East Anglia. We are going to look at the hidden regime of life at St Audrey's, where people were put if they were slightly out of the ordinary or who had suffered mental illness.

“We have some rather difficult stories to tell of people who were in there. It shows how uncaring we were to people who suffered mental illness.”

Tony added there will also be a celebration of gypsies and travellers who were part of the fabric of East Anglian life in the 1930s and 1940s.

“We have a number of gypsy wagons, some of which are on display and some more we will add to that.

“For quite a long time we have worked with settled families and travellers to foster greater understanding between their cultures.

“Romanies were a vital part of the landscape, helping during harvest, particularly,” said Tony.

He added the two main principles behind the galleries and exhibition rooms are sustainability and community and all that those two things encompass.”

Within the temporary galleries there is a desire to bring some top notch exhibits to the centre.

Mike said: “I have this dream, it might be a way off yet, but I would like to see us staging an exhibition of East Anglian artists which would include the likes of Gainsborough, Constable and Cotton. But to do that we have to make it worth while for galleries and museums to let us exhibit them. So the exhibition rooms have to be top notch.”

Displaying such works of art would come under the Government Indemnity Standard whereby funds are made available for borrowing items from national collections.

Tony said: “The museum has had a homespun, agricultural feel to it, with people believing it is all about agriculture. While it is certainly about that it is so much more.

“With the renovations and work we are doing here we are hoping to broaden the appeal of the museum so it is not just somewhere for children to come on a trip out.

“We have a walled garden which will be renovated and stocked with produce which will be sold in the shop but also used in our cooking in the café.

“We have our large black pigs which are used for sausages, chops and so on.

“This is where food comes from. There used to be that cliché that children from inner cities during the war didn't know that milk came from a cow. Well that is still true in part today. We live in an age now where we are so far removed from food production that people do not appreciate what goes into food production.”

Mike added: “We want this museum to be a place not only where people come and see and learn, but they can do as well.

“We are hoping keen gardeners out there will want to help restore the walled kitchen garden and suggest what will be planted in there.”

To enhance this real feel, two labourers' cottages are also part of the renovation project. At the moment the two 18th century cottages are derelict.

Tony said: “We have been working hard to get them renovated we wanted to show the poor man at the rich man's gate.

“One of the cottages was lived in by a horseman and his wife who ran a small dairy selling milk from the back of the house.

“He died, but when she left in the 1960s she left the entire contents of the cottage to the museum.''

Mike added: “They had a fridge, but they didn't use it as such because they didn't trust such things but they used it as a cupboard. Today when you open that door you look straight in at the piglets. Because that is where your food comes from. That is what your fridge is stocked with.

“Some places dress places as they would have been, but we have a chance to dress it as it really was. It is a fantastic opportunity to really bring that piece of history alive. These are the actual implements this lady would have used in her life.”

Controversially the Round House or the old Settling House from Bury St Edmunds is also coming to the museum.

It was a place where all accounts were settled on market day. It will be restored and given a permanent home on the site.

So all in all it is quite a list.

With 40,000 visitors a year and a turnover of £280,000 the museum is already far more successful than most and the aim is to build on that success and appeal.

Mike said: “We are not trying to say support our project so we can get our toys working again.

“This is not a them and us situation. We want the money to come from as broad a spectrum as it can so we have a kind of pyramid with the big investors at the top. But the main contributions will come from the people who drop five, 10, 20 pounds in an envelope because they have visited perhaps and have liked what they have seen.”

He added he believes the Lottery bid was successful because they listened to what was being asked of them and they were prepared to collaborate with a number of organisations to be a success.

Tony said: “We have always collaborated with many organisations and this is one more collaboration. We have two years to pull this off. We have to remember many people choose to live in East Anglia because of all it means - slower pace of life, beautiful scenery - and we want to celebrate all of it.”

- If you are able to contribute to the MEAL Appeal contact Tony Butler on 01449 612229 or visit their website at or write to them at MEAL Appeal, The Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket, Suffolk, IP14 1DL

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