Our rambling reporter, T.B.D Rose, hangs up her walking boots for a moment, to enjoy a guided tour of our town gem, The Wiltshire Museum….
Opened in 1873, Wiltshire Museum, on 41 Long Street Devizes, isn’t much to look at from the front but holds a nationally renowned world of wonders in its walls.
Walking me through the basics of the museum’s most famed collections was its director of over 12 years, David Dawson.
David often finds that although the museum is the major attraction for visitors, the reception with locals is a different story: they often take a “oh yeah, I went to the museum 30 years ago, there’s not much there, it’s not for me” attitude, and that it’s as simply “a tiny museum full of cobwebs and it’s stuck in a part of town they don’t go to.”
As the age-old adage goes, it’s easier to look at the outside than it is the inside.
The Assize Court
For these reasons and to save another treasured part of local history, the museum is working with Assize Court Trust in a long-term plan to make the abandoned Devizes Assize Court the new home of Wiltshire Museum.
Following a consultation this time last year, a hundred-page report of what could engage visitors was produced. It doesn’t differ much from the current set up of the museum but will probably make it worth £2,000000 to the local economy, more than twice it’s worth currently.
Although he sees the enormous potential once the museum moves to the Assizes Court, David wants people to visit the museum now and hopes to reach our local readership.
So on to the museum!
Stonehenge and the Bronze Age
Having started our interview in a part of the building that was once a Georgian grammar school, it turns out the museum is in fact five buildings knocked together, including two Georgian town houses and a link building.
We begin on the ground floor covering the Bronze Age which was once a 1980s art gallery extension, the floor having originally been converted into the museum in 1872.
David gives me the rundown.
“What we’re best known for is our prehistory collection, particularly the Bronze Age, so that’s the time from about 2200 BC to 1500 BC, and what everyone thinks of at that time is Stonehenge.” The world-famous monument that needs no introduction.
For people looking for something closer to home, “Stonehenge seems a long way away, we do have objects from a burial on top of Roundway, Roundway down, which has the largest copper dagger ever found in Britain. And that’s a much earlier burial that’s about 2300 BC. And we think he, the chap who was buried there, probably grew up on the continent. But came across and was buried here.”
The objects he was buried with are currently in a traveling exhibition in the US, having been at four venues so far it will eventually be going to New Zealand and Australia.
“At the moment we’re also lending to two exhibitions in Germany, and that’s Stonehenge and the Bronze Age. And come early next year we’ll be lending some of our stuff to the British museum for a major exhibition about prehistoric Europe, because we have the best Bronze Age collection in the country.”
“So other museums have to come to us to cover the Bronze Age.”
As it’s important to note, David eloquently explains away a common misconception about our ancestors: “Most people think people at the time were like Fred Flintstone bashing each other over the head with clubs, no! These guys were really, really sophisticated.”
I won’t spoil it any further for you but this part of the museum is certainly the place for archaeology buffs.
The Kingdom of the Saxons
Here you can learn all about the Saxon people and the coming of Christianity and the branches of the Church, the most often noted one founded by St. Nicholas and brought to our shores by St. Augustine.
In addition to this often-referenced part of our religious development, David points out a less commonly known factor, “what everyone forgets is that the Irish Church survived from the late Roman period and there were missionaries coming across from Ireland, and so in Malmesbury for example there was an Irish monk who founded a monastery, before the St. Augustine type of missionary arrived.”
Among many other colourful characters, you can also learn the life story of a Christian woman of high status, who may have been an Abbes and possibly even the daughter of a King of Wessex.
The Story of Devizes
An aptly named section which, as David put it, “does what it says on the can.”
Beginning from, well, the earliest beginning to prehistory and the Romans (there having been Roman settlements here) through to Medieval town and castle, and a wonderful quirkily constructed model by John Girvan (our local tour guide, history buff and ghost walk host) of what the town may have looked like.
And also on show is a book of charters given to the town and made in the Tudor Period, which you’ll see is beautifully illustrated.
“We also talk about the story of The Battle of Roundway, and we’ve also got some cannon balls found in the town, musket balls found in the battle site,” etc.
There’s also a section on the old Prison (the museum even has one of its thick wooden barred doors) and the Asylum.
“There’s going to be a Channel Four program that’s going to dig up bits of the Prison from people’s back gardens,” says David, that the museum is involved in, which will start essentially in the second week of September.
Then you can see the majestic mayoral robe from the 1880s, we probably had our first mayor around 12000.
Fun fact if you’re a Devizes School Student: you’ll see a mourning ring in the cabinet beside the robe, it contains a lock of hair from the lady in the portrait that hangs in the school entrance.
In the next room David told me the heart-warming story of a boy and his toy submarine (now on display in the cabinet), made by prisoners of war who had befriended him while they were in Swindon building houses.
“This toy submarine was made by guys in the camp and given to a young lad in Swindon. The guys in the camp were being taken to Swindon to help build houses and they made friends with this lad and they gave him that as a present.”
With over 20,000 books and 20,000 archaeological journals, 30,000 photos and lots of archival material, and working with “over 30 postgraduate researchers every year and over 10 universities,” it’s not only a Library but also a research hub.
For anyone wanting to look through the archive, “pretty much everything we’ve got is searchable through our online database, it’s got images of everything, I think we’ve got about 15-20,000 images.”
The library’s archive of books, some donated by authors and others bought by the museum, covers the entire county.
I bid David adieu and thanked him for the informative tour: Bear in mind this was only a tour of the highlights, there’s far more in store for visitors.
Wiltshire Museum is funded by £12,780 in grant from Wiltshire Council and £4,000 from our Town Council, but they’re worth 3 quarters of a million pounds to the local economy, because as David illustrates, “when people come here, most of our visitors are making a special visit to Devizes to come to the Museum. Then of course they’re staying in B&Bs or hotels and spending money in pubs and shops and restaurants.”
Believe me, it’s not the boring, fuddy-duddy cobwebby museum you may remember. So, I for one reckon it’s time to show our support and appreciation for Wiltshire Museum!
Us locals ought to pay our prized museum a visit now and then, especially families so our kids can engage with the exhibits and have a sense of their history.
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