The Museum in the Large Mansion is the local history museum for the London Boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow. Its collections have been built up from small beginnings and are now very rich. Like the proverbial iceberg, about nine-tenths has long been “submerged” in store rather than on display, apart from a modest programme of special exhibitions. A short history is set out below, with initial information about the refurbished Museum which will open in 2018.
The Museum opened in October 1929, with displays of local antiquities, books, maps and pictures collected by Frederick Sadler, the Borough Surveyor of Acton. Donations from other collectors and from individuals followed. The first lady Mayor of Acton, Miss Susan Smee, was the Honorary Curator until 1945, stepping down in her 80s. The first professional curator was appointed in 1955.
In 1965, with a re-organisation of local government, the Museum came under the new London Boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow. It had little investment and its resources were modest, but it was expected to become the borough museum for over half a million residents.
The impetus for the creation of the Friends was the proposal to hand over the Stables to a property developer in 1980. There had long been a dream of moving the Museum’s Rothschild carriages and other vehicles, as well as its agricultural and industrial collections, to the Stables. A number of those who joined the campaign, especially the Brentford & Chiswick Local History Society, did so because they saw the potential loss of this important opportunity; it would have given the Museum desperately needed space and more suitable accommodation for these collections than decorative early Victorian interiors.
The oversight of the Museum by the Gunnersbury Joint Committee for over 40 years meant that its significant role as a museum for a large slice of West London was undervalued, usually being seen as just one of the attractions in the Park, with no wider political commitment to its development as a two-borough service. Nevertheless, enterprising staff obtained grants for projects (some from the Friends), purchased significant acquisitions for the collection and developed a valued exhibition and education programme. When Cabinet government was introduced in the two boroughs, the committee became the Gunnersbury Park Joint Advisory Panel whose agenda and minutes can be found on the Hounslow Council web-site. Its role comes to an end in 2018 as the new Community Interest Company take over operational management.
Over the last three decades, budget cuts severely limited the Museum’s scope for development. By the time the regeneration project was being planned there was only one curatorial post whose resources were very limited. Nevertheless the Museum had a high reputation for its work with a variety of different local community groups and remained popular with schools.
The Friends’ contribution
The Friends made a number of donations to support the work of the museum, ranging from funds to help bring the former Board Room into use as the Costume Gallery, to support for acquisitions such as an early Brentford FC programme, Dennis Morris’s photos of Southall people and Iron Age ‘potin’ coins from the Thames foreshore.
Working as volunteers, the Friends began the programme of restoring the Victorian kitchen wing which enabled these rooms to be opened to visitors. Until the Friends’ initiative, the main kitchen was used by park staff for the painting of boats and benches on wet days. We de-rusted the range, the hot cabinet and the 27-burner gas range, but the work also involved many weekends of removing splodges of red, yellow and green gloss paint from the floor tiles.
The Friends have longed to see real investment in the Museum which would bring the collections out of the stores to tell the story of the two boroughs in imaginative and lively displays, to make it possible for visitors of all ages to enjoy and learn from the many decades of collecting in ways that were simply not possible on such limited resources. Various committee members contributed to the development of a new scheme and, with a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund and funding from the two boroughs, the Museum closed at Christmas 2014 for work on a major refurbishment which is nearing completion. The fabric of the Large Mansion has been repaired and conserved, with new discoveries about its structure and its past decoration, and new exhibition galleries, study and learning spaces mean most of the building can in future be explored by visitors. The three grand rooms on the ground floor will be made available for some functions and formal events and new programmes of activities and learning will be provided. It promises to offer an exciting opportunity to discover more about the collections and the history of the two boroughs.
- Find out more on the Gunnersbury website
- See the Museum’s oil paintings on Art UK’s web-site
- Information from Ealing Council
- Gunnersbury Park Masterplan
- Culture 24