The Museum in the Large Mansion is the local history museum for the London Boroughs of Ealing and Hounslow. Admission is free. Its collections have been built up from small beginnings and are now very rich. Like the proverbial iceberg, about nine-tenths is “submerged” in store rather than on display, but the Museum’s changing exhibitions draw upon these collections as well as using some borrowed items.
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 been for some time a plan to move 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 has been undervalued; until recently it has usually been 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 have obtained grants for projects (some from the Friends), purchased significant acquisitions for the collection and developed a valued exhibition and education programme. Today the Museums and Park are overseen by the Gunnersbury Joint Advisory Panel whose agenda and minutes can be found on the Hounslow Council web-site.
Over the last three decades, budget cuts severely limited the Museum’s scope for development. Now there is only one curatorial post, admirably filled by the present curator, Vanda Foster. The resources at her disposal are very limited but the Museum has a high reputation for its work with a variety of different local community groups and remains popular with schools.
The Friends’ contribution
We have 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. This would make it possible for visitors of all ages to enjoy and learn from the results of over 80 years of collecting in ways that are simply not possible at the present. Various committee members have contributed to the development of a new scheme and now with a substantial grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and funding from the two boroughs work has begun on a major refurbishment. This will see the fabric of the Large Mansion repaired and conserved and most of it opened up to visitors, with the three grand rooms on the ground floor made available for some functions and formal events. The learning spaces will be greatly enhanced and the potential for adult, family and school education programmes hugely upgraded.
PLEASE NOTE: the Museum closed at Christmas 2014 for the major refurbishment which is expected to open in 2017.