Loved by royalty, Wisbech museum gets life saving £616,000 grant
- Credit: Archant
Its most iconic exhibit is the original manuscript of Dickens’ classic ‘Great Expectations’ but a £616,000 grant from Historic England to save Wisbech and Fenland Museum exceeded all expectations.
"This grant is a dream come true for all of us at the museum,” said David Ball, vice chairman of the trust that runs it.
“The condition of the building has been a concern of previous trustees for generations.
“We are on the brink, at last, of repairing and restoring the external fabric of the building.”
He said the money would enable restoration and preservation work to a standard “that might be recognised by the original builders but will not have been seen since Victorian times.
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“We simply could not do this without Historic England and we are most grateful to everyone there, for their guidance during the process of the last three years and now for the financial support.”
Benjamin Zephaniah named Wisbech and Fenland Museum his favourite in the world and chose to be filmed in its Covid-closed galleries for Inside Culture on BBC2 last year with Mary Beard.
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In the programme award-winning poet and author Benjamin said: “I've been to museums in Cairo, Shanghai, Paris and London but there is absolutely nothing like the museum in Wisbech.”
He described it as the kind of museum he likes best – small, cosy, peculiar, and obsessed with local history, about local characters and local things yet speaking to bigger global issues.
Standing next to the bust of Thomas Clarkson in pride of place, he says: “This guy is a local hero here in Wisbech.”
The museum holds a substantial archive of parish registers, local government records, photographs and maps.
Its library comprises 12,000 volumes in two distinct collections.
The Rev Chauncy Hare Townshend (20 April 1798 – 25 February 1868) donated a significant collection of 500 documents of handwriting by British and foreign monarchs, politicians, writers, academics and performers. He also bequeathed to the museum in 1868 the original manuscript of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.
The museum holds artefacts owned by Thomas Clarkson (28 March 1760 - 26 September 1846) one of the main architects of the anti-slavery movement.
Dating from 1846-7, the museum was designed by architect George Buckler, who used Classical Greek architectural features in his design, including a symmetrical front elevation with decorative cornices and a central stone portico.
“As one of the first purpose-built museums designed in the country, this building is of exceptional significance,” said a spokesperson for Historic England.
Original period details can be seen inside the museum, particularly in its cornices, doors and fireplaces.
Original bookcases and display cases all survive and it is thought that the gallery and staircase of the main display hall may also be original.
Recent paint layers have peeled off in places, due to leaks, which has revealed historic paintwork and wallpaper. These leaks are also causing some cracking and loss of plaster.
The poor and declining condition of the building led to it being added to Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register in 2018.
“Major problems with the roof and drainage, including cracked and slipping tiles and leaks, are damaging the historic interior of the museum,” said the spokesperson.
“Historic England has previously grant funded a project development phase for the museum to enable a structural survey, temporary roof repairs to protect the building over winter and a specification for long-term repair work.”
The grant of £616,000 will enable long-term roof repairs to begin in spring 2021. Historic England is the major funder for this repair project, contributing 90 per cent of total costs.
Tony Calladine, regional director for Historic England said: “We’re pleased to play our part in repairing this important building and ensuring that it continues to delight visitors with the fascinating collections for which it was created.”
The museum is run by an independent charity committed to keeping the museum collection in the historic building for which it was designed. They are fundraising for the match funding required to complete the project.