Saffron Walden's museum celebrates its 175th birthday

PUBLISHED: 10:08 29 November 2010 | UPDATED: 18:06 20 February 2013

Silks of Life Exhibition

Silks of Life Exhibition

It may be celebrating its 175th birthday this year, but Saffron Walden Museum's collection of exhibits is as fresh as ever, says Nicky Adams

As he has for more than a century and a half, Wallace the Lion holds pride of place in the main gallery at Saffron Walden Museum. With his paw aloft and his face set in a fierce expression, he eyes visitors as they enter this treasure trove of a museum, set in an historic building right next to the Norman castle ruins in the traditional Essex country town.
But visitors should not be scared away by Wallace, in fact he is well accomplished at welcoming guests. One of the longest-established museums in the country, Saffron Walden Museum celebrates its 175 birthday this year and is as fascinating as ever, with a huge and diverse range of exhibits that include Mary Queen of Scots glove, Robert Ships clock and a unique Viking pendant necklace from Waldens Saxon cemetery site, not to mention a host of curios ranging from mummy cases to mammoth tusks.
The museum is a remarkably fine facility for such a small market town, says its curator Carolyn Wingfield. As well as the extensive collection of items from north-west Essex that are exhibited here, there is a wealth of wonderful objects from all around the world and some very unexpected treasures. No two visitors have the same interests, but among the most popular exhibits are the collection of taxidermy, which our younger visitors love; the Egyptian mummy, which has been with the museum since 1878, and of course Wallace the Lion, who is the sole surviving member of a previous collection of taxidermy which featured large wild animals including a giraffe!
Just like every one of the 175,000 exhibits at Saffron Walden, Wallace the Lion has a compelling story. Born in Edinburgh in 1812, Wallace was the first African lion to be bred in captivity in the UK and is thought to have been named after William Wallace, the Scottish freedom fighter. Wallace the Lion was a fighter himself, in fact a fighting lion who drew huge crowds when he performed as part of George Wombwells 19th century menagerie of exotic beasts and birds, which travelled the length and breadth of the country in brightly-painted wagons containing wildcats, wolves, monkeys, giraffes, elephants, camels and eventually even a gorilla, the likes of which the Victorians had never seen before.

Just like every one of the 175,000 exhibits at Saffron Walden, Wallace
the Lion has a compelling story

Wallace worked hard throughout this life, entertaining the crowds and being set against dogs for the dubious amusement of Wombwells audiences. By the age of 25 though, Wallace was in decline and on his death his master, who was born at Duddenhoe End, decided to have him stuffed and shipped to Saffron Walden, the museum he considered to be his local.
Wallace was put on display in 1845, ten years after the opening of the museum, and was in very good company. The museum had been founded in 1835 by a collection of local worthies, including Lord Braybrooke of Audley End. All were committed to the advancement of natural history and their aim was to, illustrate the arts, manufactures and habits of the different nations. Most were extremely well connected too and no sooner had the land for the new museum building been found than the museum committee began amassing artefacts from all over the world.
Aboriginal objects were sent by a local man who had become a surveyor and one of the first settlers in Melbourne, Australia, more came from a missionary in the Pacific area and donations were also made by well-to-do Victorian natural history patrons. Before long the place was filled with stuffed birds and animals, skeletons, insects, casts of heads, medals, minerals, and even a hippopotamus.

We would imagine that when the museum first opened, visitors would have marvelled at the array of exhibits from around the world, says Carolyn. They would have jumped at the chance to see many items they would never have seen before and would be unlikely to see again.
Today, Saffron Walden Museum is no less amazing to those who visit. As well as local history, there are eight galleries covering archaeology, ancient Egypt, animals and plants, ceramics and glass, costumes and textiles, the earth beneath our feet and world cultures.
But what is on display is just the tip of the iceberg that is the Saffron Walden collection. Many more objects are stored away and available only for research and reference. However, all that is set to change in the near future with the establishment of the Saffron Walden Heritage Quest Centre. Still in the planning stages, a brand new building will house some of the relics that the museum just does not have the space to display, and it will provide a focal point for heritage and education in the area.

Past and present
Nevertheless, the museum will continue to welcome guests and to host special exhibitions, events and activities. This month sees the launch of Tudors and Early Stuarts, an exhibition about Tudor life in the East of England, which runs from November 20, 2010 to Sunday, March 20, 2011.
Created and toured by the Epping Forest District Museum, this exhibition comes to Saffron Walden and brings with it the chance to explore a period of great change in English society, in particular developments in the arts, sciences, politics, fashion and religion. Local history connections such as the magnificent houses of Hill Hall and Copped Hall are featured, and of course no Tudor story is complete without delving into the relationships between Henry VIII and his six wives.
Supported by objects from the Saffron Walden Museum collection, and fun hands-on activities, this exhibition is sure to appeal to people of all ages and would make a very enjoyable family day out.
Saffron Walden Museum is very much a family-oriented place, with a real community feel, says Carolyn. I think its the close relationship the museum has with its community that has led to its enduring success over the last 175 years, and Im sure that relationship will help ensure another 175 equally successful years in the future.

Find out more

Saffron Walden Museum
Museum Street
Saffron Walden
CB10 1JL
01799 510 333

Admission: 1.50 for adults, 75p for concessions, free for under 18s. Annual season tickets cost
5 or 2.50.

Tudors and Early Stuarts An exhibition of life during Tudor times, 1485-1603 runs from November 20, 2010 to March 20, 2011.

Latest from the Essex Life