Saffron Walden Museum is one of the oldest purpose-built museums in the country. It was opened by Saffron Walden Natural History Society in 1835, three years after the Society was established.
The initial committee consisted of Jabez Gibson (chairman), a member of a prominent Quaker family of maltsters and bankers in the town; John Player; Thomas Spurgin; Joshua Clarke and William Ward who were tasked with establishing a museum, to include “specimens in the several departments of Natural History, with Antiquarian remains, and other such Articles as may be of local or general interest.”
Early collections had already been assembled in Jabez Gibson’s house in the town, which must have been filled with specimens and display equipment as a temporary home until the new museum opened. The committee focused on collecting specimens for display, which included writing letters to eminent botanists, professors and private collectors.
Initially it was proposed that the Museum would be set up within the ruins of Walden Castle but it was later decided that a new building would be built on Bury Hill, between St Mary’s Church and the Castle. This land belonged to Richard Griffin, 3rd Lord Braybrooke of Audley End, who leased it to the trustees and the new museum building was erected in 1833-34. The ‘Agricultural Hall’ eastward extension was added to accommodate meetings of the Saffron Walden Agricultural Society, which Lord Braybrooke had founded; this is now the ‘Great Hall’ gallery. The Museum initially occupied the first floor of the west end, with rooms for lectures and other societies below.
In the early days the Museum was open one day a week and known for its display of large animal skeletons and taxidermy specimens. The local newspaper at the time described the Museum’s displays as “Stuffed birds and animals – shells, bird’s eggs, nests, skeletons and several bones of the mammoth – a beautiful rhinoceros, stuffed, which stands in the centre of the room, Indian curiosities, insects, casts of heads, medals, minerals, petrifactions, etc., etc., head of an elephant, of a hippopotamus, horse, cow, etc.”
The collections were initially curated by members of the Saffron Walden Natural History Society, until 1880 when the trustees appointed the first paid curator, George Nathan Maynard, who was succeeded in 1904 by his son Guy Maynard. In 1945 the Society acquired the freehold of the building and this is commemorated in a plaque over the entrance.
The Society continued to run the Museum until 1974 when the newly-formed Uttlesford District Council took over responsibility for running it. Today, the Museum is operated by the Council in partnership between Saffron Walden Museum Society Ltd (charity), the successor body to Saffron Walden Natural History Society.
The Museum holds around 175,000 specimens including natural sciences, archaeology, social and local history, costume & textiles, world cultures and fine & decorative arts. There is a lively programme of events and exhibitions both in the Museum and around the district and the Museum works closely with a broad range of community partner organisations.