Athelstan Museum was born as the result of a letter dated 19th February 1931 to the Wiltshire Gazette which announced the intention of setting up a museum in Malmesbury and asked for suitable items to be donated. The collection was originally housed in the Town Hall and could be viewed by appointment. Although Malmesbury Borough Council was not an authority empowered to run museums it grew under their care. Following the changes wrought by local government reorganisation in 1974 the museum under the control of North Wiltshire District Council (NWDC) was moved to Gloucester Street and was opened by Lord Shelburne, the leader of the council on 24th April 1975.
The Gloucester Street premises were quickly deemed to be unsafe and in imminent danger of collapse (they are still standing) and so early in 1979 the museum moved back to the Town Hall.
The first curator, Mrs Bilbie ran the museum enthusiastically for several years with exhibitions and competitions aimed at children. She was replaced on retirement by Bobbie Prince who remained with the museum until 2006; she retired when NWDC relinquished control of the museum.
In 1981 Friends of Athelstan Museum (FOAM), an acronym which has given rise to much frothy comment, was founded with Roger Griffin as Chairman following an initiative by Jerry Dix of NWDC. As well as social events the friends ran lectures and trips to other museums or historical sites. They also raised considerable sums for improving the collection. A catalogue for an exhibition held to mark their tenth anniversary lists 36 major items, some like the Tom Girtin drawing of the Market Cross, their first purchase, and the Saxon and Roman silver pennies of considerable value.
FOAM continued to support the museum first under the chairmanship of Simon Graley and then John D’Arcy. Increasing dissatisfaction with the resources NWDC felt able to allocate to the museum led in 2003 to proposals by FOAM to take over the administration. Financial details proved a stumbling block but in 2006, minds having been concentrated by the impending sale of the Town Hall to Malmesbury Town Council (MTC), terms were agreed. On 1st April 2006 FOAM took over the running of the Athelstan Museum with the help of diminishing grants over 3 years from NWDC. Roger Griffin resumed the chair and on 31st August 2007 FOAM took over the collection as well.
Plans drawn up by MTC for the necessary restoration and improvement of the Town Hall meant more changes. The museum was allocated a space and FOAM had to fit it out. This required vacation of the building while this was done and temporary premises nearby in the Cross Hayes were found. Much work, all by volunteers, was required to bring these to a suitable state but at the end of August 2007 the old museum closed its doors only to re-open in the temporary premises a week later. This was a Herculean effort by the volunteers – heroes and heroines every one.
Not only have these dramatic changes been demanding on human resources, they have required considerable funding.
In June 2007 FOAM launched an appeal for £288,000 with a garden party. A bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund was successful providing £199,000. Local charities, organisations and individuals supported the cause and by March 2008 only £40,000 still had to be found.
This money was achieved with local support and landfill grants from Hills and Viridor. However rising costs meant that we were still seeking further capital funds.
At the end of July the whole removal process had to go into reverse as we moved to our permanent home in Malmesbury town hall. Again our volunteers, now aided by our staff were superb and so we were able on 15th August to officially open the new Athelstan Museum.
Richard Hatchwell, a well known local historian and a generous and whole-hearted supporter of the museum assisted by Sam Hunt from the Heritage Lottery Fund cut the tape. Well over 100 supporters and well-wishers along with local dignitaries attended the ceremony and we were truly launched.
We look forward to the future, co-operating with the people of Malmesbury and district who helped us raise £350,000 for our final capital costs.