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 1981Friends of Athelstan Museum started as a supporters’ club for the Museum. We quickly became known as FOAM to our more frivolous friends. It was founded with Roger Griffin as Chairman following an initiative by Jerry Dix of NWDC. Our four main objectives were to enjoy ourselves, learn more of history, especially local history, publicise and support the Museum and raise funds to buy additions for the Collection. This was done by fundraising and grants from a variety of sources. The range of objects was enormous, for example, a drawing of the Market Cross Malmesbury by Tom Girtin, a contemporary and friend of J M W Turner to the Flying Monk pub sign which was donated to the museum after the Public House closed.
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.
The Museum shop had a complete makeover in 2014 and a giftshop team was established to run this important museum asset and revenue earner.
Ernest Buchner who had been Chair of the Management Council since 2012 retired from the role and Sharon Nolan was appointed as his successor in 2015.
The Museum became a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) in 2017 and was named Athelstan Museum Malmesbury when the Museum acquired the old Moravian Church. The old church was renamed The Julia and Hans Rausing Building and to be used for Museum events and hiring out to local activities. FOAM became the membership group with voting rights at the AGM however is no longer responsible for running the Museum .
It was in 2014 that, aware that the derelict Moravian Church was up for sale, the museum set up an appeal to try and buy it. Despite raising promises of a substantial amount locally, it was sold to another person.
Not to be daunted the museum spread its appeal further and it was successful in raising the funds needed to purchase it from the new owner in 2017. Significant support was received from the Julia and Hans Rausing Foundation and many other organisations and individuals. The building underwent a substantial renovation and was opened by Her Majesty the Queen Consort in December 2018.
Meanwhile in late 2018 a Turner watercolour of Malmesbury Abbey was purchased with the help of grants from NLHF and the Art Fund. This was unveiled in the museum in 2021.
The Museum won Third prize in the 2020 Wiltshire Life Awards for Conservative Project of The Year in Wiltshire for the Rausing Building project. Melissa Cole received First Prize in the Arts, Culture ,and Music Individual Category for her sculpture of the Moravian Star commissioned by Athelstan Museum that stands in front of the Rausing Building.
Between 2020/21 the Museum store was moved to the Rausing Building. The Museum purchased the Turner Water Colour painting of Malmesbury Abbey. The Museum mezzanine was totally refurbished with new displays for the Turner Painting, and additional exhibition space.
During this period of time Roger Griffin who had founded Friends of Athelstan Museum FOAM nearly 40 years earlier decided to stand down from the day to day running of the Museum but continued as one of the Trustees of Athelstan Museum.
In 2022 Sharon Nolan stood down as Chair of the Museum Management Council but remained Chair of the Trustees. In 2023 the Management Council was renamed the Museum Management Team.
The latest acquisition the Museum made in 2022 was the Athelstan Silver Coin which shows King Athelstan wearing a crown and the extended title ‘Aethelstan Rex to Brit’ (King of All Britons).
Athelstan Museum Malmesbury’s Statement of Purpose is :
To maintain the Athelstan Museum and collection for the recreation and benefit of the public and to advance the education of the public in the history and heritage of Malmesbury, it’s area and surrounding villages.
The Museum’s Vision is :
As a museum, our activities aim to make a sustainable contribution to the social, artistic, cultural, economic and environmental life of Malmesbury and the wider community.