Obituary - Wandsworth Museum

Saying Farewell to a Valued Local Institution

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At 5.00 pm on Sunday 30th December 2007, Wandsworth Museum passed away after a long and valiant battle.  Over the preceding weeks, hundreds of friends and supporters came to pay their respects and share in the Museum’s final days.  

Wandsworth Museum was born in Putney Library in 1986.  The idea of establishing a local museum had been gathering support since the suggestion was put forward by a member of the Wandsworth Historical Society in the 1960s.

Wandsworth Borough Council agreed to make available three floors in Putney Library and appointed a professional museum development officer.  The Chairman of Leisure & Amenity Services at this time was Councillor Edward Lister who gave the project his full support.  The Museum was able to draw on the collections of the Wandsworth Historical Society and the Wandsworth Local History Library but these soon grew as residents presented local artefacts and purchases were made with grants and donations.  Notable acquisitions included a fine Victorian painting of Putney embankment and the magnificent portrait of William Brodrick, Court Embroiderer to James 1st, purchased with a grant from the V&A.

The Museum’s popularity rose rapidly with visitors increasing from 11,000 in 1988 to 20,000 by 1991, the year that the first Museum Education Officer was appointed.  The Museum was so successful that the Council decided to move it to the larger Courthouse in central Wandsworth where it opened in 1996, attracting over 30,000 visitors annually by 2007.

As the Museum’s reputation grew, other museums and historical organisations outside the Borough came forward, lending items of unique importance to Wandsworth.  The resulting displays, combining the Museum’s own collection and items on loan, covered a huge span of Wandsworth’s past, from pre-historic artefacts to recent cultural and ethnic changes.

Most of the Museum’s social history material was donated by local people and included domestic and personal items, costumes, wartime and military artefacts.  Wandsworth’s artistic heritage was represented by artists such as Miles de Montmorency and Edward Ashenden.  The Olney collection of 2,000 photographs was another local donation.

The Museum was particularly noted for housing over 300 watercolour paintings, recording local views from the late 18th century, the Wandle mills, River Thames, bridges, villages and large houses of the area as well as portraits and memorabilia of famous residents such as the “Dockers’ Champion”, the radical MP John Burns, the poet Edward Thomas and Saklatvala, the Indian MP for Battersea.

One of the most outstanding aspects of the Museum was its Education Service which offered object-based sessions on many local history topics, such as Roman Putney, Victorian Life and World War II, linked to the national curriculum and used by most primary and special schools in the Borough.  In the year 2005/06 alone, 325 school visits were made to the Museum involving over 8,000 pupils.  Special sessions focused on key individuals who had left their mark on Wandsworth, such as John Archer, Battersea’s Black Mayor.  These activities often made use of the Museum’s Oral History collection - over 150 individual recorded memories, many about the personal experiences of residents during World War II. 

Wandsworth Museum was also notable for pioneering outreach with handling sessions and illustrated talks at community centres, church groups, elderly day centres, stroke clubs and hospitals.  Travelling exhibitions were organised that toured libraries around the Borough.  The Museum’s programme of community engagement included a project in Roehampton where young people worked on recording oral history with local residents.  A partnership was put in place with South Thames College who used the Museum with students from all over the world to develop language skills.

Jenny Kershaw, Putney resident and Education Officer at the Museum of Fulham Palace, said:

“I am extremely sorry to see the demise of Wandsworth Museum.  Both in my capacity as a fellow professional and as a local resident, I always found it to be of the highest calibre.  Within the museum world it was always acknowledged to be a centre of excellence with a good and well attended schools service.  The Museum gave quality to the Borough, reflecting all the very diverse mix of communities.  Without it there, the Borough loses its voice and sinks into mediocrity.”


As well as formal events, the Museum provided regular holiday activities combining history, music, arts & crafts accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds.  Mrs Subha Iyer, a regular family visitor explained:

“My son, Siddarth, definitely learned a lot from the Museum over the last three years.  He developed an interest in history and the craft workshops helped him to think creatively.  He developed a ear for music from the soap opera workshop and the story-telling sessions encouraged him to read and act out stories.”

Another frequent visitor to the Museum, Lyn Clark, said:

“Already sorely missed are the light-hearted "Tea and Talk" sessions held for adults in the afternoon.  We all learnt so much and enjoyed sharing snippets of our own knowledge and experiences; these were always very popular with WOFA (Wandsworth Over Fifties Activities) members.”

Over the years, the Museum ran a remarkable range of temporary exhibitions, showing items from the reserve collection and exploring new topics.  Subjects included photography, Wartime in Wandsworth, transport, health, working lives, architecture, brewing and pubs, Asian Festivals, the Black presence in Wandsworth, 1930s & 1950s - all reflecting and communicating Wandsworth’s rich history and cultural roots.

In 2006, Wandsworth Museum became one of the first London museums to be awarded the new national Museum Accreditation Standard from the Museums Libraries & Archives Council – an award that recognised the outstanding quality of its work in education and in outreach with all sectors of the community of Wandsworth.  The award was the highest possible acknowledgement of the vibrant and irreplaceable role the Museum played in the Borough and its vital contribution to promoting a sense of inclusion and identity.

The Museum leaves behind 10,000 orphaned artefacts, a collection that embodies the collective memories and heritage of a community it served for twenty-one years.

Can the Hintzes and the new Museum Board produce a Phoenix to rise from the ashes?   We all fervently hope so.

Submitted by: The Balham Society, the Battersea Society, the Putney Society, the Friends of Wandsworth Museum, the Wandsworth Historical Society, the Wandsworth Society, the Wandsworth Museum Campaign Group


February 7, 2008