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  • Writer's pictureDoug Chapman, MA

A Brief History of the Museum of Cambridge

What is the Museum of Cambridge?

The Museum of Cambridge, previously called the Cambridge & County Folk Museum, is a museum in central Cambridge where you can discover over 300 years of Cambridgeshire history and heritage.

Museum of Cambridge

Museum of Cambridge History

The Museum of Cambridge sits on a busy intersection in one of the oldest parts of town along Castle Street. The museum opened in 1936 in a historic 16th-century former coaching inn and public house known as the White Horse Inn. The building itself merits a visit as a well-kept example of a timber-framed structure sitting at the heart of one of the best-preserved sections of the town, but it’s far from being the only draw. The museum was founded in order to preserve and display over 300 years of local Cambridgeshire history, with a particular focus on the lives and culture of local people. It’s a refreshing complement to the enormous scope of some of the university’s museums in the central part of the city, and houses over 20,000 items related to the social history of the region since 1700.

The museum’s origins lie in an exhibition called ‘A Festival of Olden Times’ that was put on by the Cambridgeshire Federation of Women’s Institutes in 1933. The exhibit was so successful that demand grew for a permanent ‘Museum of Bygones’ to house objects related to life in the area. Members of both gown and town (the university and the local community) swiftly went about establishing such a museum, and three years later the Cambridge and County Folk Museum opened its doors in the White Horse building.

A seminal role in the history of the museum was played by curator Enid Porter, who tended and added to the collection for three decades. A significant portion of the collection was donated by local individuals and organisations, and the museum offers an engaging and insightful look into the lives of Cambridge residents over the centuries.

Prominent Figures and the Museum's Evolution

One of the key figures in the museum's early history was Ernest Saville Peck, a Cambridge-born pharmacist, councillor, and founder of the Cambridge Rotary Club. He envisioned a museum that would illustrate the old-fashioned life of the town and county, highlighting the rapidly disappearing everyday life of past centuries. His proposal garnered significant support, leading to the formation of a Provisional Committee to explore the idea further.

The Association, responsible for the museum's establishment, was a diverse group comprising both 'town and gown'. Notable members included Catherine E. Parsons, Chair of the Cambridgeshire Federation of Women’s Institute and curator of ‘A Festival of Olden Times’, Dr. Frank Robinson, a Rotarian who documented the rapid changes in Cambridge, and Florence Keynes, a social reformer and the first female town councillor.

The museum officially opened its doors on November 3rd, 1936, with Sir Cyril Fox, Director of the National Museum of Wales, presiding over the ceremony. His remarks humorously noted that the University of Cambridge might have more knowledge about distant cultures than about their local history.

Recent Challenges and Triumphs

Over the years, the museum faced various challenges, including potential closure due to financial constraints. However, it has always managed to persevere, thanks to the dedication of its staff, trustees, and the local community. In 2020, amidst the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the museum launched a successful fundraising campaign with the support of Cambridge MP Daniel Zeichner. This campaign ensured its continued operation and allowed it to reopen to the public in May 2021.

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