I’ve written before about how Sussex is a county of many curiosities, and Horsham Museum and Art Gallery is a fabulous example of this. At the entrance to the town’s historic Causeway, Horsham Museum is in a Medieval timber-framed building with a courtyard-style garden hidden from view. The museum recently underwent a substantial refurbishment (not all of which is complete yet) but has now re-opened (Thursday to Saturday 10 am to 4 pm). Admission is free. It had been some years since my last visit, and it certainly has a fresh, welcoming, and modern new look.
For a small museum, there are lots of reasons to visit and you’ll find something for almost any interest. Their different collections include, for example, Crime and Punishment, Fossils and Flints, the Medieval Gallery, the Cabinet of Curiosities, the Costume Gallery, the Craft Gallery and the Domestic Life Gallery. There are also lots of collections about the history of the town and the wider district as well as a number of exhibits and collections that showcase some of Horsham’s more notable residents.
The museum takes you on a somewhat eclectic journey through time, from the Bronze Age to the Romans, via the Saxons and Normans right to the modern-day. You can learn about sport, the iron industry, you’ll find a 17th century reclining Budha, you’ll hear the personal stories of criminals and convicts of Horsham past, see a South American pot that dates back to 1500 AD, learn about brewing and brick making … and so it goes on. The garden was still closed for my last visit but when open, it has a fire engine from 1868 and various historic bicycles on display.
Making the most of a day at the museum
Because it’s a free museum, if you’re short of time and live locally, it’s worth just popping in when you have a spare 20 minutes to fill. Find your collection of interest and focus on that. If you’re visiting from further afield, set aside a good couple of hours to take it all in.
You might also want to combine a visit here with one of the museum’s self-guided Heritage Trails. There are 20 trails in total and each trail is dedicated to a different area of the district and includes sites of special interest and stories from all eras of the area’s past. You can get a map of each trail along with full details from the museum’s website.
Everyone’s highlights will be different of course, so this is just a snapshot of mine.
Gingerbread and crockery
Horsham and gingerbread have a bit of history, and although gingerbread dates back many centuries and spans many continents, in the mid 19th century Horsham had its very own gingerbread boom. Allegedly, this craze was inspired by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who lived at Field Place in Warnham, and certainly, my own family legend speaks of a special Horsham recipe for gingerbread. In 2009, the museum’s curator discovered a 200-year-old recipe book from the Shelley family with a recipe for gingerbread. It took a year but you can now buy gingerbread made from the original recipe from the GingerBread Bakehouse in Horsham today. And they also make some fantastic cheese biscuits too! You can also see molds and jars from Horsham’s gingerbread heyday in the museum.
Upstairs, in the Craft Gallery, I was also particularly smitten with the ceramics (like this Raku Ware below) as well as the grandfather clocks.
Crime and punishment
Perhaps it’s the lawyer in me that delighted in the Crime and Punishment gallery and I remember my children loving this too when they were younger. Goal house windows and keys, gruesome-looking equipment and grizzly, real-life tales of branding, burning at the stake, public dissection and pressing to death are just some of the ways Horsham’s past as a legal centre is brought back to life.
From dresses to tresses and curiosities
The museum has a collection of over 3,000 garments dating from the 1670s all the way up to 2000. You won’t see them all on display at once, so it’s another good reason to pop back and visit again. And the Cabinet of Curiosities? Well that does what it says on the tin and is packed with a diverse and bizarre collection of things from all around the world.
A history of art
As its full name suggests, Horsham Museum and Art Gallery is also home to quite an impressive art collection as well as some fabulous old photographs and posters. The museum also hosts a number of temporary art exhibitions. At the moment these include one about the life of Vincent Lines. Lines was Master in Charge of Horsham School of Art in the mid-1930s, and lived in the town for some time. He went on to become Principal of the Hastings School of Art.
He was a lithographer, watercolourist, illustrator and painter in oils, and he painted both Horsham and the surrounding countryside, as well as capturing many of the more distinct and interesting people of Sussex. During the Second World War he was asked to contribute to the series, Recording Britain, produced by the Pilgrim Trust to ensure that aspects of Britain threatened by the war were recorded in art. This was the first exhibition of my visit and helped set the tone for a deeper dive into the past.
Works of illumination
The other exhibition at the time of my visit last week was Works of Illumination by Judy Hurst. This features a number of dazzling vellums (calfskin) and watercolours.
Inspired by an intriguing combination of the Celtic and Medieval world, illuminated manuscript painting and gilding, nature and wildlife, patterns and the very nature of existence, Hurst’s work feels reverend, traditional, exciting, ethereal, and absorbing and although this exhibition is now closed, the museum has bought one of the works, ‘Hiding in Plain Sight’ which will be on permanent display.
Small, local museums are such an important part of our heritage and always home to such a wealth of both knowledge and also an element of mystery. In the hustle and bustle of life, it’s all too easy to forget to visit but when you do, you’re always much richer for the experience.
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You can find out more at Horsham Museum.