Museum seeing 'renaissance' as it hits halfway point in 10-year masterplan

Staff at the Food Museum celebrate the rebranding earlier this year.

Staff at the Food Museum celebrate the rebranding earlier this year. - Credit: Food Museum

A Suffolk museum has passed a key milestone in its multi-million-pound plan for a renaissance.

The Food Museum, in Stowmarket, officially opened £1million-worth of refurbishment projects last week, six years after bosses were drawing up plans for what to do should the museum be wound up.

Jenny Cousins director of the museum, which was until recently known as the Museum of East Anglian Life, said the 'masterplan' aimed to increase visitor numbers to safeguard the future of the museum and its collection.

She said: "The museum is independent, which means that we have to generate our own income in order to keep the doors open. We need to present an offer which appeals to potential visitors and enables us to share local history in a way which is accessible, interesting and fun."

She added that the museum is already reporting better visitor numbers this year compared to 2019.

However, the name change has generated controversy in some quarters, with around 2,000 people signing a petition against it.

Staff at the Food Museum celebrate the rebranding earlier this year.

Staff at the Food Museum celebrate the rebranding earlier this year. - Credit: Food Museum

The past

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When Jenny Cousins started as museum director in 2016 she pulled together a 35-page to-do list to modernise the museum and make it sustainable.

Some jobs were as basic as getting office chairs that weren't broken, improving the museum's WIFI, getting a lawnmower that worked or rehanging a gate so staff no longer had to drive on the grass.

Jenny Cousins

Jenny Cousins, director of the Food Museum, in 2016. - Credit: CONTRIBUTED

The museum was founded in the 1960s to preserve the memory of agricultural skills that were rapidly disappearing from East Anglia in the face of mechanisation.  

However, the museum had been in and out of financial difficulties since then. It hit a low point after the restored Abbot's Hall museum reopened in 2012.

Ms Cousins said: "2014 was a real dip. After Abbot's Hall was restored there wasn't the money to keep that programme going and it was a bit disastrous.

"The trustees had prepared plans as to what to do with the animals if everyone was made redundant, and all the staff had to go down to a four-day working week."

Abbot's Hall at MEAL

Abbot's Hall at the Food Museum. - Credit: Archant

When Ms Cousins was appointed in 2016 she says the museum was starting to pull itself out of the hole.

She points to a meeting in 2016 as being at the root of the plan for a more sustainable future for the museum.

"We all had to come up with six things we'd change about the museum – two short-term, two medium-term and two long-term," she said.

Among the ideas generated in the museum was the question "Are we a rural life museum?" and, she said: "Then there's the answer we came to: 'tell the story of food'."

As part of the model for a sustainable museum, bosses looked for more ways to bring cash into the business. These include running weddings and community events. The museum also offers volunteering programmes, toddler groups and green therapy working with the NHS.

Sandi Toskvig, centre front, with festival director, Catherine Riley, front left, and Museum directo

The museum now runs more events to help generate extra revenue like the Primadonna Festival. Pictured: Sandi Toskvig, centre front, with festival director, Catherine Riley, front left, and Museum director, Jenny Cousins, front right, and the Museum staff team, for the Primadonna Festival in 2021. - Credit: DENISE BRADLEY/Archant2021

The present

Now, four years and a pandemic after the museum first took its modernisation master plan to the public, the results are starting to be seen.

Around £1million of modernisation projects have so far been completed and opened.

Among these is the refitting of museum buildings such as the William Bone Building – which is now climate-controlled and secure in order to host art exhibitions, as well as being kitted out with a new demonstration kitchen – or the farm barn which plays host to some of the museum's collection of farm machinery and offers a space for activities such as lamb feeding.

As part of this modernisation, the museum is adapting to tell the story of how food is grown, made and eaten.

This includes around 50 animals – including bringing the Suffolk trinity back to the museum – and 30 acres of farmland, some of which are planted with a traditional rotation of crops while the rest is used as grazing land. An 80-tree orchard, specialising in local varieties as well as those that are good for eating and cider-making.

Museum of East Anglian life is set to open its door for a new season of events beginning at the end

The Food Museum is home to a variety of animals. - Credit: Contributed

As well as the growing of food, the newly restored water mill will allow visitors to grind their own flour. And the museum cafe, which is being refurbished and taken back in-house, will allow visitors to eat food grown on the museum's grounds.

Alongside these front-of-house projects, the museum has also made major efforts to digitise its collection.

Throughout the coronavirus lockdown, a team of more than 600 volunteers helped digitise the museum's collection which runs to around 40,000 objects. Now, 99% of the objects have been logged as part of the digitisation project.

"It's been a bit of renaissance for the museum," Ms Cousins said.

"A lot of this is about driving visitation to the museum in order to have the income to care for the estate and the objects better."

A Gypsy caravan being restored at the Food Museum this summer.

A Gypsy caravan being restored at the Food Museum this summer. - Credit: ARCHANT

However, changing the name as part of the renewal plans has attracted criticism from some quarters.

Ms Cousins said: "One of our visitor service staff puts it best: 'It's easiest to engage a child with a plough by starting with what they had for breakfast, rather than with the lump of metal'."

Matthew Attwood, who describes himself as a local campaigner, says that he believes removing the phrase East Anglian from the name of the museum is akin to erasing the region's history.

He said: "I believe that names are important and I do not think that East Anglia is an unrelatable concept."

But, he added, that "safeguarding the East Anglian experience" was what was "utterly crucial".

Oxford Historian Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch, who grew up in Suffolk and volunteered at the museum in his youth, has also opposed the renaming of the museum.

He said he believed it was "insulting the intelligence" of young people to say they would be interested in a museum centred around food, rather than one centred entirely around East Anglia.

The future

"At the moment, we probably have about 40-41,000 visits per year, and we're trying to get to the point where we're double that within the next five years," Ms Cousins said.

The hope is that this level of visitation will make the museum a truly sustainable business going into the future.

But to do this more improvements to the museum site are planned.

The Fishing Lodge at the Food Museum which is set to be restored.

The Fishing Lodge at the Food Museum which is set to be restored. - Credit: citizenside.com

Next on the list is a £100,000 project to renovate an 18th-century fishing lodge and build a new bridge so it is accessible to visitors.

After that is a £2 million plan to revamp the museum's entrance in order to create a "sense of arrival", and to potentially incorporate a micro-brewery. The museum expects to engage an architect later this summer.

And after that are more distant plans to reclad and insulate the museum's currently leaking back-of-house area – which is expected to cost around £500,000 – and to move and restore the medieval Edgar's farmhouse in order to create an exhibit of kitchens through the ages.

Inside the museum's back-of-house collection area, where some objects are covered to protect them from the leaking roof.

Inside the museum's back-of-house collection area, where some objects are covered to protect them from the leaking roof. - Credit: ARCHANT

But to do all this will require numerous sources of grant funding, and that may not be a smooth process.

Terry Hunt, chairman of the museum's development board, said: "We're taking it one step at a time. 

"In the last five years, we've taken several steps forward, which have brought about huge changes from five years ago to where we are now.

"There are huge changes to the museum and huge improvements to the visitor experience.

"The further changes that we want to bring about won't happen overnight, but they will happen."

"I think I'm due a review of my 35-page list to see how far we've got soon, but I'd say we're doing well," Ms Cousins said. 

To contribute to the museum's Fishing Lodge fundraiser click here.