Ayscoughfee Hall Museum and Gardens is my local museum and quite possibly one of my favourite places on the planet. I have been going there since I was a small child and every family visit is now steeped in nostalgia as we recount tales of long summers spent playing in the gardens and the horrifying sight of the room that was packed from floor to ceiling with cases of stuffed birds to my 5-year-old niece. Our visit in early May this year was no different, but we had a particular focus; to write a collaborative review of Ayscoughfee Hall Museum and Gardens for Mainly Museums by engaging in our favourite activities in the museum and gardens.
Spalding is a small market town in the south of the county of Lincolnshire in the UK and the jewel in its historical crown is Ayscoughfee, as both the house, museum, and gardens are referred to locally. The Grade 1 Listed building originated in the 1450s and was lived in by successive generations, who, over hundreds of years altered the exterior and interiors in line with changing fashions and tastes. Visitors enter the Hall and Museum through a Victorian gothic façade and continue straight into a large entrance hall that is decorated with 18th century neoclassical style, or Adam style, plasterwork and now features displays, a small shop, and a reception desk. I visit fairly regularly and find that staff offer a consistently warm welcome, helpful tips, and always provide children with a free and engaging quiz to do as they go round. We didn’t take the quiz this time because we were on serious review writing business, so we headed straight to the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society exhibition space to play with the simple, but effective, interactives with an archaeological theme. Spalding Gentlemen’s Society has a special connection with Ayscoughfee, because Maurice Johnson (1688 – 1755), who was second in a long line of Maurices and Johnsons who lived in the Hall, created the well-respected antiquarian society and supported it for forty years. So, it seems quite right that they have a presence here.
From the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society exhibition we went into the nineteenth century Gentlemen’s Library which featured a display that prompted a tricky question and answer session about the taxidermy on display in a cabinet of curiosities. Once my niece was Ssatisfied with an impromptu history/museology focussed explanation about this display, we continued into the Garden Room. This is a beautiful room with large windows overlooking some of the gardens. It contains excellent interactive displays although but the text is a little out of date in here, highlighting that you can visit Spalding Flower Parade. Unfortunately, this annual celebration of local horticulture ran for the 54th and final time in 2013. This is reflective of the reliance on external funding bodies in the UK to support museum redevelopment work and a lack of funding to update exhibitions in between large scale projects; Ayscoughfee received a large grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund between 2003 and 2006.
Our next stop was the Geest Gallery, named after a prominent family originally from Holland who ran several successful horticultural and food production businesses in the 20th Century. There was a good exhibition in the gallery by the Spalding Arts and Crafts Society and the opportunity for the public to vote for their favourite piece of art, which provided us with the chance to discuss which pieces we liked and to all cast our vote.
After a whistle-stop tour of the Victorian kitchens, we looked under the main stairs to take a peek at the medieval undercroft and headed to the first floor to explore the medieval tower and a rare medieval staircase. We then explored the room that was once full of the stuffed birds we were scared of, and learnt about the architectural evolution of the building and roof construction, before viewing stained glass collected by Maurice Johnson to adorn the windows of a small chapel; arguably the earliest curated aspect of the Hall and Museum. We then learnt about famous figures from Spalding and the surrounding area, including the drainage engineer John Grundy and Captain Matthew Flinders, who famously mapped Australia’s coastline. Unfortunately, our favourite interactive game was broken so we didn’t get the chance to race each other to see who could circumnavigate Australia first, nor can I remember spotting any famous or influential women in the displays (although this might be an oversight on my part). But what we were able to do was to think about our locality in global terms, which is important in an increasingly international environment.
Our final stop was the landscape gallery, which provided the opportunity to guess what local words meant, look at a wildfowling boat and gun up close, these shallow canoes like boats and long guns were specifically designed for hunting on the fenland and were known as punts and punt guns. This prompted a discussion about how people ate different food in the past and about how much the landscape and way of life around Spalding has changed in the last two hundred years. It was here my sister spotted a discreet, but powerful addition of recently collected memories about the landscape from both people who would consider themselves local and recent economic migrants to the area. This discreet addition to the display has particular significance as our local economy has historically relied on migrant labour. In fact, it still does and individuals and communities have an important role in terms of our local heritage, culture, and contemporary society, which seems to be a lost narrative in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum where districts in Lincolnshire returned some of the highest Leave returns in the country.
We then spent some time in the 5.5 acres of gardens. Walking through the slightly spooky 300-year-old yew tree walk to find my niece’s favourite fir tree that was recently damaged by a storm. We also saw the ducks in the large ornamental pond, and admired the war memorial designed by Edward Luychens. We then had lunch in the quaint café, the place of my sister’s first Saturday job, and another hidden gem. On this visit, we didn’t have time to visit the eighteenth century ice house, aviaries, or the well-equipped play park, but we did just managed to squeeze in time to reminisce about the small ornamental pond, long since filled in, which was traditionally used as a children’s paddling pool for several decades.
You can find out the opening times of the museum, gardens, and café here: https://www.sholland.gov.uk/article/5262/Ayscoughfee-Hall, download an access guide here: https://www.sholland.gov.uk/article/7031/Access-Guide-to-the-Museum, and read more about the history of the site here: https://www.sholland.gov.uk/article/7016/History-of-Ayscoughfee-Hall.
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Dr Abigail Hunt is Head of Department for Marketing and Tourism in the Lincoln International Business School, University of Lincoln, UK. Her research focuses on the representation of the past in written and object based narratives and she is interested in creating alterative and new historical and contemporary narratives by working with community groups and individuals. Her niece is 5 and already loves visiting museums and heritage sites. As long as they aren’t spooky.
Contact Abigail via email on firstname.lastname@example.org