The Lightbox

Above photo: The Lightbox courtyard and entrance © The Lightbox

The Lightbox Museum and Art Gallery was opened in September 2007, and is designed by Marks Barfield, the architects of the London Eye. It is situated in the centre of Woking, a town of over 100,000: the town is mostly known as a commuter town as, attracted by the good train service, many of the inhabitants work in London, but in recent years several well-known companies, such as McLaren, manufacturers of Formula 1 racing cars and supercars, have based their headquarters in Woking. The present town grew around the railway station, which came in 1838 to an undeveloped area of heathland, being two miles away from the original settlement of Woking, which contained Woking Palace, home of Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of King Henry VII. Land was cheap and the railway offered good communications, so Woking became the home of several large institutions – Brookwood Cemetery (at one time the largest in the world), two prisons (later barracks), a pioneering mental hospital, and the first crematorium in the United Kingdom. The Cemetery company sold land not only to these institutions, but also for a home for retired actors, instigated by Charles Dickens, becoming the Royal Dramatic College: this was financially unviable and was sold in 1889 to become the Oriental Institute, whose founder Dr Gottlieb Leitner, built the nation’s first purpose-built mosque in the grounds. While the Institute became a series of factories, the mosque has flourished and its fame is reflected in the large numbers of Muslims from the Indian Sub-Continent and Africa who have made Woking their home since World War 2.

Notable former residents of Woking have included the novelist H G Wells, who wrote ‘The War of the Worlds’ when living in the town, George Bernard Shaw, John Donne, the metaphysical poet, Dame Hilary Mantel, the novelist, Dame Ethel Smyth, composer and suffragette, Rick Parfitt of the group Status Quo, and Paul Weller of Jam and The Style Council.

The story of The Lightbox starts with the founding in 1968 of the Mayford History Society By 1970 it was suggesting that Woking Borough Council should make provision for a museum in the forthcoming development of the Town Centre, but was told there was no money or accommodation available, and thus held some small one-day displays at various locations. From 1990 various sites were investigated and found wanting, and in January 1993 a meeting of historical and arts and crafts interests set up the Museum and Arts and Crafts Committee. In August 1994 Woking Borough Council offered the first of several more sites and by the end of that year it was agreed to advertise for a Museum Director, exhibits were being discussed and Brookwood Hospital had offered the artefacts from its museum, and a shop to publicise the museum and local artists was opened. The offices and the now growing stock moved to one of the planned sites in 1995, but this proved unsatisfactory.

In the spring of 2001, with Marilyn Scott, the present Director, having been in post only a few weeks, another change of site was announced by Woking BC: this was the present site on Victoria Way The Borough Council approved partial funding, enabling an approach to be successfully made to the Heritage Lottery Fund and other bodies for substantial grants: the Fund encouraged a further submission as the new plans now envisaged the Galleries, as they were still known, as a regional arts centre as well as a museum for Woking. Construction began in August 2005, to be completed for opening on 15 September 2007, with an official opening by HRH the Duke of Kent on 28 February 2008.

A snowy scene from 2009
PHOTOGRAPH BY Richard Christophers

The Lightbox has three art galleries, all of which have changing exhibitions, and Woking’s Story, a gallery devoted to the history of Woking and reflecting some of the elements mentioned above.

Let us first come into The Lightbox from its main entrance off Victoria Way, and just beyond the statues of Sir Alec and Eric Bedser, the notable Woking-based cricketers flanking the Bedser Bridge, which leads over the Basingstoke Canal to the distinguished headquarters of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF). The gates, specially designed by Clare Robertson, lead into a courtyard with an attractive garden which in fine weather is a popular place for coffees and meals served by the Seasons Café. Here are the first pieces of art the visitor encounters, some panels designed for a church In Birmingham, but not used and acquired by Chris Ingram, the Woking born businessman and entrepreneur in the media field, who started to collect art seriously in 2000, specialising in Modern British Art. The collection expanded, and with the opening of The Lightbox he offered to deposit his collection there for the public benefit. Two catalogues of the collection have been published by The Lightbox and a selection of items form the collection are always on view in the galleries and other spaces – the lower corridor is named the Ingram Sculpture Gallery. The collection includes notable works by Elisabeth Frink, Eduardo Paolozzi, Kenneth Armitage, and others. Items from the collection are used to inspire takes on them by local schoolchildren and as part of the work of The Lightbox in the community.

As you enter the building you are welcomed by a helpful volunteer, who will guide you towards the various exhibitions currently on show. Straight ahead is the staircase which leads directly to the two upper floors, and above it is an installation of handprints entitled ‘The Wave’. The handprints were collected during the early days of publicity for the museum and gallery when volunteers attended events in Woking and encouraged the public to ‘make their mark’ (while talking to them about the planned building) with the intention of the handprints being joined to surround the building on its opening: instead they were laminated and hang over the staircase.

The Wave, created by Danny Greany and Malcolm Taylor

On the ground floor is the inside part of the Seasons Café, and adjoining that is the reception desk where tickets for membership, exhibitions and events can be bought, and a well-stocked shop, featuring the work of local artists and craft workers. All along the corridor an installation of window with ever changing lights by peter Freeman runs along the whole wall, and continuing along there is a second-hand bookshop and a panel of information guides to local events and attractions, and the Ingram Sculpture Gallery. Beyond this you reach the first of the three art galleries. This is named The Art Fund Prize Gallery in recognition of The Lightbox being awarded the Art Fund Prize (now the Museum of the Year Award) in 2008 just a year after opening in recognition of its excellence, especially in community work and for involvement with its volunteers. That gallery is home to changing displays of art works from local artists whose work is often offered for sale, as well as for small art displays from various sectors of the local community, including women who have been in contact with the criminal justice system, and other vulnerable groups – this gallery has free admission. . There is the back entrance here with bicycle stands and a small car park, with parking for blue badge holders.

Taking the lift or the stairs, we are now at the first floor, which includes an education studio where work with schools, colleges and members of the community takes place, as well as workshops for all ages and conditions – normally reaching up to six sessions a week. Painting, ‘dress for mess’ crafts, story-telling all have their place here. The main gallery of The Lightbox is here, and is host to a variety of significant short term exhibitions, curated by the exhibitions staff of The Lightbox but sourced for the most part from other collections of national importance. The gallery has hosted exhibitions on subjects as diverse as Wallace and Gromit (the very first, in 2007), to Constable, Renoir, Hockney, Damien Hirst and Raphael drawings in the Royal Collection.

Main Gallery. Burning bright: the Scottish Colourists Exhibition, 2019-20

On the way to the main gallery you will pass, firstly, smaller displays curated by the heritage volunteers on matters of local significance and based almost entirely on The Lightbox heritage collections, and then Woking’s Story, which is the museum heart of The Lightbox, being a permanent display demonstrating many aspects of the history of Woking. Visitors often head for a largescale map of the borough and try to find their own street, and there are changing stills of street views over the years.

Woking’s Story, showing the Woking Palace display

The original collections came mostly from items collected by Woking History Society over the years, and from the museum assembled by Brookwood Hospital, but also other donations from individuals and local institutions. These formed the basis for the display in Woking’s Story and many others are in store, ready for use for research into Woking’s past and for future special displays.

Visitors are often unaware that in Old Woking are the remains of a small royal palace and following seven years of excavations there with the help of grants and other support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Woking Borough Council, the Friends of Woking Palace and the Surrey Archaeological Society, some of the finds made there are on display in a special interactive display (including smells!) showing several aspects of life at Woking Palace.

Behind the closed doors of Brookwood Hospital was some pioneering work on mental health, and while some of the exhibits, like a plait of hair cut from a patient, now seem brutal and in fact were collected by the Hospital’s museum to reflect past practices, there is also much to show of the progress to more humane treatment.

Woking’s Story, showing the Shamiana panel
Window from the Royal Dramatic College 
An early Kenwood mixer An early Kenwood mixer

From the failed Royal Dramatic College, there is a foundation stone, and, in storage, the splendid but fragile stained glass windows which graced its central hall. There is little from the Oriental Institute, which took over the College, but relevant to the Mosque built in its grounds is the magnificent embroidered Shamiana Panel depicting the Mosque and worked by local Muslim women. When the Institute closed the buildings formed the hub first of Martinsyde’s aircraft factory during World War 1, and then James Walker’s Lion Works, long the biggest employer in Woking, represented respectively by half a propeller and a display of their products. Other Woking industries and trades included many plant nurseries and Kenwood kitchen appliances, are also covered.

Further cases pay tribute to Brookwood Cemetery, established to relieve the fatal pressures of overcrowded London graveyards and the nearby crematorium was the first such in the country, with artefacts and displays of Victorian mourning clothes and jewellery. The London and South Western Railway Servants’ Orphanage was founded in 1884 and moved to Woking in 1909, now demolished and rebuilt as Woking Homes, it cares for elderly people, mostly with railway connections, rather than children: there is a replica of one of the dogs used to collect for its funds on trains and stations, along with a collecting box (an original is in store).

Woking’s contribution to entertainment forms one exhibition case covering tastes from classical concert programmes to dance halls and Paul Weller’s guitar, while opposite is a similar case devoted to Woking’s sporting history: the cricketing twins Sir Alec and Eric Bedser , McLaren and Woking Football Club. There are audio recollections of several aspects of Woking’s past – musical, sporting, industries and shopping. Around a display based on Woking’s former department store of Robinson’s and nearby are some dressing up clothes representing various periods, enjoyed by children of all ages! Also for younger visitors are quiz sheets for the gallery.

The churches of Woking have a display area in Woking’s Story to which they contribute temporary exhibitions. The Surrey Infantry Museum, when in Clandon Park, also contributed temporary displays and since the fire at Clandon Park in 2015 the items on show at The Lightbox comprise nearly all that was left totally unscathed. A small case recognises ‘local heroes’, with items relating to local people as diverse as Rick Parfitt of Status Quo and Lady Margaret Beaufort.

The first floor also houses a small Research Room, which includes The Lightbox collection of photographs, postcards, reference books and ephemera, and this may be consulted by appointment.

Heading for the second floor, at one end there is a splendid view over the Basingstoke Canal and town centre, while at the other is a Make and Play area for children to relax on beanbags and look at books. The Ambassador Room is the main meeting area of The Lightbox and is available for hire for seminars, wedding receptions and wakes, as well as providing a room for The Lightbox’s own lectures. The Upper Gallery hosts smaller art exhibitions which change about every three months.

An account of the work of The Lightbox would not be complete without a reference to the key Art and Wellbeing programme, which provides opportunities for those that would otherwise not be able to access and enjoy arts and heritage services to take part in creative and therapeutic workshops. Its philosophy embodies the notion that art has the power to make you feel good - which is why it is passionate about providing art for everyone. The Art and Wellbeing programme provides free community workshops for those living with dementia and their carers, those affected by mental health issues, those in local care homes and hospices and clients of the nearby York Road Project homeless shelter.

Apart from the helpful staff at the reception desk, almost everyone you will meet at The Lightbox, is a volunteer – they will welcome you into the building and in each gallery there will be a volunteer at the door who will have been briefed on the current exhibition and will be able to answer any questions. As volunteers ourselves, we are most interested in the history and heritage of Woking and seek to answer queries which come from visitors or through letters and e-mails. Enjoy your visit – there is so much to see and do at The Lightbox.

Location: Chobham Road, Woking, Surrey, GU21 4AA

Telephone: 01483-737800

Website: From this can be learned more about the collections, the building and the programmes, with contact details.

General admission to The Lightbox is free which includes the Café, Shop, Art Fund Prize Gallery and Woking's Story museum.

Membership of the Lightbox is:

£30 Individual Membership (visit all exhibitions free for a year)

£40 Individual Plus (bring a guest for free)

£50 Joint Membership (visit independently or as a pair)

£60 Joint Plus (bring one guest each for free)

For day visitors admission charges are:

Main and Upper Galleries:

Lightbox Members free

Under 21s free

£7.50 Day Pass

£3.75 with National Art Pass

£8.50 Day Pass Plus, which includes £1 donation to The Lightbox Art and Wellbeing programme

Free entry every last Thursday of the month at Lightbox Lates (comedy, poetry open mic, Café Scientifique) from 5.00pm - 8.30pm.

Accessibility. The Lightbox seeks to be as accessible as it possibly can be. The ground floor has level access; there are accessible toilets on both the ground and first floor, and there is a lift that goes to all floors of the building. The Lightbox is fully accessible for wheelchair users. Induction Loops, magnifying glasses and two wheelchairs are also available on request, and registered assistance dogs are welcome.

Audio Description Resources. Visually-impaired visitors are invited to join scheduled audio-described tours of the Main Gallery exhibitions, followed by a hands-on creative workshop inspired by the artwork on display. Sighted companions and guide dogs are welcome. The Seeing A1 app is available for visually-impaired visitors who would prefer to have a self-guided visit.

Tactile Resources and Large Print Guides. In the Upper Gallery you can find a sensory bag, filled with tactile resources, that is free to borrow and use within the Upper Gallery to help children explore the artworks on display. You will find the yellow bag hanging on a hook inside the gallery.

There is also a Make and Play area on the second floor outside the Upper Gallery which includes a magnetic pattern wall, sculpture station, lots of bean bags to sit on and storybook bags that are free to use.

Large Print Guides are also available within the exhibitions - just ask the volunteer as you enter the Main or Upper Gallery exhibitions.

Opening Hours

Tuesday – Saturday: 10.30am – 5.00pm

Last Thursday of the month: 10.30am - 8.30pm

Sunday: 11.00am – 4.00pm

Closed Mondays and Bank Holidays.

How to Find The Lightbox

By Train. Woking Station is a five minute walk from The Lightbox and just 25 minutes by train from London Waterloo. Just follow the sign posts through the town centre.

By Car. The Lightbox is 15 minutes from the M25, exit at Junction 11. From the A3 southbound, exit at Chobham/Painshill, signposted A245. 'Brewery Road' is the closest pay and display car park, located underneath the WWF Headquarters on Brewery Road. Also close by is the 'Victoria Way' car park.

By Bus. All buses to and from Woking stop at Woking Station. In-coming routes 28, 34, 35, 73, 91, and out-going routes 34, 35, 436, 446, 456 all stop at the Town Quay bus stop, next to The Lightbox on Victoria Way, opposite the theatre.

*    *    *

Richard Christophers

Richard and his wife Rosemary are heritage volunteers at The Lightbox and have been involved with cataloguing the stock since well before the building was opened and we have been arranging heritage displays over the last eight years. We have lived in Woking since 1967 and have watched the town transformed at least twice. Richard read history at Oxford and was a curator in the British Museum, later the British Library, from 1961 until formal retirement in 1995 and for the next 20 years catalogued modern literary manuscripts. He has a PhD on the topic of the educational and social background of the 16th century Surrey clergy. Rosemary was a chartered librarian, working in public and school libraries. We are both long-standing members of Woking History Society, of which Richard is president.