Abbot's Hall reopens with plans for happiness at Stowmarket's Museum of East Anglian Life

By Culture24 Reporter | 13 July 2012
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A photo of a wide grey brick mansion building amid landscaped gardens
© Museum of East Anglia
Reopening: Abbot’s Hall, Museum of East Anglian Life, Stowmarket

The £3 million reopening of Abbot’s Hall earlier this year gave Suffolk a mansion-sized reason to be cheery. Set in 75 acres of farmland, this was a welcome return of seven permanent exhibitions, followed a couple of months later by the Crowe Street Cottages, a pair of buildings once home to dozens of staff.

A photo of the imprint of a circular well under soil in the paved over backyard of a house
The remains of a well found during building work on the site
© Museum of East Anglia
The redevelopment process on the Hall was revealing. The remains of a well, two hidden doors leading to a dressing closet, newspapers from more than a century ago and graffiti left by a teaboy during the 1940s were all discovered during a swiftly-completed phase of work.

The opening display, Abbot’s Hall and its People, is strongly influenced by discoveries made by builders last year which suggest that Romans occupied the site. During Medieval times, it was variously owned by the Abby of St Osyth (in Essex), Thomas Cromwell and the future Queen Mary I, but in its current form, constructed in 1709, it has been successively bought by wealthy businessmen.

Although its uses as a venue for horticultural shows, ice skating and bathing sound idyllic, its final full-time occupiers, the Longe family, probably made the wisest decision of all when they bequeathed the estate to become a rural life museum.

In fact, their farming trade becomes the story in the food gallery, Come Dine With Me, where a dining table acts as the focal point for seven key figures from the fields of the east, including early 20th century Hall owner Captain Herbert Davy Longe and Isabella Mary Beeton, the Nigella Lawson of her day who earned fame for domestic bible Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management.

Other rooms are devoted to Cultural Olympiad project A People’s Peculiar, a recap of expert local gardeners and community gardens, folklore and folksong, odes to the Gypsy Traveller community and a recreation of the study of George Ewart Evans, an oral history pioneer who has been posthumously appointed the Hall’s writer-in-residence.

But the future could give visitors even more happiness. Much of the permanent displays concern Dr John Kirkman, the former medical chief of St Audry’s, the County Asylum in nearby Melton during the 19th century.

Kirkman brings the museum story full circle: his beliefs in the benefits of good morals and community involvement in the great outdoors saw him regarded a progressive leader at the time. The museum’s own designs on escalating public joy, manifestoed in its Happy Museum project, seem similarly forward-thinking.

The essential vision of the place, according to director Tony Butler, is to influence the outside world to lead “meaningful and happy lives” inspired by our cultural heritage. Abbot Hall moves them an acre closer to achieving their aim.

  • Open 10am-5pm (11am-5pm Sunday). Admission £3.90-£6.90 (family ticket £13-£19, season ticket £12-£39).

More pictures:

A photo of a stone set of ancient stairs within the excavated underground part of a house
Uncovered 16th century brickwork at the Hall
© Museum of East Anglia
A photo of a man sitting at an elegant dining table in a glamorous country house hall
The dining room's first guest was Billy Bragg© Museum of East Anglia
A photo of an exhibition display showing various implements, desks and framed photos
The George Ewart Evans Room is dedicated to the son of a grocer whose 1956 book on the history of Britain, Ask the Fellows who cut the Hay, is regarded as a classic© Museum of East Anglia
A photo of an elaborate floral display inside a see-through case within a house gallery
The Danny Buckley floral tribute© Museum of East Anglia
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