Q&A with Robert Neal

Eleanor Mills, 22.08.2018
The long-awaited Ottery Heritage Museum has recently opened in Devon
The Ottery St Mary Heritage Society has spent nearly two decades trying to open a museum in Ottery St Mary, a medieval town in Devon.

Taking its name from the River Otter – where otters can be found – the town is first attested in the Domesday Book of 1066.

The town of Ottery, also where the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born, can now display its illustrious history permanently in the Ottery Heritage Museum, based in the Old Town Hall.

Museums Journal speaks to Robert Neal, the chairman of the Ottery St Mary Heritage Society, about the town’s new addition and the society’s future plans.

Why does Ottery need a museum?
Ottery St Mary is one of the oldest and most historic towns in Devon. We have well over 1,000 years of documented history – in fact the first mention of “Otheri” is in the 10th century.

How has the project developed?
The Ottery St Mary Heritage Society was formed in 1999 when close to 100 people attended a meeting to lend their support to the idea. We became a registered charity in 2001 and currently have a membership of 200. The long-term aim of the heritage society is to create a permanent heritage centre within the town with facilities for a museum, an arts centre and educational resource centre. For four years, from 2004, we were able to open a temporary museum in rented rooms at a local hotel. This was hugely successful, as were a number of subsequent successful exhibitions in the town, while we searched for a more permanent building to exhibit our growing collection. We have now been successful in leasing the Old Town Hall and at last we have opened the town’s first museum, which opened its doors to the public on 6th August. The opening ceremony was conducted by the mayor of Ottery, Paul Bartlett.

What is the museum building like?
There have been many challenges along the way. Possibly the most significant has been locating a suitable building, something in the right location, affordable, accessible and big enough for the purpose. The museum is housed in the Old Town Hall, a striking red-brick Victorian building opposite the parish church. The museum has had many previous incarnations – firstly the town hall, then the police station and magistrate’s court and more recently the public library, which has moved into a new building.

What can visitors look forward to?
Exhibits cover Ottery’s extensive history from Bishop Grandisson’s Ecclesiastical College, founded in the 14th century. The museum describes its demise under Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, and the king’s subsequent bequeathing of the parish church and formation of the King’s Grammar School. Moving on, there are sections on Cromwell’s presence in Ottery during the civil war; the history of the town’s houses; literary connections with the novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, the poet Alexander Barclay and Ottery’s famous son, the Victorian poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge. There are also displays about Ottery’s textile mill and the development of local industries; fires and floods of the town; our famous Tar Barrels Carnival on 5 November; the Anglo-French war and the barrack town; and Ottery at war, which covers both the first and second world wars.

How many visitors do you expect to come?
Admission is free, but visitors are invited to leave a donation. We aim to open from April to September and expect to attract 3000 in our first full season, which will be in 2019.

How is Ottery Heritage Museum run day-to-day?
Daily running of the museum depends on volunteer support from heritage society members, coupled with volunteers from the public at large, under the supervision of trustees.

What would be your advice to anyone wanting to start up a museum?
Make doubly sure you have sufficient capital, guaranteed income, adequate premises and an enthusiastic team of volunteers to take on research, documentation, preservation, protection of collections, together with continued development and improvement of the project.

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