Guildford Museum is run by Guildford Borough Council and can be found opposite St Mary’s Church on Quarry Street, which is literally a couple of minutes’ walk from Guildford High Street. The Museum is housed in a lovely 17th century building, set on a row of historic houses and is even partly attached to the gatehouse of Guildford Castle called Castle Arch. Inside the Museum itself, the building is full of charm and interest, attracting people from all over the UK with a passion for historical findings.
The museum was founded in 1898 and now houses a large collection of archaeology, local history, needlework and art from around Surrey. Overall the museum cares for over 75,000 objects, dating from around 500,000BC (the Lower Palaeolithic) to the modern day and the collection contains objects either from, or in some way related to Guildford, and to a lesser extent Surrey. The Museum currently has Guest Curators that include Anne Milton MP, the Bishop of Guildford, Christopher Hill and the High Sheriff of Surrey, Elizabeth Toulson.
The Surrey Archaeological Society was founded in 1854 and began collecting objects, from excavations and private donations, but unfortunately had to keep moving homes, leaving the valuable artefacts in a shockingly bad condition. The Society was offered a premises for a new museum and library by Guildford Borough Council in 1898 as part of a row of cottages built on the site of the castle’s old gatehouse. In 1885 the Council had purchased Guildford Castle and its grounds, and opened them up as a public park and bowling green and so they were clearly committed to preserving Guildford’s history.
Most of the artefacts now housed in the collection have been there for less than 100 years and many of the objects in the collections remain on near-permanent loan from the Society. The Museum houses some fantastic relics like religious headdresses’ from the Romano-British temple site at Wanborough, Mesolithic handaxes from Farnham and everything from the Tudor site of Farnborough Hill Convent excavation.
The Museum began to collect social history objects in 1905 and in 1907 it accepted a donation from Gertrude Jekyll of her entire collection of objects relating to “Old Surrey Life”. This generous gift from the celebrated garden designer has formed the basis of the ‘local history’ collection and much of the donation is still on display today such as a napkin featuring an embroidered portrait of Queen Elizabeth I which was believed to have actually been used by her. It also includes a green velvet suit purchased in London’s Carnaby Street in the 1970s and some fragments of a Zeppelin bomb dropped on the St Catherine’s area of Guildford in WWI.
Another of the museums prized possessions is its specialist needlework collection. It includes a wide selection of smocks worn by farm labourers in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, known as Surrey Smocks, a “lending quilt” from a local parish church and 18th and 19th century samplers. The Museum also has a treasured art collection which came about after a merger between Guildford Museum and Guildford House Art Gallery in June 2009. Therefore, the Museum staff now also care for the Guildford Borough Council’s art collection including a number of works by Guildford-born artist John Russell.
Guildford’s museum has the ability to take you back through time from prehistoric finds in Surrey fields through to Stone Age tools, medieval costumes and Roman head-dresses. It offers free entry between 11am and 4.45pm on Monday to Saturday, but is closed on Sundays and on Christmas Day. There are also children’s facilities and a gift shop where visitors can purchase history books, stationary, postcards and other such gifts.