Dorset County Museum was established in 1845 to save the natural history and archaeology of a county felt at risk from the effects of the Industrial Revolution.
The coming of the railways in the 1840s saw Dorchester’s Roman sites at Poundbury and Maumbury Rings threatened with destruction. The poet, William Barnes, Reverend Charles W. Bingham and the vicar of Fordington, Reverend Henry Moule, decided to form an organisation that would protect these sites and the natural history of the area and on 15th October 1845 the Dorset County Museum and Library was founded.
It was originally housed on the south side of High West Street in the building where the ‘Bloody Assizes’ took place following the Monmouth Rebellion. It then moved to Trinity Street and later to the site of the Old George Inn, a former public house on High West Street. But this temporary accommodation meant the Museum suffered from a lack of space and could only open on Thursdays and Saturdays – with predictable effects on visitor numbers.
To alleviate these problems in 1883, a purpose-built, gothic inspired museum, designed by architect Mr G. R. Crickmay was built and Henry Joseph Moule (son of the Reverend Henry Moule) was appointed as the first full-time curator, a post he held until his death on 13 March 1904.
After the First World War the Museum began to suffer from under-funding, so in 1928 it was decided that the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, whose members regularly used the Museum, would formally amalgamate with it and become responsible for its upkeep and collections. The Field Club was renamed the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society and it continues to manage and care for Dorset County Museum to this day
In 1937 the Dorset County Education Committee gave its first grant to the Museum, to encourage it to build links with local schools, and Dorset County Council continues its support today. A new Geology Gallery also opened in 1937, while the following year Thomas Hardy’s papers and the contents of his Max Gate study were bequeathed to the Museum.
Following the Second World War, while other museums around the country were struggling, Dorset’s growing tourist industry meant that Dorset County Museum was able to expand. A new Natural History gallery was built in 1952 and was praised by the national press for its innovative display techniques. A new extension, built in 1973, housed a Multipurpose Gallery and conservation laboratory, and a new Archaeology Gallery was completed in 1984 landing Dorset County Museum a prestigious National Heritage ‘Museum of the Year’ award.
With the advent of Heritage Lottery Funding since the 1990s many galleries have been added and refurbished. The Writers’ Dorset gallery opened in 1997, winning us a further Museum of the Year award, while the Dorchester Gallery opened in 2003 and the Jurassic Coast Gallery (celebrating England’s first natural World Heritage Site) opened in 2006.
In 2015, Dorset County Museum received initial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the Tomorrows Museum for Dorset project. The main aims of the project are to provide a new state of the art learning centre, better archive and storage facilities and better public access to displays of the Museum’s vast collection.
This will be achieved through the sensitive yet contemporary redevelopment of the current building, which will transform Dorset County Museum’s facilities and double its visitor numbers. There will be new gallery spaces, an area for researchers to work and open workshop spaces so the public can see for themselves the fascinating inner workings of the museum. There will also be a new shop and tearoom, accessible from the street. The award of initial stage one funding of £483,900 will enable a detailed two year development plan to take place ahead of final submission to the Heritage Lottery Fund in May 2017. This would enable building work to start in 2017 and the Museum to be opened to the public by 2020.