History of Maidstone Museum

From its early days in Chillington Manor to the modern additions we see today, the history of Maidstone Museum is rich and compelling

History of Maidstone Museum

Maidstone Museum is home to a vast collection of Fine Art, Natural History, and Human History collections with historical artefacts of international importance.

Why is the museum here?

When he died in 1855, Dr Thomas Charles of Maidstone left his library, art collection, and antiques to the town. He asked his executors to, “make such arrangements as they should think fit for the permanent preservation thereof in the town of Maidstone, and the same to be called the Charles Museum.”

Following the Ewart Act of July 1855, which provided for the establishment of libraries and museums in towns and the provinces, Maidstone Council set about establishing ‘a museum worthy of the county town of Kent’. The Charles collection remained at Chillington Manor, Dr Charles’ former home, and the Council agreed to rent the building for a year while the collection was catalogued.

Unfortunately, Chillington Manor was in a bad state of repair and it was felt that it wouldn’t make a suitable building to house a museum. However, following a change of heart, the Council authorised the purchase of the building in 1856 for £1,200 and provided an additional £300 for repairs. On January 20, 1858 the museum opened as the Charles Museum, making Maidstone Museum one of the first local authority run museums in the UK. Mr Edward Pretty, a friend of the late Dr Charles, was appointed as the first curator in the September.

An expanding museum

Chillington Manor House was built in 1562 and was in poor condition when it opened as the Charles Museum in 1858. Over the following 40 years, the building was transformed through the generosity of local benefactors. The buildings flanking the central Elizabethan core of the museum were purchased and rebuilt to form the east wing (1868-9) and west wing (1870-1), using designs by local architect Hubert Bensted. In 1874-5, the central courtyard was restored, railings erected, and the Elizabethan façade refurbished. In the 1890s, the Bentlif Art Gallery was added providing a reference library, temporary exhibition gallery, and dedicated picture gallery.

The new wings provided much needed display and public space. The museum also housed the local library, open from 10am to 9pm daily, as well as public meeting rooms which were in demand by clubs and societies.

In the 20th century, the extensive Japanese collections were acquired through a bequest from the Honourable Henry Marsham and a donation from the Honourable Walter Samuel. Extra space was needed yet again and the Bearsted Gallery was built to accommodate the Japanese collections on the ground floor and print collections above.

Museum benefactors

The generosity of local people resulted in the early growth of the collections and the museum buildings. One of the key names in the Museum’s history is Julius Brenchley, an explorer, naturalist and botanist who, in 1873, bequeathed his extensive collections of ethnography, art, and natural history to the town.

Samuel Bentlif funded the building of the Bentlif Art Gallery in 1890 in memory of his brother George Amatt Bentlif. He followed this with a bequest of fine art in 1897. Sir Henry Marsham and the Honourable Walter Samuel bequeathed and donated large collections of Japanese decorative wares to the museum in 1908 and 1923, and Lord Bearsted paid for the extension to the east wing to house both the Japanese collection and a collection of Baxter prints donated by his wife.

The popularity of the museum among the townsfolk has been shown in the continued support for its collections and projects. During the museum’s early years, buildings and developments were paid for by local people together with support from the Council. Museum curators, and later museum managers, have been instrumental in organising the museum’s continued growth, helping secure large collections and drive forward the development of galleries and new buildings.

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Welcome to Maidstone Museum

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