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The Food Museum, in Stowmarket, looks back on 10 years of Abbot's Hall and to its future



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A Stowmarket attraction which changed its name last month is also marking another milestone.

The Food Museum – formerly the Museum of East Anglian Life – opened its Abbot’s Hall to the public as part of a £3 million project a decade ago.

The 18th century house – which dates from 1709 and was acquired on lease in 2005– was refurbished with nine exhibition rooms and opened to the public in April 2012.

Abbots Hall at the Food Museum Picture: Mecha Morton
Abbots Hall at the Food Museum Picture: Mecha Morton

Lisa Harris, the museum’s collections manager, is responsible for the building’s exhibitions.

She said: “Ten years has flown by, but it is still exciting. There are still so many stories to tell here – sometimes a visitor will make one small comment and it makes me think about what we can do next.

“Putting exhibitions together is great fun. We have got this beautiful house which is helping to talk about how people lived, their stories and the bigger picture.

Lisa Harris, collections and interpretations manager
Lisa Harris, collections and interpretations manager

“When Abbot's Hall opened in 2012, we were talking about how our collection related to East Anglia whereas now the focus is on food and speaking about our collections in a slightly different way.”

Lisa started at the museum in 2001 on a short-term contract, but says she has ‘never had two days the same’ since.

“The view of the Walled Garden from Abbot's Hall changes every week of the year. We have volunteers – we are always looking for more – and groups who work in there, but it is all about growing our own, understanding how things grow, health and wellbeing,” added Lisa.

The fishing lodge Picture: Mecha Morton
The fishing lodge Picture: Mecha Morton

“One of the challenges presented by Abbot's Hall is that because of the age of the building, nothing is straight or level.”

The museum was established in 1967 and covers 75 acres, including outdoor displays and 17 historic buildings.

It contains more than 40,000 objects, including utensils and agricultural machinery.

Jenny Cousins, museum director, said: “If there’s one thing visitors say, it is that the museum is much bigger than they expected.

Jenny Cousins, museum director Picture: Mecha Morton
Jenny Cousins, museum director Picture: Mecha Morton

“Being in the centre of town people think ‘how big can it be?’ – but just to walk from one side to another is one mile.”

Last year, the museum welcomed 38,000 visitors, which is slightly higher than pre-pandemic levels.

“A lot of people have been appreciating what’s on their doorstep. They might not have been here for 30 years but they came during the pandemic and want to return,” said Jenny.

New exhibition in Abbots Hall Picture: Mecha Morton
New exhibition in Abbots Hall Picture: Mecha Morton

“We opened the grounds for free during the lockdown and I think even that gave people and opportunity to walk around and realise things had changed here.

“We have got such an amazing site.”

One of the developments at the museum in the coming months will be the opening of a large new exhibition space – with an area to display high-value items – as well as a project to restore the mill to working order and a third scheme to install a new river sculpture trail.

The Boby building at the Food Museum, in Stowmarket
The Boby building at the Food Museum, in Stowmarket

Jenny: “We have just taken on another 11 staff and will be taking on more over the summer – we have about 35 paid members of staff.

“We also have around 100 volunteers at the moment – but we are looking for more. We can never have enough staff or volunteers.”

Meanwhile, she said the museum’s change of focus to food was still ‘very much a work in progress’, with the decision to change the name taken following a consultation project over the past three/four years.

Anna and Gail Arnold at the bread oven Picture: Mecha Morton
Anna and Gail Arnold at the bread oven Picture: Mecha Morton

Jenny said: “ It is a journey and we want people to come and engage with that, tell us what is missing and what we can do better.”