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The Willis Museum, Basingstoke

Founded: 1931        Governance: LA-supported trust        Scope: Local history, art, archaeology    Visited: Autumn 2017

Frankly Basingstoke needs all the history it can get, but I've always found the walk through the malls from the railway station, interspersed with open spaces from which you plunge back under cover again, in the direction of the old town centre rather exciting. It's there that you find the Willis Museum (named after its founder, George Willis, memorialised on the stairs in one of the oddest municipal portraits ever) in the old Town Hall, sitting in bright whitewash on the edge of the market square like a colossal architectural cake (a comparison which has a curious echo inside, as we will see). The confusing designation 'Willis Museum and Sainsbury Gallery' arises from the private funding for the refurbishment of the temporary display space in the 2000s, the immortalisation of this glorious benefaction presumably being a condition of the donation. It's the humbler and more homely presence of Mr Willis, clockmaker and Mayor, which is more to the fore.

Jane Austen is a local celebrity (well, nearly local) and when I visited there was a show on downstairs about Georgian habits and fashions, very little preparation for the excessive eclecticism of the rest of the museum. The cool detachment of the art gallery space contrasted with the touches of opulence around the municipal staircase and the very strange atmosphere of the carpeted topmost room with its great polished table for council committee meetings, forming a bizarre juxtaposition with Mr Willis's archaeological collection arranged in dark cases around the walls. The local history gallery romps through the story of Basingstoke, taking in a Victorian wedding cake under a glass dome, which really does look like something out of the imagination of HP Lovecraft, and culminates in the redevelopments of the twentieth century. This last is particularly admirable as museums all too often skate over recent and potentially controversial history; there's no evading it here, and you get a mocked-up JCB digger smashing into a house wall. Wreckage and destruction. Finding all this behind the unassuming frontage of the Town Hall (and in Basingstoke!) was so thoroughly unexpected I couldn't help being nearly overcome with delight.

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