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The less-than straight-forward story of MOX

Founded in the cultural quarter of the city, the Museum of Oxford has been open, in a variety of forms, since 1975. Although, the story of the Museum is not a straight line; it has its own fascinating history.

The Court Room from inside Oxford Town Hall.

The Court Room in the Town Hall.

The Museum is located in Oxford Town Hall, which is the third generation of purpose-built town halls to be found on the site. The first building found in the Museum’s current location was a Guildhall constructed in the 1290s by the Burgesses of Oxford. Next, in the 1740s, the Council began plans to build a new town hall. The second site was designed by Isaac Ware and partially funded by local MP Thomas Rowney. This second site did not last very long as in 1891 it was agreed that the building should be replaced – with the town hall that still stands to this day. The new building was designed by Henry Thomas Hare who won a competition with over 300 entries. Interestingly, during WW1, the town hall became a part of the 3rd Southern General Hospital with over 200 beds to treat the wounded. Today, Oxford Town Hall is a Grade II listed building. It houses the City Council’s meeting chamber, a courtroom, a medieval great hall and a large organ built by Henry Willis, the foremost Victorian organ builder.

Now, on to the Museum itself. It was established by the Oxfordshire County Museum Service in 1975 and used to be located in Oxford’s old City Library. The library had moved to the Westgate by this point, where it can still be found today (albeit updated in the sites remodel in 2016). The Museum was established to tell the story of Oxford and its communities via exhibitions and interactive displays. In its first iteration, some of the interesting items in the Museum included a real Roman kiln and the interior of a 19th-century college barge. In 1980, the Museum introduced free entry and in six months visitor numbers doubled!

An image of the office from the Explore Oxford galleries.

William White’s office in the Explore Oxford galleries.

At the end of the 1990s, the City Council took over management of the Museum due to struggles to fund the Museum’s running costs. The Council continued to acquire new items, including several items belonging to Alice Liddell and miniature rowing boats made by Fred Rough the Victorian boat builder. Sadly in the 2000s, the Museum was threatened with closure. Fortunately, the community rallied to support it – in 2009 the Oxford Mail reported that the members of the Oxford Civic Society would fight for the Museum’s future. A number of the society’s members were the first to volunteer, marking the beginning of the Museum’s volunteering programme.

In 2010, the decision was made to update the Museum and in 2011 work began on the Explore Oxford Galleries. The Museum located in the old City Library was then closed until 2014 when the first floor was renovated to create a brand new event venue. It could host events from theatre shows to community talks and debates. The new renovations were accompanied by new outreach projects, family activities and community-curated exhibitions.

An image of the old Museum of Oxford space renovated as an entertainment venue.

The Old Museum entertainment venue.

The latest museum project began in August of 2015 when we applied to the National Heritage Lottery Fund. Luckily, we were successful! We received permission to begin a new major construction project to build our new Museum in the old City Library space. The development phase of this project began in early 2016 and the construction began in 2018.

As an additional part of the National Heritage Lottery funding, the Micro-Museum was opened in the Town Hall gallery in October 2018. The Micro-Museum showcased a selection of the items that will be available in the new Museum and allowed members of the public to still visit while the new building was under construction. The gallery acted as a temporary exhibition space until February of 2020.

Now, back in the present day, the building work for the new space should be finished very soon. The new Museum will be much bigger – it will be triple the size with almost two and a half times as many exhibits. The new project also includes 3 years worth of new and exciting activities, such as community exhibitions, school resources, family workshops and reminiscence projects for older people. We can’t wait for you to come and visit!

To find out more information about the new Museum of Oxford, visit the About us page.

Written by a staff member in June 2021. 

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