Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery was a museum in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire, England. It had permanent displays dedicated to the natural history of North Hertfordshire, including the famous Black Squirrel, as well as its archaeology from remote prehistory to the turn of the twentieth century.
Letchworth Museum was a key partner in developing 2feet4feet, an educational website aimed at Year 1 children and their teachers.
Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery was founded in 1914 to house the collections being amassed by the Letchworth and District Naturalists’ Society. The building was designed as a single storey structure by Barry Parker, one of the principal architects of the early Garden City movement. It was enlarged in the 1920s and extended to the rear in 1960-3 to designs by Courtenay Melville Crickmer (who had designed Letchworth Library, next door, in 1938).
Its first curator, W Percival Westell (1874–1943), was a well-known author of works on natural history and archaeology. Appointed as Honorary Curator in 1914, the post became salaried in 1928 and he remained as Curator until his death. During the time spent at the museum, he wrote 84 books and gave 145 radio talks for the BBC, mostly on natural history. He established one of the country’s first museums’ loan services in the 1930s. His assistant in the early 1930s was Erik Shimon Applebaum, later professor of Archaeology at the University of Tel Aviv.
Westell’s successor at the museum was Albert T Clarke, who was in post from 1944 to 1968. His assistant from 1957 was John Moss-Eccardt, who became curator in 1968.
Although run initially by the Letchworth and District Naturalists’ Society, it was transferred to Letchworth Urban District Council in 1939. Since the dissolution of the Urban District Council in 1974, the Museum has been run by North Hertfordshire District Council, together with Hitchin Museum and Art Gallery and, for a few years in the late 1970s and early 1980s, Royston Museum and the First Garden City Heritage Museum.
In 2004-5, North Hertfordshire District Council undertook a Fundamental Service Review of its Museum Service. Although it found that visitors greatly valued all aspects of the service (Hitchin Museum & Art Gallery, Letchworth Museum & Art Gallery, the Education Service with its School Loans scheme, the Archaeology and the Natural History Services), the two museums were both described as unfit for purpose and the Museums Resource Centre at Burymead Road in Hitchin as outdated and inefficient.
The Review had five main recommendations, one of which was to close the two existing museums at Letchworth Garden City and at Hitchin, and instead run a museum and gallery on a single town-centre site. A Feasibility Study was commissioned to investigate the possibility of converting Hitchin Town Hall to museum use, which is scheduled to open in 2015. Letchworth Museum and Art Gallery Museum closed to the public on 1 September 2012 to allow staff to dismantle displays, clean objects and prepare for the opening of a new Museum of North Hertfordshire in 2017.
Archaeological collections are stored at the Museums Resource Centre at Burymead Road in Hitchin, where researchers may consult them by appointment. The more significant objects were displayed in Letchworth Museum; there are also some finds in Hitchin Museum that document the prehistory and early history of the town. The collections displayed in the museum are important for demonstrating the cultures and societies of North Hertfordshire’s past and will form a key part of the displays at the new Museum of North Hertfordshire.
Of particular significance in the collection is a group of Lower Palaeolithic handaxes from the Hitchin area, finds from the Romano-British small town of Baldock and finds from the Deserted Medieval Village of Caldecote.
The Art Collections principally comprise works by local artists, with some important works by painters who were attracted to the early Garden City, including William Ratcliffe and Spencer Gore. There is also a collection of work by Margaret Thomas, who settled in Norton in the early twentieth century.
Letchworth Museum has an extensive and regionally important collection of natural history items. Of particular note are several herbaria, butterfly and moth collections, and birds. There is a special display devoted to the black squirrels that are common in the area.