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History of the Museum

The history of Chichester's museum, The Novium

On 8th July 2012, The Novium Museum opened its doors to the public for the first time.

The Origins 

A Time of Decline

The Move to Little London

A New Beginning 

The Origins 

The origins of Chichester Museum date back to the beginning of the 19th century. The Industrial revolution had created a thirst for educational opportunities across all classes of society, and the museum was founded in 1831.

The museum was set up in the Royal West Sussex Hospital by Dr John Forbes, and it was Dr Forbes who proposed the formation of a "Philosophical and Literary Society". One of the main objectives of this society was to set up a museum of natural history.

Within six months a committee had been formed, and the public were being invited to donate objects and money to the museum. On June 29th 1831, the committee published a prospectus announcing 90 members (each subscribing a guinea a year to the museum) and that a number of valuable natural history specimens, antiquities and books had been donated.

The museum society purchased No. 7 North Pallant for £400, and plans were drawn up by a leading architect to provide a museum, lecture room, elegant staircase and ornate lantern dome. The alterations were never carried out as the museum was struggling financially. Two years later 7 North Pallant was sold, and the museum moved to 45 South Street.

Interest in the museum was again stimulated in 1851 by the Great Exhibition in London, and by the decision of the Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland to hold its annual meeting in Chichester. This inspired local people to excavate the Bronze age burial mounds on Bow Hill and Monkton Down.

There is little information about the next twenty years, but the museum obviously continued to grow, as in 1872 it had 480 members, and 1100 visitors - though some of these found much to criticise. Like many museums, Chichester had accepted all donated objects without considering whether they were significant or appropriate. The museum was urged to reclassify its collection, but the suggestions were not followed up.

A time of decline

By the 1890s the museum was again short of funds. Visitor numbers had dropped to 600 and members seemed more interested in using the museum to play cards or snooker. The committee began to sell items from the collection - only duplicates to start with, but collection objects soon followed.

In 1914 the army commandeered the museum, and there were complaints of wanton damage to what exhibits were left and by 1924 the museum collection had been completely sold.

During the 1930s many attempts were made to resurrect the museum, but the City Corporation would not put up any money and that meant no other funding was available. Letters to local newspapers showed support for the idea of a museum, but it needed to concentrate on objects of local interest and educational value, rather than a "dusty collection of curiosities such as a double-headed sheep or a hand cut from a convicted forger."

In 1936 a two-week exhibition was set up in the Guildhall in Priory Park, using items which had been collected and stored in the City Library over the previous three years. The Guildhall became a store for artefacts found over the next quarter of a century, and in 1961 an exhibition entitled "Changing Chichester" was mounted in the Assembly Rooms.

The demand stimulated by this exhibition led local architect Stanley Roth to purchase a disused Corn Mill in Little London. He suggested the council should lease it from him for a museum.

The move to Little London

The first exhibition in the museum was in 1962, with a display of paintings by local 18th Century artists. The museum was formally opened by the Duchess of Albermarle in April 1964. Since then the collections have grown enormously, partly because of the continuous excavations taking place around the city.

In 1974 it changed from being the Chichester Museum to the Chichester District Museum with a remit to provide educational and advisory services.

A new beginning

On Sunday 8 July 2012, The Novium opened its doors to the public for the first time.

Located on Tower Street in the centre of Chichester, The Novium Museum was purpose built to show the remains of a Roman bath house, which are now uncovered for visitors to see. Previously, they lay preserved under a car park. Set over 3 floors, our exhibitions tell the story of Chichester District over the past 500,000 years. Find out What's Inside


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