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Major grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund for Ancient House, Museum of Thetford

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Announced today, The National Lottery Heritage Fund has awarded Ancient House, Museum of Thetford, £198,059, in the museum’s centenary year.

Thanks to National Lottery players, the funding will be used to integrate the extraordinary story of the Duleep Singh family into the museum displays, and for a range of profile-raising events and activities to bring this story to wider attention. It will help Ancient House celebrate the museum’s first 100 years and prepare it for the next 100 years.

Other funding for the two-year project has come from the Thetford Town Council community grant, the Friends of Thetford Museum, Norfolk County Council and Arts Council England as part of the Norfolk Museum Service’s National Portfolio Organisation grant.

The story of Ancient House as a museum begins when Prince Frederick Duleep Singh, son of the Maharajah Duleep Singh, generously purchased the rare timbered Tudor house and gifted it to the people of Thetford as a ‘Public Museum’ charity with the Council as Trustee. Ancient House opened as a museum on the 11th December 1924. This museum foundation by a person of mixed African, Asian and European heritage is unique.

Prince Frederick Duleep Singh © Norfolk Museum Service
Maharajah Duleep Singh © Norfolk Museums Service

The Museum’s centenary in 2024 is an ideal opportunity for celebrations to mark the generosity of Prince Frederick Duleep Singh’s gift to the town.

It is also the catalyst to tell the nationally important story of the Duleep Singh family in more depth – existing displays focus solely on the Maharajah Duleep Singh, the last Sikh ruler of the Punjab and favourite of Queen Victoria, who lived locally at Elveden Hall.

Maharajah Duleep Singh outside Elveden Hall with walking stick. Picture Credit-Picture Norfolk

The new displays will present the equally fascinating and important stories of the wider Duleep Singh family, including Prince Frederick and his remarkable sisters, the Princesses Sophia and Catherine Duleep Singh – the former a key figure in the suffragette movement in the UK, and both pioneers of women’s political and private autonomy.

Princess Sophia Duleep Singh © Norfolk Museum Service
Princess Catherine Duleep Singh © Norfolk Museums Service

This Anglo Punjab heritage is a unique part of the area’s history – while the museum will retain its original purpose as a museum for telling the Thetford area local history, the grant will enable the museum to make more of the Duleep Singh connections and do justice to the story on the local, regional and national stage.

Robyn Llewellyn, Director, England, Midlands & East at The National Lottery Heritage Fund commented: “We are pleased to support the Ancient House, Museum of Thetford with the integration of the fascinating history of the Duleep Singh family in their display during their 100th Anniversary. Thanks to National Lottery players this project will create new opportunities to engage communities with heritage and spark meaningful dialogue.”

Cllr. Margaret Dewsbury, Cabinet Member for Communities, Norfolk County Council, says: “Through the fore-sighted generosity of Prince Frederick Duleep Singh, for the past 100 years Ancient House Museum has served the people of Thetford and beyond, preserving the history of the town and surrounding area. We are very grateful to The National Lottery Heritage Fund for this award which will enable the museum to better serve our diverse communities and promote a deeper appreciation of an important aspect of the town’s heritage.”

Councillor Robert Kybird, Chairman, Breckland Area Museums Committee said: “It is a particular pleasure to acknowledge the successful National Lottery Heritage Fund grant for the Prince Frederick’s Thetford Museum and the Duleep Singh Stories project at Ancient House Museum of Thetford life. 2024 sees the 100th Anniversary of our local museum, gifted to the town by Prince Frederick Duleep Singh.

It is therefore entirely appropriate that this celebration encompasses the wider Duleep Singh family, who in their separate ways have contributed to a more detailed understanding of Anglo Punjab heritage. The award, alongside funding from our other generous supporters, will further enhance Thetford as a destination of choice for visiting Sikhs. The fact that an historic Norfolk town now plays host to many international visitors reminds us of our role as part of a worldwide community. Special thanks go to the team at Norfolk Museums Service who have worked hard in putting the bid together.”

Cllr Jane James, Norfolk County Councillor for Thetford (Castle & Guildhall Ward) , said: “I am delighted to see this investment in the Ancient House and Thetford’s heritage to enable new activities and new exhibits for people to experience and enjoy over the next two years.” 

What we will do:

The new displays will revitalise the interpretation offer at the museum and will include a sumptuous ‘Treasury’ style of display of treasures of Anglo-Punjab history, a model of Elveden Hall, a loan of a portrait of Duleep Singh, displays marking the family’s contributions and activism to achieve universal suffrage, together with an interactive touchscreen and personal items such as the Maharajah’s walking stick, given to him by the future King Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales, which was donated to the museum in 2023.

Additionally, the funding will mean the museum team can:

  • Deliver a series of engagement activities and events including a launch event, two community co-curated exhibitions and an adult leisure learning programme.
  • Produce early years resources for under 5s and deliver events for schools.
  • Take proactive measures to be inclusive, remove barriers to access and reach new and diverse audiences through the delivery of this project.
  • Engage with young people through a variety of measures including a Youth Advisory Steering panel and young persons’ projects including activities working with South Asian creatives.

Who we will reach:

Recent research and relationships developed over the last five years have demonstrated a clear appetite for the project. The museum was last redisplayed in 2004-6. Since then, interest in the Duleep Singhs has grown significantly with new films, articles, TV and radio programmes, books and annual Punjab festivals in Thetford attended by thousands of people.

Family Activity at Ancient House Museum © Norfolk Museums Service

Now, with this support from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, there is the opportunity to redisplay the museum to better meet audience interests and diversity:

  • For people of Punjabi and Sikh heritage, this history has long had great significance. Visits to the Maharajah’s English home, Elveden Hall (just outside Thetford), to honour the Maharajah and family started in the 1950s and continue today. A moving wreath-laying joint ceremony at Elveden churchyard is held each year in October, the anniversary of the Maharajah’s death. The planned displays and activities will have considerable impact on this audience.
  • For visitors of all communities, this project will bring an important and surprising story to life, revealing a more diverse history in a local museum in a Norfolk town.
  • The new displays will also encourage personal reflection, allowing us to raise universal questions of identity and how a person’s identity changes through their life. The Duleep Singh family history helps us explore meaningful questions of home and belonging, sexual orientation and religious identity. We believe the project will give visitors a nuanced understanding of today as a result of what has happened in the past.
  • For schoolchildren, the project will give greater understanding of KS2 and KS4 curriculum topics including the British Empire in India and campaigns for human rights.
Walking stick given to Maharajah by Prince of Wales. image 1 © Norfolk Museums Service
Walking stick given to Maharajah by Prince of Wales. Image 2 © Norfolk Museums Service

Over the last thirty years we have built lasting relationships with people interested in the history of Maharajah Duleep Singh and his family. These include historian and author Peter Bance who first visited in the 1990s, artists the Singh Twins, Indi Sandhu of Essex Cultural Diversity Project, Gurinder Singh Mann of the Sikh Museum Initiative and historian Dr Priya Atwal. Through the project we look forward to sustaining and developing these links.

This project will bring a unique piece of Norfolk history to life and honour the story of a remarkable family.


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