Valance House museum

In Conversation With: Valence House Museum

Countryside catches up with Leeanne Westwood, Museum Curator at Valence House Museum in Barking & Dagenham. With three active regeneration schemes in the borough, Countryside is proud to operate in such a historic and vibrant area as Barking & Dagenham.

How long have you lived in the area? 

I grew up in Barking and Dagenham, living on the Gascoigne Estate until I was 10 and we then moved to Dagenham. My family have been in the borough for many years - my dad was born in Dagenham in 1932 and his family would have been amongst the first residents of the new Becontree Estate. His father was actually a plaster for the new estate houses, and his long service certificate from the council is in the museum collection. He was also a member of the ARP during WWII and had fire watch duty at Valence House. So it seems that I was always destined to work there!

Tell us about Valence House

Valence House is the fully accredited local history museum for the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, with 13 galleries exploring the history of Barking and Dagenham from pre-history to the modern day. We even have a cinema where we screen films from the archive collection. Valence House has been described as one of the best local history museums in Greater London and was voted by The Guardian as one of the top 50 free things to do in London.

Valence House is an amazing place! While the Valence House building has been extended and adapted at different times, its oldest parts are over 600 years old and so it’s unsurprising that it elicits such passion in its staff and visitors. Even though it is laid out as a museum now, it still retains the warm welcome of a family home, and you really do feel that you could happily live there. Staff have even been known to talk to the building! 

How long have you been involved with the museum?

I have worked at the museum for 18 years now, which means I’ve experienced all manner of changes; not least the National Lottery funded redevelopment of the site between 2007 and 2010 that saw the redesign of all the museum galleries and the building of the visitor centre.

What’s your favourite thing at the museum?

Without question that would have to be the collection of Fanshawe portraits. They have become a passion of mine and I spend a lot of time researching them and finding new ways of interpreting them to make the public love them as much as I do!

How do you describe the area to your friends/family?

I always tell them how rich the history is in Barking and Dagenham and how we were at the forefront of so much of Britain’s past. How, after the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror lived at Barking Abbey whilst the Tower of London was being built, and how the nuns of the abbey were pioneers of female educations, so much so that king Henry VII’s father was sent there to be educated. How the Building of the Becontree Estate (which celebrates its 100th birthday in 2021) led the way in social reform and public health, and was the forerunner of the National Health system, and how its large and multitudinous green spaces were instrumental in the development of so many famous footballers such as Alf Ramsey, Bobby Moore, Jimmy Greeves, Frank Lampard and Sir Trevor Brooking, and how Barking and Dagenham won the 1966 world cup for England!

What is your favourite local secret / hidden gem in the area (other than Valence House!)?

That the streetlights along Chadwell Heath High Road are shaped like whale bones in tribute to the whale bones that used to stand near the Toll Gate pub. It is from these whale bones that Whalebone Lane, Whalebone School, Whalebone Library and Whalebone House take their names.These bones are now on display in Valence House.

For someone new to the area, how would you suggest they get involved in the community? 

Joining a local group is always a good start. That is one of the great things about Barking and Dagenham – there are so many groups and opportunities to get involved. Find something that really interests you and get involved. For example, there are art, photography and flower arranging groups that meet regularly at Eastbury Manor House in Barking. If you pop into your local library, staff can tell you all about them. 

Or you could try volunteering. Again there are so many opportunities and it’s a great way to meet people. Valence House has a large team of volunteers that support us in many areas of work, from collection care to research, education and events. You can find out about local volunteering opportunities here: http://www.bdvb.org.uk/

How has Valence House been adapting to the current covid-19 situation? How can local people still make the most of the museum’s resources at this time?

As everyone has found, the last few months have been a surreal experience as we all adjust to finding a new way of living and working. We have had to adjust and our primary goal during this time has been to keep the public engaged with Valence House and its collections, whilst they have been unable to visit us. We have been creating a lot of on online content, including film shows, presentations, exhibitions and craft activities that people can do at home.

People can find more information about all of these on our website www.valencehousecollections.co.uk or on our social media: Facebook \valencehouse, twitter @ValenceHouse and Instagram @ValenceHouse. Our art collections and exhibitions can be viewed on the ArtUk website – www.artuk.org.