Almost 90 years ago, on January 22, 1931, the Earl of Malmesbury officially opened the doors to the Basingstoke Museum at the Mechanics Institute in New Street.

Four years earlier, in 1927, George Willis, the Institute’s vice chairman, had made a case for a museum to be created for the town. He was a keen walker and together with his friend, John Ellaway, had amassed a large collection of archaeological finds from various walks that he wanted to share with local residents.

A small display was set up at the Institute and plans for a larger museum were put on hold. In 1929, Basingstoke merchant and former mayor Thomas Allnutt offered £500 towards a museum on condition that the council agreed to match the figure. With the council funding secured, the museum was opened in 1931 with Willis as Honorary Curator and Ellaway as Deputy Honorary Curator. Willis continued in this position until 1950 and was Honorary Director until his death in 1970. To honour his role in creating the museum, it was renamed The Willis Museum in 1956.

On June 12, 1984, the museum moved to its current home in the former town hall at the heart of historic Basingstoke in the Top of the Town. It was partly refurbished in 2009, when the Sainsbury Gallery was added to provide space to host major regional and national exhibitions. The first of these was an exhibition of Diana Stanley’s works capturing old Basingstoke in paint: one of these pieces remains on display in the museum today.

The Willis Museum continues to function as it was first envisaged by George Willis, as a local museum displaying Basingstoke’s rich history, but has developed further, acting as a cultural, social and educational hub within the town.

Since 2014, the museum has been operated by Hampshire Cultural Trust and hosts a programme of touring exhibitions, as well events, workshops and activities for both residents and visitors to the town to enjoy. Inside, Basingstoke and Deane’s past can be explored, from its rich archaeological heritage to more recent wonders including what is reputed to be the world’s oldest wedding cake – dating to 1898.