The history of museums in Dartford can tentatively be traced back to the latter half of the 18th century. It is reputed that Dr John Latham, discoverer of the Dartford Warbler, had his own private museum collection based in Dartford.
John Dunkin, well-known local printer and author of the History and Antiquities of Dartford (1844), also gathered together a collection of museum-type objects, many of which had been found in and around the Dartford area. The establishment of a town museum open to the public was the brainchild of Mr E. C. Youens, a well known local photographer and antiquary.
The chance discovery of the old Dartford stocks in March 1906 prompted Mr Youens to write a letter to the Dartford Chronicle stressing the importance of preserving local antiquities and suggesting that a town museum should be established for this purpose.
Mr Youens' boundless enthusiasm for things antiquarian resulted in a special exhibition of local antiquities. This exhibition was held in a room in the Congregational Church, West Hill, Dartford in 1906.
The exhibition was a huge success and prompted the formation of a committee, the members of which were asked to investigate the ways and means of setting up a proper town museum. In April 1907 the matter was brought before the members of the Dartford Urban District Council for their consideration.
The nucleus of a public museum was already in the process of being collected at the Technical Institute in Essex Road, Dartford. Mr Youens was the Honorary Curator of this collection and he was given official permission to acquire 'suitable gifts of local character' for addition to the collections at the Technical Institute.
Any exhibits donated to the museum would be regarded as 'town property'. By November 1907, the Urban District Council adopted the 1891 Museums Act. This paved the way for the establishment of a permanent museum. Advertisements requesting suitable donations began to appear in the local press.
Soon objects of every type and size began to fill the Technical Institute. The Dartford Chronicle and District Times observed 'It is only fitting that Dartford, the glory of antiquarians who appreciate the wealth of its historic associations and the evidence still extant, should possess a home for the relics of the various ages in which the town has prominently figured'. The museum at the Technical Institute continued to grow at a rapid pace.
In 1916 a Carnegie Library (Dartford Central Library) opened in the town. Shortly afterwards, in January 1919, an Act was passed which empowered the town's Library Committee to take charge of a public museum.
By April 1919 the Act was adopted by the Dartford Urban District Council so that the library and museum could become one institution. It was felt that the general public should have more convenient access to the museum collections than was possible at the Technical Institute, so the museum collection was transferred to the Dartford Central Library.
The official opening of the museum room at the Central Library was conducted by Mr W. A. Ward, Chairman of the Dartford Urban District Council, in 1921. In 1937 the Central Library building was extended and provision was then made for housing the museum in its present accommodation.
Dartford Museum (now the Dartford Borough Museum) underwent a revolutionary change in 1956. The diverse collections were rationalised and an impressive effort was made by a team of experts to 'modernise' the museum displays which now gave exclusive coverage to the archaeology, history, geology and natural history of the Dartford area.
As one commentator observed 'With one bold stroke the re-organisers swept away everything that did not come from North West Kent'. The total re-organisation of the displays took eighteen months to achieve.
The aim of the modernisation programme was to present the history of Dartford in what was then a unique way, by displaying objects and text in a 'shop-window setting'. The use of concealed lighting, colourful fabrics and explanatory models created a dazzling and informative display that attracted visitors from near and far.
This novel approach to the design of the new displays had never before been tried in the context of a small local museum .
Dr W. E. Swinton FRSE FMA, museologist and TV personality conducted the official opening of the re-organised museum on 16 June 1956. He declared that Dartford Borough Museum was one of the most attractive and 'modern' local museums in Britain . Dartfordians were also impressed; they flocked to the museum in their thousands.
Gone were the dark musty cases packed with stuffed birds and animals, the smell of moth-balls, and the dusty hand-written labels. The new emphasis was on light, colour and labels that were written in simple language.
Dr Swinton commented 'The museum has a place in education today…. and with a museum such as Dartford now has, then it can be education without tears'.
Since 1956 Dartford Borough Museum has grown from strength to strength. Important additions have been made to the well-ordered collections and the museum has pursued an ambitious programme of exhibitions designed to interest the ordinary member of the public.
The museum is able to offer an impressive range of services to the local community, particularly in the field of education and object identification. Dartford Borough Museum continues to be popular, a fact that would bring great satisfaction to the small band of enthusiastic Dartfordians who pressed for the establishment of a town museum in the early years of the last century.
The museum is the guardian of the towns' colourful heritage and must continue the pioneering work of its founders if the people of Dartford are to retain pride in the history of their surroundings.
Dartford Museum and Library Building:
The Dartford Borough Museum and Library building is a prominent and attractive feature of the Dartford townscape. The building is situated in the heart of the town adjacent to the main entrance to Central Park fronting on to Market Street.
It is a grade II listed building of outstanding architectural merit. The Dartford Central Library building was constructed with the aid of a grant from the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. It was designed by Thomas E. Tiffin AMICE, the then Dartford Urban District Council Surveyor.
The building, constructed in Bath , Portland and York stone, was built by Messrs H. Friday and Sons and Ling. The facing bricks used in the construction are best Coronet Red with minor decorative work in Blue Staffordshire brick. The Central Library building was opened in 1916 by A. W. Smale, the Chairman of the Dartford Urban District Council, and W. A. Ward, Chairman of the Library Committee.
The original building occupied the area to the right of the present Museum door, but due to excessive demand on the Library and Museum service, an extension was planned. This was completed in 1937, and the building assumed its present proportions.
The extension was built by Cooper Estates Ltd of Dartford. The prominent Coat of Arms above the Museum entrance is the old Dartford Borough Coat of Arms granted to the town in 1933. A new Coat of Arms was adopted by the town in 1977.