DID you know that Richmond was originally called Shene until Henry VII decided to change it in 1501? This is one of the interesting facts discovered during my visit to the Museum of Richmond, where the town's rich history and most inspiring characters are celebrated.

Situated in the Old Town Hall in Whittaker Avenue, the museum opened in October 1988, mainly due to the efforts of local historian John Cloake. The Town Hall became redundant after the contentious merging with the borough of Twickenham in 1965, to create Richmond upon Thames, and the council later gave licence for a museum to occupy an unused attic.

It explores the old town of Richmond, including Richmond Park, Kew, Ham and Petersham, and could soon expand to Barnes and Mortlake. Permanent displays journey from prehistoric settlements through to World War II and we are reminded of the many monarchs, courtiers, famous poets and artists that this area has been home to for the past 800 years. Authentic relics such as weapons can be viewed, many of which were recovered from the Thames.

John Moses, chairman of the museum since July 2002, says: "My catch phrase is that we want to try and bring the past to the future. I think that's particularly important in Richmond, because of its extensive heritage; it's essential for young people to understand about the borough they live in. That's why our work with schools is such a priority."

A museum highlight is an intricate model of Richmond Palace - originally Shene Palace before it was destroyed by fire in 1497. King Henry VII decided to rebuild it and in 1501 decreed that Shene should become Richmond so that his newly restored palace could be named in honour of his previous title: Earl of Richmond of Yorkshire.

Henry VIII used the palace before receiving the grander Hampton Court and it was later frequented by Queen Elizabeth I. The impressive building was demolished between 1650 and 1660, as parliament sold it after Charles I's execution. All that remains today is a gateway off Richmond Green bearing the arms of Henry VIII and the old palace yard beyond.

The museum also houses temporary displays that change regularly, sometimes exhibitions touring nationally but often ones provided by local collectors. Museum curator, Stephanie Kirkpatrick, says: "We try to work with as many groups in the community as we can, for example we had a project with the Local History Society to mark the bicentennial of Kew Bridge and next year we're working with the borough's five rotary clubs."

She adds: "It's important the community feels this is their museum and that any groups and organisations feel they can use us for displays."

Recent exhibitions have included The Sensational Miss Braddon, The Star & Garter and Stage by Stage: a History of Richmond's Theatres. Currently on show is the work of George Baxter, a colour printer from 1804 to 1867, which entails views of Richmond and popular subjects of the time.

Stephanie joined the museum in January 2002 and describes her role as 'a Jack of all trades!', she explains: "The administration part of the job, such as fund raising, ends up taking over more then the curating side."

There are two assistant curators, Carolyn Bloore and Orietta Volpi, and as well as arranging exhibitions the three of them complete all manner of tasks - from changing light bulbs to dressing up in costumes for the delight of school children.

Carolyn now takes responsibility for the museum's education work and says: "With the train station it's easy for most schools to get here. And coming to Richmond they get the whole experience; they can walk on the green and by river and try to imagine what it was like in Tudor times."

Last year they welcomed 125 school trips and museum staff always dress up for the occasion. "We're trying to expand our costume resources," explains Carolyn. "It's really important to create ambience for the children and they love being able to try them on. They're very expensive to buy with the correct stitching and material of the period, but then it's of interest to adults as well."

Young children can take part in Harry the Herald Saturday Club and during term time teaching takes place in the museum each weekday before opening to the public at 11am. Schools across the borough take part and the curators also visit schools as part of their 'Outreach' programme, allowing them to help disadvantaged areas of the borough or children with special needs.

Topics compliment the school curriculum - such as Tudor, Victorian and World War II - and discovery boxes are also available to borrow. Carolyn comments: "With all the paperwork they have, teachers don't have much time these days, so the boxes are great help. It's a whole package with information, videos, tapes."

The World War II box contains authentic artefacts such as shrapnel, helmets, a real gas-mask and dried tin food - the kind of stuff 'kids go mad about'.

This year Carolyn worked with Year 9 students from Christ's School in Richmond on an art project. "We choose one object for inspiration - a pair of wedding shoes from 1903 - and then researched shoes in Richmond. We needed an idea that teenagers would relate too."

Amazing work was produced, resulting in the Young Artists of the Year Award 2004, and displays were held at the museum and then the Tate Modern in July. "It was wonderful because such imaginative creations came from right across the ability range. It was a real confidence boost for them to be able to say that at 14 years old they'd had their first 'opening'."

The museum's rent and curators' salaries are covered by funding from Richmond upon Thames Council but all additional expenses are self-funded. Stephanie says: "We have Charity Suppers which patrons such as Bamber Gascoigne and David Attenborough come along to and our last Gala Night was attended by Princess Alexandra. We also rely on grants and donations from individuals, and groups such as Richmond Parish Lands Charity and Hampton Fuel Allotments Charity provide significant help."

The Friends of the Museum of Richmond are a separate organisation with over 500 members who each pay £7.50 to join. They help with many museum outgoings, particularly education projects which make up a large part of their expenditure. "We also have two members each day volunteering on the desk, doing three hour shifts," explains Stephanie. "And we simply couldn't open with out them."

Each year, everyone involved in the museum desperately hopes council funding will continue. There are also plans to expand and develop and ideally this will include alternative premises. Much of the future plans involve further improvement to the educational programme, particularly services to children with special needs and different ethnic back grounds.

The quality of the museum's collection is also being improved using available resources, such as the recently acquired permanent loan of silver from St Mary Magdalene Church in Richmond, with pieces spanning from 1630 to 1927. So if you're ambling around Richmond - enjoying the scenery and the modern delights of shopping and skinny latts - why not pop into the museum for a glimpse into the past and celebration of this glorious area.