In 1897, a local businessman and landowner, William Cowle, included a bequest of £4,000 in his will to provide a museum for the town. Shortly after his death in 1899 the Cowle Museum Trust was established to provide a museum for the people of Stroud and the surrounding district.
The collection of the museum developed gradually from an initial focus on natural history and geology to a fuller representation of the history of the district. Gradually over time a partnership was established with the District Council and in 1983 the Museum became the Stroud District (Cowle) Museum. This led to the acquisition of the Mansion House in the beautiful grounds of Stratford Park, a grade II listed 17th century wool merchant’s house, and its fitting out as a museum – largely thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund award. In 2001, the Museum in the Park opened telling the story of the Stroud District, for which the Council provides the management and funding, and the Trust the legal guardianship of the collections.
Today the Museum in the Park offers a wide array of educational and cultural experiences in a relaxed and friendly environment, with the historic collections and people of the district at its heart. The collections currently consist of around 53,000 objects, of which 4,000 are on display, extending from archaeology to social history, coins and tokens to art. The collections range from dinosaur bones to the patent drawings for the world's first lawnmower, which was invented in Stroud, as well as several early examples of the mowers. The collections represent all aspects of human and geological life in the Stroud District, and by telling the stories of the people who made and used them, the Museum creates a sense of place for the District.
The Museum in the Park holds a collection of nearly 50 musical instruments, some of which made by local makers. Thirteen instruments ranging from a sarinda to an ocarina, came from a single bequest in 1958. They were bequeathed to the Museum by Samuel Underwood, who was a local music teacher, organist and member of Stroud Choral Society, the second oldest choral society in the UK. The collection also includes a harp attributed to John Egan, who was a leading harp maker in Dublin in the early 19th century. Another portion of collection may also be associated with the Randwick Wesleyan Chapel Band. A late 18th century Aeolian Harp, a one-string fiddle, and a miniature violin are some of the unusual examples we can find.