V isitors to the recent A Wearable Art show at The Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock may have become aware — through borrowed exhibits such as Tricia Rafferty’s decorated porcelain buttons — of a local resource that deserves to be better known.

Housed in the beautiful 17th century Abingdon County Hall Museum building in the town’s Market Place, the Oxfordshire Collection of Contemporary Craft consists of 120 pieces in a variety of media by artists central to the modern craft scene, many of whom were not yet widely appreciated when their work was bought. Its knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff welcome visitors by appointment.

Some items, such as a black and pale grey tea set by the potter Lucy Rie — possibly the most celebrated of the artists represented — can be seen in the public areas, and the illustrated catalogue is accessible via Oxfordshire County Council’s excellent Heritage Search website.

A loan scheme and temporary exhibitions in the museum also help to extend the collection’s reach.

The pots by Lucy Rie, made in 1970, were one of the early acquisitions of what was then the Southern Arts Craft Collection, which was given a home in Abingdon by Oxfordshire County Council in the mid-1990s, thanks to the initiative of the county’s craft development officer. In 1998, funding from county and district councils enabled ownership to pass to the Oxfordshire County Council’s museums service, which is responsible for the physical well-being of the existing objects, and ensures that the collection continues to reflect developments in craft techniques, materials and themes through the occasional purchase of new work.

While the original collection included work by craftspeople from the whole Southern Arts area, the focus nowadays is on artists with an Oxfordshire link.

The anonymously-funded Fletcher Prize — awarded to an entry in the Oxfordshire Craft Guild’s annual Christmas exhibition at Fletcher’s House (home of The Oxfordshire Museum) — is the source of regular additions.

The latest winning piece is by Kingham-based Helen Slater, who works in glass — a medium so far poorly represented in the Craft Collection. Her Irish hare, in glass and enamel creating a three-dimensional appearance, draws attention to the creatures’ increasing rarity — the kind of reference to a topical issue which the judges felt could be an important aspect of new acquisitions.

A series of models commissioned by the Collection’s Steering Group from ceramicist Lubna Chowdhary, and inspired by Abingdon life and history, (2002), has also been added.

Visitors can see the museum building itself, the Old Gaol, and, referring to local industries now sadly defunct, a red MG, a bunch of hops (Morland Brewery), and a ballet shoe (the Pavlova leather works).

The tradition of throwing buns from the museum building roof on special occasions, which the townsfolk below must scramble for, is commemorated as well.

The museum cherishes an archive of actual buns from the last 17 ‘throwings’, the earliest dated 1887, the year of Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. They are heavily varnished, blackened with age, and probably at least as hard as the pottery versions.) A county council commission resulted in the folding Abingdon Chair, of which 50 now exist for use at museum events.

The prototype (1992/3) was bought for the Craft Collection. Designed by Dutchman Erik de Graaff, it has a black neoprene back, a semi-circular oak seat and steel butterfly hinges, and complements the style of wheeled museum cases by the same craftsman. There are many other interesting pieces of furniture and wooden objects in the collection, including several bowls (1980-1982) demonstrating the properties of unseasoned wood from British native trees — holly, beech, birch and oak — by Jim Partridge, an internationally respected maker with a keen interest in the sustainable uses of timber.

Some of the wooden pieces take themselves more seriously than others: Robert Race’s driftwood automaton ‘Nuts about dates’ (1993) and Howard Raybould’s blue and yellow-painted Quebec pine umbrella stand, complete with black and gold cane, (1992), bring an instant smile to the face.

Jewellery featured in the Collection includes some by Wendy Ramshaw, who has a parallel career as a sculptor on architectural projects. Amongst her commissions have been screens for the display of stained glass at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and an iron garden gate for St.John’s College which incorporates a lens, giving an alternative view of what is beyond, and consists of curves and arrow shapes developed from one of her designs for a brooch.

The work at Abingdon consists of a necklace made of turned Wedgwood porcelain beads on a long nickel wire, forming a pendant, and a metal pin used as a setting for similar beads in blue and white (1984). Because of current restrictions of space, and the difficulty of controlling light coming in to the main display room, the Collection’s textiles — some of a practical nature and some mainly decorative — are mostly in storage. In the first category is a rug by Roger Oates (1979), striped in deep reds and mauves, and in the second a small woven tapestry by Ann Cowley (1981) in various ghostly shades of pale blue, and in pure white, with long white tassels. Its subject is a four-paned window with tall bamboo-like foliage in front and, through the glass, a church tower (possibly that of St Barnabas in Jericho?) In this category also are the very first of the collection’s acquisitions, canvas work cushions by Mary Lawton Pick (1978), who used a range of stitches in wool and silk to produce lively patterns and colours which contrasted with the sober style of their Victorian equivalents.

The provision of more suitable facilities for the display of some of the collection’s textiles should be a welcome side-effect of a planned £3.5m project which will at least double areas of public access to the museum, improve heating and air-conditioning throughout, and allow many more of the craft exhibits to be permanently on show.

Owned by Abingdon Town Council (with a guardianship agreement with English Heritage), the building was constructed in 1682 as an Assize Court and subsequently became the county hall for Berkshire (before Abingdon moved to the neighbouring county). It will close, for work to begin, some time in 2010, and re-open in May 2012 — with a lot of celebratory bun-throwing no doubt.

Abingdon County Hall Museum, Market Place OX14 3HG . Free admission. Open daily 10.30am-4am. Call 01235 523703