As curator at Scunthorpe Museum and Art Gallery, Lincolnshire, from 1976, she led its refurbishment and expansion, and gained plaudits for its exhibition programme, receiving an award for best small museum in 1982. Later that year she was elected a fellow of the Museums Association – the youngest person at the time to have been granted that status.
In 1985 Denise moved to Anglesey, north Wales, to curate the council’s Charles Tunnicliffe wildlife collection and to develop its museum service. Her appointment as a non-Welsh speaker caused much controversy, although she undertook to learn the language, and did. Oriel Ynys Môn, the museum and arts centre in Llangefni that resulted from her work, was opened by the Queen in 1991. In its first year it was named Museum of the Year by the Museums Association, and won Prince of Wales Trust, Wales Tourist Board and National Heritage awards.
In 1997, recognising that officers and members of the council did not share her vision for the Oriel, Denise reluctantly resigned her post. During this period she received great support from many artists, notably Kyffin Williams. Their close professional and personal relationship had led Williams to donate more than 400 works of art to the Oriel. These formed the basis of a collection that was to lead to the building of Oriel Kyffin Williams, a gallery extension.
After leaving the Oriel, Denise served on the Museums and Galleries Commission in London and was invited to join the government’s advisory panel on the export of works of art. She worked closely with Williams until his death in 2006.
Born in Moreton, Wirral, Denise was the only child of Violetta (nee Reeve) and Alexander Hillhouse. A railway porter, Alex died in 1960, leaving Violetta to support the family with cleaning and other jobs. After attending Wallasey grammar school, Denise graduated in medieval history at University College, Bangor, and then gained a postgraduate diploma in museum studies at Leicester University. She was appointed to her first curatorial job in 1974 at St Helen’s Borough Museum and Art Gallery, before becoming curator at Scunthorpe Museum and Art Gallery.
Denise and I met at a Welsh language rock gig in Caernarfon in 1990, when I was playing guitar with the band Sobin â’r Smaeliaid. Following our marriage in 1991, we lived in Paradwys, Anglesey. Denise loved it for its peaceful, timeless character. A third-generation vegetarian, she delighted in the island’s birdlife and wildlife. She walked its coastal paths, cycled its lanes and swam from its beaches until her cancer treatment became too onerous.