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A Wing And A Prayer

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It would be fair to say that the Museum and Art Gallery was a bit chaotic when I popped in to have a chat with curator, Jane Lillystone, the other day. I was there to find out how the major development planned for next year was going.

The chaos was caused by men moving furniture and large glass cabinets in preparation for alterations that are being carried out as a prelude to the main work. “Last December we applied to the Museum and Libraries Archive for a £100,000 grant to redesign two rooms, including the Arts & Crafts gallery, so they will fit in better with the brand new galleries. We’re just starting to clear the space.” Jane explained.

The major development for the new wing of the museum has been on the cards for about five years. You may have seen the exhibition of competition entries at the gallery three years ago. I first talked to Jane about the project at that time so I thought it would be good if she could recap a little about what was going to happen.

“It all really got started when we launched the RIBA competition in 2007. The brief for the extension was obviously to retain the original museum and art gallery but the 1989 extension as well. The two small buildings between that and number 51 were to be demolished and the new galleries to be on the same footprint but stretching right back to Chester Walk.

“We wanted a design that fitted in with the existing buildings; we wanted to show a progression, if you like. We have the original 19th century building, then the 1989 extension and now, next to it, a 21st century part. We were also really keen to create a link through to Chester Walk to bring in St. Mary’s churchyard. A lot of buildings back onto the churchyard and it looks neglected. We wanted to open that space up. Hopefully in the future there will be some re-landscaping that area.”

The response to the competition was overwhelming. There were seventy seven submissions from around the world. There was a large and impressive exhibition of the entries at the Museum in 2007 after which a short list of four entries was drawn up. After those four were selected we brought in representatives of various public and commercial bodies, as well as visitors to the museum, to give their opinion.

The results were presented to a judging panel. The four designs were also shown in various locations around town to get comments from the general public.” Jane told me.

The final judging meeting was held in January 2008 and we chose the Oxford firm of Berman Guedes Stretton. I asked Jane why that particular design was chosen. “We liked it because it was so simple, it mirrored the existing layout of the galleries and it included the walkway through to the churchyard that we wanted.”

The new wing will become the main entrance to all the galleries and the museum with a beautiful open staircase and lots on natural materials in evidence. There will be a new, large lift so access to all areas will be easy and inviting. But what would become of the old entrance and the 1980s extension? “That’s going to be the new café,” Jane explained, “it will be independent of the rest of the building so it can be open in the evenings. The mezzanine floor will remain an open space so we can have bands perform or talks or whatever. It will be very flexible.”

I was interested to know how the spaces in the new extension would work. “There are basically three floors of galleries. The first is dedicated to showing our own pictures and the next two floors are temporary spaces. This is going to be a vast improvement. The temporary exhibition space that we have now is only 50 square meters. In the extension each floor will have 138 square meters, so that gives you an idea of how much space there will be.

So much for the plans, but how were they progressing, apart from the noisy preparations going on behind us in the Arts and Crafts rooms? “The design stage has nearly been completed and we’ll soon be signing off the drawings.

As far as fundraising is concerned, the total cost of the project now stands at £6.3m. We are tendering now so we can fix the price and hopefully it won’t deviate too much from that figure.

“We set up a development trust with a fundraising arm but the Art Gallery and Museum has also been involved in seeking funds from the Heritage Lottery. We have currently got £4.5m, which is fantastic, so we’re nearly there.”

A second round application is being submitted to the Heritage Lottery Fund for £750k. If this bid is successful it will leave a total fundraising amount of £922,200 to complete the overall target of £6.3 million. The CAG&M Development Trust are seeking to raise a total of £372,200 by the end of March 2011 - with a proposal to launch the Phase III Fundraising Launch for the final £550k from April 2011. This will then enable work on the development scheme to commence from spring next year.

“The reason that we are changing the Arts & Crafts gallery is because the extension will alter the flow through the collections; the gallery will become the first one you enter rather than the last, which it is now. There are always deadlines and conditions attached to grants and we have to spend this one by March next year, which is why we’ve started now. We’ve also started to clear some of our stores. So yes, it is a bit chaotic, but in a very organised way,” she laughed.

The ground floor is also going to be the new Tourist Information Centre. The two services were recently merged into one with Jane at its head. “I’m trying to create a one-stop cultural centre. It’s about enlivening this side of the town in preparation for the wider Civic Pride initiatives planned for The Brewery and Boot’s Corner. It’s all about looking forward and ahead to lift up this whole area.”

And what about the time scale? “Well, if everythinggoes according to plan we will start next spring. The build will take between 12 and 18 months so, hopefully we’ll be open again by the end of 2012.” Jane told me. “In the meantime we will be mounting exhibitions at other venues. For example, we are doing a contemporary art show on the horse at the Racecourse next March. We are also linking into the Racecourse’s centenary next year so there will be lots of activities related to that. So, although the museum will be closed, we are all going to be just as busy, if not more so.”