by Ros Allwood, Cultural Services Manager, North Herts Museum Service
It’s been a long time coming, but at long last North Hertfordshire Museum Service is going to have a new museum, right in the middle of Hitchin, on part of the old Town Hall site. Our two existing museums, in Hitchin and Letchworth, closed to the public in September 2012, and are merging to open on the new site in 2015. Many staff had been working across both sites for a few years anyway, so the merger is not the shock that it first sounds, and the team can’t wait for the new museum to open. Although we were all fond of the old museums, they both had major problems; at Letchworth the main exhibition gallery was upstairs, with no lift, and at Hitchin there were no public loos – amazing when you think of the thousands of school groups we saw there….
The new museum will be to one side of Hitchin Town Hall, in a mix of renovated 19th century building and new build, with a brand new glazed entrance and reception area. We are sharing the Town Hall site with a community group, which will manage the main hall and a smaller one, and run the café. The architects are Buttress Fuller Alsop Williams, and our museum designers are Mather & Co. Both companies were procured through the OJEU process, which is nerve-wracking as you cannot be sure who will come out on top for both design and for costs, but we are delighted with both appointments. For the first time the museum will have a wonderful new Education/Activities Room, and a dedicated Local Studies Room. There will be a large exhibition gallery on the ground floor, and museum displays on the ground and first floors. We’ll also have an additional first floor gallery which will be open when the main museum is closed, and accessed by anyone using the Town Hall. Storage for fine art, costume, archaeology small finds and some social history and decorative art will be on site, although we’re keeping our much-needed offsite store. The community group will run a café, at the back of the reception area.
The main difference between the new museum and the old ones (apart from the fact that it is on a shopping street, with lots of loos and a lift!) is that the new museum will cover the whole of the North Herts. District, not just the two towns, enabling us to show far more of our collections. The ground floor displays will be chronological, while the displays upstairs will be more thematic.
There has been a large amount of community consultation throughout the project, starting with the first meeting back in January 2006. Things were rather rocky at first, with upset at the perceived loss of two much-loved museums, and some difficult public meetings and newspaper headlines. However over the years most of our critics have come to recognise the benefits of the one new museum, and have turned into keen and active supporters. We knew we’d cracked it when there was universal clapping at the end of one meeting a couple of years ago, rather than the boos and hisses of the early meetings!
We’ve now been closed for 15 months, which has given us a much-needed breathing space to go through the collections. The exhibition galleries at both museums have been turned into object processing areas, and our previous front-of-house and support staff were all trained by Libby Finney in a range of
conservation cleaning techniques. They have also had photography training, so have been recording their work. We’ve also been fortunate in having two paid interns for the last eight months, who have photographed every item in the many boxes in our offsite Social History store, and they have now started on the Archaeology; so far they have taken over 8000 images. These are being added to eHive, the Collections Management System we’ve recently started to use, so that eventually we’ll have good digital records of all our items. Although this process has uncovered a few hidden gems, it is clear that there is not only duplication in the Letchworth and Hitchin collections, but also that previous curators accessioned huge amounts of irrelevant and damaged material, often without any local link or story. Rationalisation is what is needed next, but this will have to wait until the museum is open. We are fortunate to have excellent volunteers at all three sites, including a regular group in Hitchin who are re-boxing our extensive archival collection, and natural historian Bob Press at Burymead, with his own geology and map volunteers. During closure our Learning Officer Cas has been busier than ever going out to schools, and our Archaeologist Keith has spent time directing a major community excavation in Letchworth.
Since we closed, both museums have been open twice a month for ‘Behind the Scenes’ tours. Some months the uptake is better than others, but at least it means that the public can come and see what we’re doing. We have also had some 6 foot high pop-up display panels made with images showing different aspects of the collections, including one with information about the new museum. These look very good, and are easy to take to events locally. We were fortunate to receive a Stage 1 HLF grant in 2012, which has paid for our Audience Development Report, by Jo Ward, and for Mather’s initial design work. We have recently submitted the Stage 2 bid, for the internal fit-out of the new museum; North Herts. District Council is paying for the main building work. We’ll hear in March ; fingers crossed, and watch this space..…