Heritage & Culture

All change at the museum | Peterborough

One of Peterborough’s most popular tourist locations has closed its doors. But, it’s only for a year and, as RICHARD GUNN discovers from the manager of this large scale project, Lisa Helin, when it returns, it’s going to be better than ever

The year promises to be one of most significant ever in the 80-year old history of Peterborough Museum. But it’s not one that visitors will be able to share in. Well, at least not quite yet. For the building, in Priestgate in the centre of the city, is currently undergoing a major £3.2-million redevelopment. And when it re-opens again in spring 2012, visitors will be able to enjoy a vastly changed and much improved experience, with extra hands-on exhibits and additional displays and features telling the story of Peterborough, plus a return to the past with echoes of the building’s Georgian townhouse and hospital past being restored.

However, while the museum is being transformed, it won’t mean an end to the public being able to enjoy this vital part of Peterborough history. Staff will instead be taking the museum out on tour, in the form of exhibitions and activity days at varied locations across the city and an educational team will visit schools. There are also plans for a display centring around historic medicines at the new Peterborough City Hospital, and the progress of the museum’s revamp can be followed on Facebook, Twitter and at a special exhibition at the Central Library. Meanwhile, the popular series of guided walks around the city will also continue, with the obvious exception of the candlelit tour of the museum. It’s business as usual as much as possible.

“This is the most visited attraction in Peterborough. It deserves a top quality museum.”

When The Moment arrived at Peterborough Museum to meet Lisa Helin, the cultural development manager for Vivacity (the trust that looks after cultural and leisure services in the city, set up in April 2010), it was to find it almost unrecognisable inside compared to the venue that shut its doors on Christmas Eve last year. Most of the exhibits were gone, already put into storage or boxed up ready to be shipped out. Walls were bare, ready to be redecorated or, in some cases, even demolished, carpets were being pulled up and a few members of staff were contemplating the Plesiosaurs exhibit, probably wondering just how on earth they were going to successfully move the huge skeleton of a Jurassic era sea reptile. This is a lot more than just a quick lick of paint and shuffling around some of the displays. “It’s probably the worst house move you could possibly imagine,” jokes Lisa.

The reason for the revamp is simple. “The building just can’t cope anymore,” explains Lisa. “Last year, we had about 85,000 visitors, that’s more than the cathedral, so we are the most visited attraction in Peterborough. During half term and holidays, we’re absolutely jam-packed. We started working on the museum redevelopment project back in 2008. It’s being funded by the city council and the Heritage Lottery Fund; the council’s money was used to match-fund a bid to the lottery, which was successful.” That meant a sum of over £3-million to invest in transforming Peterborough’s main repository of its varied past into something special. “For that money, what we’re getting is a completely refurbished building,” continues Lisa. “What we’ll be doing is taking the building back to the original Georgian house, so when you come to the museum on the day it re-opens, what you’ll be doing is actually walking into a house.”

Georgian past

Although Priestgate has been a street since the 12th century, when the city’s current plan was set down by the monks of Peterborough Abbey, the first recorded house on the museum site can ‘only’ be traced back to 1536, when a mansion stood there. Named Neville Place, it was built by the Orme family, local MPs and magistrates, who also constructed the Guildhall in Cathedral Square. King Henry VIII had given them the land for services rendered to the crown. However, the main part of the present building dates from 1816, when it was constructed for businessman and magistrate Thomas Cooke and his wife Charlotte, although the notoriously haunted cellars below still date back to the Neville Place era. It’s a partial recreation – actually a restoration really – of the Cookes’ residence that will greet visitors from 2012. Following Thomas Cooke’s death, the mansion became Peterborough’s first hospital, a role it continued to fulfil until 1928 when it outgrew the premises, despite extra wings and a rear extension being added from 1884. It opened as a museum in 1931, with an art gallery added in 1939. It has stayed that way ever since, with the council taking over management in 1968.

“The feeling we wanted to portray is that you’re actually walking back into that Georgian house, so the entire downstairs is going to be completely remodelled. The shop will look like a formal room again and we’ll have a new welcome gallery and display space for communities.” A cafe is also part of the plans, the first time the museum will have had one. Other downstairs features will include a Victorian kitchen with its original range dating back to hospital days. It’s not an area that has been open to the public before and will form part of an education and learning space for schools. “We’ll also be transforming the end art gallery into a multi-functional display area. This will make us more flexible for repeat visitors.”

A big focus for this part of the museum will be on education for schools.

The next floor up will see a whole new geology gallery. “It’s going to be fantastic,” enthuses Lisa. “It will be like you’re entering an undersea world. Peterborough was once under the sea, so we’re bringing that feeling back, with the specimens displayed as they swum around, in a 360 degree tank. You’ll be getting a three dimensional view, and you’ll be able to walk all around it.” A new wildlife gallery will also be created by demolishing some walls, although Lisa is keen to point out that they will actually be restoring the original dimensions of the building by doing so. “We’ll be knocking down some ‘temporary’ walls that have been here since it was converted into a museum.” So, temporary meaning just several decades then…

“A completely new element is a history of the building, which will occupy what is currently a meeting room. Because the building itself is our most precious object, and it has the most stories to tell, we did feel that we needed to devote a whole gallery to it.” The area will take people on a journey through time, from the original house, to the hospital and then to the museum, and tell the stories of some of the characters who have lived and worked at the location. There will be an online database to highlight some of the other items in the museum’s collections, for only 10 per cent of the total vast stock is on display. “It’s going to have a huge interactive table in the middle from which you can pull things out, move them around and build a story,” clarifies Lisa.

Norman Cross life

On the top floor of the museum is the Norman Cross room, devoted to the former Napoleonic Wars-era prisoner-of-war camp that once stood near Yaxley and which was detailed back in the first issue of The Moment. “We have a very prestigious collection of the artefacts from Norman Cross, but the old gallery was quite sterile and didn’t really do the objects justice,” is Lisa’s view on the former layout. “We’re looking to tell that story in a better way; the personal tales of the camp, prison break-outs, what the guards were like, what they ate, what they did during the day. We think, in modern times, that they lived in quite horrendous conditions, but actually they were well looked after.” The refurbishment will include a section of prison barracks that visitors can go in, escape crawl tunnels and a marketplace that will display how the captives would have sold what they made. There will also be part of a Georgian house interior that will show how these items would have been displayed at the time. “So, it’s kind of a whole cycle of how the camp and camp life integrated into Peterborough. For example, you wouldn’t have been surprised to see a French officer walking around the city!”

Across the hall from here will be the completely revamped Peterborough Lives room, telling the story of the city itself and of its residents. It will focus on how Peterborough grew into the place it is today, throughout the ages until the present day. “That will have some multimedia and interactivity, but what we have found is that people like hands-on rather than computers, so we’re not going mad with the tech. There’s lots of family learning experiences to be had.”

Also new – to the public at least – will be the old Victorian operating theatre from the building’s medical days. Previously used as a geology lab, this will be restored to how it was during the 19th century, as many of the fittings still remain from that time, such as the tiled floor and walls, ceiling lights and gas pipes. “It’s one of only three original operating theatres left in the country, and ours is probably the best one for chloroform and carbolics, the era of anaesthesia. We’re currently in talks with the Science Museum to get some loans from them.”

However, it’s not all change everywhere. The period shop on the first floor will be one aspect that is remaining. “People love it so much, we wouldn’t dare take it out! So there will be familiarity to people, the old museum won’t be completely gone.” The exterior of the building will also remain as it is because it has listed status.

“The main message of the development is that the museum is somewhere for the family to come, and all age ranges within that family will have something to do and learn while visiting,” Lisa sums up.

But, while the actual museum can’t be visited, those families – and everybody else – will still be able to enjoy some of its heritage experience. “There’s a whole programme of events planned while it’s closed,” says Lisa. There’s the ‘Pop-Up Museum’ for starters, a dolls’ house that has been mocked up by the staff here to show how the new venue will be, and which will be touring the local area. “There will be an object placed in each room that people can take out and handle, and learn about the museum. So that will be popping up all over town and going to different communities, shopping centres and libraries throughout the year.” In addition, a mobile museum, run by the education team, will be working with schools and other organisations. “They’ll be parking up their bus, with activities on it. We call it The Museum on Tour. We want to let the public know that the service is still here, and that we’re bringing the service to them, rather than them having to come to the building.” And if you miss these, Facebook, Twitter and the museum’s own website will have regular updates on how things are progressing. “Whenever we have something large happening, we’ll let the press know. For example, when we took out the big fire engine from the top floor, that all got documented. That was quite some sight, six men carrying this wooden frame down the stairs because it was too big for the lift. It probably hasn’t been moved in 80 years, since we became a museum.”

Such large scale removals do prompt one question though. Peterborough Museum is famous – or should that be infamous – as being the most haunted building in the city. Have any of the supernatural staff been troubled by the biggest upheaval there for 70 years? “We’ve taken every effort not to disturb the inhabitants. They won’t be upset,” replies Lisa, diplomatically.

Lisa is understandably hugely excited and positive about what the public will be able see when the museum relaunches itself in spring 2012. “This is the most visited attraction in Peterborough. It deserves a top quality museum. The staff here have been wonderful for building up the quality, but the building itself hasn’t quite matched that. They, and the people of the city, deserve something that is going to be here for a lot more years.”

Peterborough Museum’s website is at: www.vivacity-peterborough.com

Search for ‘Peterborough Museumon Facebook for its page on there

Keep an eye out on Twitter for the forthcoming updates on the museum’s progress

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