St Albans Museum and Gallery opens to the public
PUBLISHED: 11:37 09 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:37 09 July 2018
The multi-million pound new St Albans Museum and Gallery has opened after five years' work to transform the city's town hall into an 'internationally important' cultural hub
It’s taken £7.75m and five years of blood, sweat and tears from hundreds of individuals and organisations, but finally the new St Albans Museum + Gallery opened to the public on June 8.
And, when you walk through its doors under the elegant Georgian pillars, you can see every penny of the money that was spent transforming the city’s old Town Hall into a major centre for arts and culture.
The money was part Heritage Lottery Fund grant (£2.8m) and part council-funded (£3.3m). The raising of the remainder (£1.7m) was a masterclass in community action. Led by the St Albans Museums and Galleries Trust, it took the passion, persuasion and determination of many, including those at St Albans City and District Council and the University of Hertfordshire, who have worked on the project since before the bid was submitted to the HLF in 2013. The trust and its partners worked closely with organisations such as the Arts Council England, the Garfield Weston Foundation, as well as numerous individuals, to raise funds towards the ambitious scheme.
More than 1,600 local residents have become part of the story by donating £250 to have their name or that of a loved one inscribed on bespoke oak panels inspired by the historic panelling in the building’s old Courtroom and the graffiti inscribed by prisoners in its cells. This idea alone raised nearly £400,000.
Annie Brewster was Mayor of St Albans at the start of the project, and has been a constant force of energy behind delivering the vision.
‘We are so proud of the community cohesion and drive to deliver what, clearly, people believe this city deserves,’ she says. ‘We had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform this jewel-in-the-crown for those who live, visit and work in St Albans by creating a central focal point for culture.
‘We have breathed new life into the building and transformed it into a dynamic and vibrant new city museum and art gallery for new generations to enjoy. But we have also created something of international importance which will put St Albans on the map. Over half of the tourists coming into this country (40m a year) visit a museum and a quarter visit a gallery. A further 20m UK residents visit a museum each year. We are a relatively small city, but we pack a huge historical punch – and we can now show our heritage off to the world.’
The Georgian Grade II* listed Town Hall always had the potential to be beautifully restored. Built in 1831, the building is a key part of the story of St Albans. It has one of the few pre-Victorian court rooms in existence in the country, complete with atmospheric subterranean prison cells. It also has a huge Assembly Room, with impressively high ceilings adorned with beautiful coving, and a balcony overlooking St Peter’s street. All these areas have been expertly restored. Giant gold framed mirrors reflect the hours of painstaking work spent painting rose gold detail on the ceiling and walls, and the newly-fitted lavish gold and crystal chandeliers, custom-made in Venice.
The Assembly Room now hosts pieces by internationally- acclaimed artist Susie MacMurray, known for her dramatic installations – often intricate sculptures – in historic buildings.
The ground floor reception area and sweeping staircase, unassuming before, now has a wow factor and is fit for purpose to house a permanent exhibition showcasing over 2,000 years of St Albans’ remarkable heritage and celebrating the famous sons and daughters of the city.
Clever design by award-winning architects, John McAslan + Partners, has resulted in new parts to the building including a temperature-controlled and secure basement space, the Weston Gallery, which was hand excavated under the Assembly Room and will house national touring exhibitions and contemporary art shows.
Glazed links added to the first floor mean visitors can walk round the entire building while taking in views of the city. The ground floor has also been renovated to accommodate a learning studio, visitor information point, gift shop and café.
Entitled The City that went up the Hill, a permanent exhibition on the ground floor paints a picture of St Albans’ history from the paleolithic to modern times.
The story starts as far back as 110,000 BC, when hunter-gatherers arrived in Britain, and goes on to feature treasures from Roman Verulamium as well as evidence of Boudicca’s revolt in the city.
Visitors can learn about St Albans’ fascinating role at the start of the War of the Roses in 1455, and how it played a part in the lives of Sir Francis Bacon, Sarah Churchill Duchess of Marlborough, and Ryder Cup founder and former mayor, Samuel Ryder. More recent local figures also feature, including Stephen Hawking, Stanley Kubrick, Jim Rodford and Eric Morecambe.
The museum and gallery will display a regularly changing programme of exhibitions and art, including national touring exhibitions.
Working in partnership with UH Arts, the University of Hertfordshire’s arts and cultural programme, the museum and gallery will host a range of immersive art installations and displays.
Kate Warren, manager of the museum and gallery, says it’s important that there is always something for everyone, ‘and that we provide a changing dynamic programme of historic exhibitions and cutting-edge art as well as family friendly activities and evening events. We want people to visit over and over again and have a new experience each time.’
It is expected that around 200,000 people will visit the museum and gallery each year – helping to rejuvenate the cultural heart of St Albans, and boost the local economy.
Richard Shwe, deputy chief executive at St Albans City and District Council, says the development will have a positive impact on other sites: ‘The St Albans Museum + Gallery will also act as a gateway to other local attractions, directing visitors to St Albans Cathedral, Verulamium Museum and the Roman Theatre.’
For more information, visit stalbansmuseums.org.uk or call 01727 751810.
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Museum & gallery timeline
2012: Partnership between council, St Albans Museums and Galleries Trust and University of Hertfordshire plans to develop the town hall into a new museum and gallery
2013, NOVEMBER: Heritage Lottery Fund awards first phase development funding of £282,000. This first-round pass means the council can lead development of detailed plans for the new home for the Museum of St Albans.
2014, DECEMBER: John McAslan + Partners chosen for the project.
2015, SEPTEMBER: Former museum site in Hatfield Road closes.
2015, NOVEMBER: Heritage Lottery Fund awards a further £2.5m to the project. Robyn Llewellyn, head of HLF East of England, says, ‘This will provide a much-needed boost to both the local economy and tourism and provide a wonderful opportunity for people to explore the wider history of this beautiful city.’
2015, DECEMBER: Planning permission and listed building consent granted by council.
2016, OCTOBER: Announcement that work will begin within weeks.
2017, MAY: £30,000 donated to create glass walkway link.
2017, SEPTEMBER: Extra £319,000 of improvements, including £50,000 underfloor heating system, £35,000 secondary glazing in Assembly Room, £80,000 for security measures to enable the display of exhibits of national importance, £50,000 on restoring the Georgian courtroom’s wood panelling. £400,000 still to be raised.
2017, DECEMBER: Cllr Annie Brewster announces honours board initiative to meet shortfall.
2018, APRIL: Opening date announced.
2018, JUNE: St Albans Museum + Gallery opens to the public.