North Hertfordshire Museum finally opens and here’s what to expect
PUBLISHED: 09:59 11 September 2019 | UPDATED: 10:00 11 September 2019
Beset by a legal row that meant much of it was inaccessible for years, the new Noth Hertfordshire Museum is finally fully open, and it’s been worth the wait
You may think the Queen Mother's christening gown, a monkey riding a bike and an Iron Age feasting bowl have nothing in common, but you would be wrong. They can all be found in the newly opened North Hertfordshire Museum.
The idea for a new district museum was first mooted 13 years ago and after some years of wrangling (more of that later) the £6m facility has replaced Hitchin Museum and Letchworth Museum, which both closed in 2012.
Standing in the new glass entrance next to Hitchin Town Hall on Brand Street, the sense of light, space and modern design is striking - a stark contrast to the stereotype of a traditional museum - gloomy, stuffy and cluttered. The museum does in fact have more than 2,000 artefacts on show, but clever design and insightful decisions by curatorial staff, careful not to overload the visitors, ensure people do not feel overwhelmed by what is displayed.
Ros Allwood, North Hertfordshire District Council cultural services manager and head of museum services, says, 'Our first meeting about the whole idea of having a new museum was in 2006. We consulted a lot with the public about what they wanted to see and, from that, worked out the themes.
'Paid interns took 40,000 photographs of almost everything we had in our stores, and every Wednesday afternoon we went through some of the photographs. It was a daunting process, but some things chose themselves. We found a few treasures, but on the whole the important things had already been on display.'
She continues, 'Most of what we have in our stores is not treasure and should never have been accepted in the first place. All museums' stores are stuffed full of items they will never display. Our stores are full of lots of things that are not relevant to the district, but to get rid of them is a very long-winded process called deaccessioning. It's just not worth our time, and we don't have the money or staff to do it. Now we only collect things with a very strong link to the district.'
Spread over two floors, the new museum includes permanent displays and temporary exhibitions, as well as events and activities for all ages, a Local Studies Centre, café and shop.
The council paid nearly £5m for the redevelopment, including the refurbishment of the adjoining town hall, with an additional £1m coming from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. The museum's full opening was stalled however by a long-running dispute over the terms of purchase of part of the site, including the main entrance. It meant that although there has been public access to some of the galleries since 2017, only booked guided tours could visit and they had to enter via the town hall. The council finally agreed to purchase the land for £550,000 in November.
'Luckily for me I'm a natural optimist,' Ros says. 'There were certainly members of my team who thought it might never come to fruition. It's been such a long haul, but visitors are amazed at how big the museum is and what good quality everything on display is. It opened fully on July 6 and in the first two weeks we had 2,700 visitors - we wouldn't have had that in a month at the Hitchin and Letchworth museums.'
On the ground floor, the Discovering North Herts gallery starts 90 million years ago and takes visitors on a journey through the ages to discover how the district has changed and developed. One of the first objects to arrest your attention is a woolly mammoth tusk unearthed in Baldock, shown alongside hand axes of the type that may have butchered it. In other cases impressive tools and pottery give insights into the lives of those who lived in the district in the Bronze Age.
The museum takes every opportunity to inform and engage visitors, with plenty of interactive elements and each display cabinet containing carefully selected objects.
Towards the back of the gallery there is an area for temporary exhibitions. A Blood and Bone installation about human biology occupies the space until September 22. Invited to explore, listen to and touch a series of giant breathing tunnels and caves, this immersive experience is a sure-fire way to ignite children's imaginations in a soft play environment like no other.
Head upstairs and the district's heritage is even evident on the staircase, with the museum's designers making use of every available space. Exposed brickwork here formed part of the Workman's Hall, built in 1868 as a venue for evening classes for young men. Its purpose was both educational and social and its aim was to give workmen a Christian alternative to Hitchin's many public houses.
On the second floor are two further galleries, with displays grouped in themes. The Terrace Gallery has a showcase of items from every continent, from Egyptian scarabs from 664-332BC to a North American necklace and a shrunken head, called a Tsanta, both dating to the 1800s. This latter, striking piece deserved some more explanation. Ros says it was common among tribes in Peru and Ecuador. The shrunken head was believed to harness the spirit of an enemy and compel him to serve the shrinker, as well as prevent the soul from avenging his death.
The Terrace Gallery also pays homage to some of the many historical characters who have made a mark on North Hertfordshire, and sometimes the wider world, including suffragette Elizabeth Impey, who lived in Hitchin and was imprisoned after being arrested for disorderly conduct during a suffragette protest in 1907. There is also the tale of twins Ebenezer and Albert Fox, born in Stevenage in 1857 and notorious for poaching animals from landowners in north Herts. With almost 200 convictions between them by the time they died, the brothers were among the first criminals to be convicted using fingerprint evidence.
Other highlights in the gallery include a mini cinema showing clips based on local folklore, a historical dressing up area and a display cabinet containing Sir Stanley Matthews' football boots from the early 60s.
The final gallery, Living in North Herts, tracks how people's lives have changed in the area, with highlights including an eclectic display of toys and some eye-widening ancient bone skates. The Vikings introduced the idea of ice skating to Britain from what is now Finland after 800. People tied flattened bones to their shoes and used a stick to push themselves along.
Perhaps the most memorable item in the room is the Queen Mother's christening gown (she spent her childhood in St Paul's Walden near Hitchin), and the most eye-catching, the interior of a real Victorian chemist shop complete with counter, labelled apothecary drawers, array of jars and beautiful stained glass door. A centrepiece of the gallery is a specially commissioned round glass case that holds fragments of an impressively large Iron Age cauldron and dragon-headed fire dogs that held it, found during excavations in Letchworth.
The museum harnesses innovative ways of portraying history to maximise both interest and use of available space, evident not least in the presentation of a huge oil painting of Hitchin's Market Square circa 1840, complete with worthies of the day, by artist Samuel Lucas. With the original hanging on the wall, visitors are invited to select a figure in the painting via a touch screen, which promptly gives information about them.
While not a military historian, Ros says her favourite display in the museum is that of The Hertfordshire Yeomanry, a unit of the British Army set up in the 1790s to defend against invasion by Napolean's forces. The display includes a warrant officer's full dress jacket from 1909, a prize sword from 1856 and a royal artillery flag.
'I really like the yeomanry display because it encapsulates the history so clearly with just a few well-chosen objects,' Ros explains.
Could that also sum up the aim of each display and the museum in general? 'We want to tell stories about the district throughout the museum, and that's what we have done. Every label tells a really good story in just a few words, and we don't include anything that doesn't add to the story.
'We also had very good designers. We wanted to have a lot of objects on show, but we wanted it to look attractive and for people to feel like they have learned something. From what I can gather, it's working. I'm delighted with the whole museum. It's free and it's fantastic.'
North Hertfordshire Museum is open from 10.30am-4.30pm Tuesday-Saturday and 11am-3pm on Sunday. Entry is free. For more information, visit northhertsmuseum.org or call 01462 474554.