A New Museum and Heritage Centre for Somerset
Report of a talk on 13 March 2012 by Tom Mayberry
Tom Mayberry is the County Heritage Officer for Somerset. He gave an entertaining account of recent developments in Somersets arrangements for the care and display of its historic heritage. For all that it was delivered with modest pride, it is quite clear that Toms personal drive and enthusiasm were major factors in bringing about a truly stunning achievement. Effectively a number of different services have been integrated and two major building projects have been delivered: the transformation of the museum on the Taunton Castle site and the construction of a state of the art Heritage Centre at Norton Fitzwarren.
To have his support and involvement in the ongoing developments at our own museum in Weston-super-Mare is a tremendous advantage and those involved would do well to heed his advice.
Tom encouraged the idea of defining the story of Weston-super-Mare as they had done with the story of Somerset in redesigning the Museum of Somerset.
He posed the questions: Wheres the temporary Exhibition Hall and Wheres the learning space. With regard to the latter, he saw it as just as important to provide for adults as for children.
Aim for the maximum level of achievable ambition” was his thought on combining aspiration and realism.
Never believe that the first idea you think of is the best was his mantra for ensuring that constant review and revision were built into the planning process.
Tom established his local credentials early on by telling us that his father, who came from Canada, decided to emigrate to Britain and on arrival they first settled in this area, living in Brean. He attended Walliscote School in Weston-super-Mare.
In recounting the tale of recent developments in Somerset, Tom returned to 1998 when a meeting was held to discuss the fact that the then Somerset Record Office in Obridge Road was effectively full up. It was also recognised that the Museum needed change and so a unified strategy began to be developed. From the Guggenheim option of the 2001 Lansdowne Report which proposed spending of 37 million pounds they came down to a proposal requiring the total expenditure of 6.9 million. When the confirmation of a Heritage Lottery Fund bid of 4.8 million came through in 2007 they knew that they were in business. This was a major slice of the total costs of the project.
The team developing the proposals always kept in mind a threefold vision: to unlock history in innovative, memorable and sustainable ways, to tell the story of Somerset and to be focussed and outward-looking.
With these aims in mind they turned their attention to what they saw as the three components of the narrative: Taunton Castle itself, the collections and the Story of Somerset.
With the Castle the aim was to recover part of the story of the building. It was apparent that it had played a part in national events with the imprisonment of Perkin Warbeck and the effective end of the Wars of the Roses in 1497. Following the Civil War much of the Castle was destroyed but the the Great Hall remained and was the scene of one of Judge Jeffreys Bloody Assizes, in which 514 people were tried and 144 sentenced to death following the Monmouth Rebellion. By the mid nineteenth century it was deemed inadequate as a court room and was eventually purchased by the Somerset Archaeological and Natural History Society, who then developed the building as a Museum. Tom showed an historic postcard view of the Great Hall dating to 1905 complete with a stuffed crocodile mounted half way up the wall and military rows of uniform display cases.
Turning to the collections, Tom emphasised their unique nature and listed a number of items of national importance, including the skull of the Mendip Brown Bear found in Banwell Caves; the Bronze Age shield from South Cadbury, the only one in Britain found in an archaeological context rather than being discarded in water or a bog; the Low Ham mosaic, the earliest example of narrative art in the UK; the Frome Hoard, largest in the UK; the Congresbury Anglo-Saxon barn fragment; and the portrait of Harry Patch, the last surviving soldier to have fought in the trenches of the First World War.
This was not the first time the Museum had been re-organised as it had been taken apart in the 1950s. The recently discovered Low Ham mosaic was displayed on the floor and the magnificent St Mary Redcliffe staircase installed in a prominent position. The Museum at this time had very clean lines and an uncluttered appearance but a lack of display space meant this approach had to be reviewed, so the Low Ham pavement was subsequently mounted on the wall and more display cases were introduced.
The current redesign was a lengthy process and underwent many revisions as the best way of telling the Story of Somerset was devised. Certainly the changes were far-reaching. Out came the St Mary Redcliffe Staircase to be reinstalled in a private residence in Buckinghamshire. Back to the horizontal went the Low Ham mosaic, now enhanced by an imaginative back-projection display and the installation of a balcony view. Numerous other design features reflect the care lavished by the design team. A spectacular artwork, the carved Tree of Somerset, was commissioned which intricately gathered up the many themes contained in the Museum. This became the introduction to the daringly colourful display of the national collection of cauldrons and skillets, the Reflection Room with its quirky collection of words and thoughts about Somerset and Somerset folk, the atmospheric Monmouth Rebellion display, and the Military Gallery with its Union Flag motif. To name but a few!
Less spectacular, perhaps, than the Museum but equally important to the overall purpose of preserving Somerset’s historic heritage is the Somerset Heritage Centre. This consists of two tailor-made buildings built in a new development on the outskirts of Taunton at Norton Fitzwarren. They are extremely functional buildings fully equipped with state of the art security and fire-prevention systems. The archives contain five miles of records and the reserve collection for the Museum is also found here. This now includes the material removed from the Weston Museum and, whatever you think about the downgrading of Weston’s museum, Taunton looks like a safe bet for professional conservation and care of the collections. But the centre is not only about storage, for here the public can visit and, in the well-designed and proficiently-run Search Room, gain access to the very documents that the Centre is designed to safeguard.
The work is complete and Tom and his team can now bask in the sense of a job well done. It is up to us to marvel at the Museum and make use of the Heritage Centre. Both are well worth a visit.