As a consequence of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010, Wakefield Council had to look closely at all its services to address a significant budgetary deficit and the Museum Service was no exception and it had to find a way to reduced its overall running costs whilst ensuring that core services continued to be delivered to the public remain.

To meet this challenge the Museum Service had to do something radical and to face up to a major operation issue – the future of Wakefield Museum.

Wakefield Museum, located in an imposing Grade II* Georgian building, was seen as underperforming with significant falling visitor numbers, increasing dissatisfaction with the quality of the displays and with the overall experience of the building. This perception was made even more acute with the opening of the vibrant and successful Hepworth Wakefield in May 2011.

In July 2010 the Council agreed to relocate the public library as part of the new civic building to be called Wakefield One. This impressive new modern building, situated in the city’s Civic Quarter, is to provide a range of Council services for the public to access.

In May 2011 the Council agreed to relocate the museum as well in Wakefield One within the space allocated to the library and in November 2011, Wakefield Museum temporarily closed to the public for the first time in 50 years. A key decision was made to bring Local Studies and the museum together in the same space to exploit the obvious synergies between the two services for people interested in exploring their local heritage.

From agreeing to the relocation of the museum the whole process of moving out of the old museum, designing, tendering and commissioning a new design and building the new displays followed by installing the collections took 17 months, with the opening of the new museum taking place on 29 October 2012.

The skilled in-house team of designers, curators and learning specialists worked closely with the selected fit out contractor, RS Displays, to produce a very high quality finish of showcases, structures, interactives and object presentation.

Flexibility has been designed into the core displays. Without the constraints of a chronological narrative, themes can change without disrupting those around them. By using quality and durable showcases and display structures the displays will have a much longer shelf life as they can be kept fresh by semi regular changes to the gallery themes.

Different learning styles have a strong influence on the design. The presentation of information follows a hierarchy, visible text is kept to a minimum and fits into a clean and simple design style. Further information is at the fingertips in special slots dotted around the gallery or through AV screens. The Local Studies library is in fact the ultimate further information resource.

The museum also has a space called the Front Room where visitors can explore home life in Wakefield through the ages. There are two scenic stage sets, a Victorian Kitchen and a 1940s living room that are to be used to deliver both formal and informal learning workshops for schools and families.

At the heart of the museum are the museum collections. Early in the design process key objects, from the history of Wakefield, were identified as anchors in the story of the growth of city and to encapsulate a series of strong themes. The selected themes were designed to tell the Wakefield story through strong emotive experiences such as love and war through to more everyday experiences such as work and specific periods such as Tudor Wakefield. These threads of the past stand alone but are also weaved together to create a patchwork history of experiences and changes in Wakefield over many hundreds of years. Each theme has a human face, a real individual, to provide a personal experience of the subject and strengthens the linkage between the museum and Local Studies, which specialises in genealogical research.

Like many modern buildings Wakefield One is made of glass and light and did not immediately provide desirable conditions for a museum. However, the museum team has worked creatively with the architects to create a series of controlled spaces, such as the area dedicated to the natural history collection of Victorian explorer and conservationist Charles Waterton, but others, such as the Front Room are designed to have natural light and to be open and inviting, making best use of the external views of the building.

The new Wakefield Museum now boasts some very impressive displays though it does have a slightly smaller foot print when compared to the previous location. But where floor space is reduced the displays have been designed to work harder. The spaces provide a pure display environment with no historic building features breaking up the narrative eg large windows. In some areas the displays are literally underfoot, a preserved South American Cayman captured by Charles Waterton (who rode it out of the river) is displayed under the floor to dramatic effect. A balance of high density display has been achieved without it ever feeling claustrophobic and the overall impression is one of quality and vibrancy. The flexible approach also means that long-term, there will be an increased turnover of collections on display.

The curatorial team have taken the chance to dust off a number of hidden treasures in the stores, such as an enormous carved Cypress wood chest from the late 1500s as well displaying familiar and popular objects in new ways.

As part of the dramatic new entrance to the museum and Local Studies area is the remains of an Anglo-Saxon preaching cross which had stood in the town in around the year 900. The cross stands again as a landmark once more directing visitors to explore the stories of past in the museum, or to find new stories in the Local Studies area.

Relocating the museum to be part of a wider range of co-located services in a modern building has resulted in significant increases in visitors and critically a renewed enthusiasm and interest in the museum’s role in supporting Wakefield’s rich heritage offer.

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