Owned and managed by Shropshire Council, the new Museum & Art Gallery is the result of a ground-breaking restoration project that has seen two buildings – Shrewsbury’s Victorian Music Hall and the 13th century Vaughan’s Mansion – renovated and restored to create a vast new museum and spectacular gallery space, together with function rooms suitable for meetings, conferences and even weddings.
What began as a restoration project turned into a rescue operation as the level and complexity of work required to the historic buildings revealed itself. Formerly housed in Rowley’s House, the new museum comprises a grade II and a grade II* listed building that have been transformed into one dramatic complex overlooking the town’s main square. The unusual architecture and rich history are just as intriguing as the artefacts and art works that are housed there.
The town’s Music Hall, built in 1840 and designed by Edward Haycock Snr, forms the main structure. Classical in style, it is dominated by towering stone columns and immense sash windows. Always at the centre of the community, it has had several lives as a place of entertainment and, more unusually, being used as the base for the town’s fire service.
The oldest part of the complex is the medieval Vaughan’s Mansion, which dates back to 1290. There are only a handful of these urban, stone townhouses left in the country, and Vaughan’s is the only one to be found in Shropshire. The house originally belonged to William Vaughan, a local merchant who was one of the wealthiest men in the town. The property went on to adopt various guises over the next centuries, housing the Shrewsbury museum collection in the 19th century and later becoming an art academy and a Freemason’s hall. Horses were stabled in the area which will house the Roman Gallery. A major fire destroyed part of the roof in 1917, but parts that survived have been uncovered during the current building works.
Bringing together buildings of listed status each at varying states of disrepair has taken 5 years of dedication. Vaughan’s has proved to be the biggest restoration challenge and while the extent of the work caused significant delays to the project, the results have been some of the most spectacular. Dr Tim Jenkins, Heritage Project Manager for Shropshire Council has described the scope of the restoration, “The new complex spans over 750 years of architecture and heritage all in one footprint. This has been a huge challenge and at times it’s been heartbreaking for us but we couldn’t give up. This is not an ordinary provincial museum – it will be a real cultural attraction with a collection that is world class.”
Sophie Teague of architects Austin Smith Lord described the project as “Enormous…a suite of 9 buildings, 3,000 metres of space…and nine periods of time which need to come together so they fit seamlessly with eachother.” The end result should, she says, be “beautiful, historic, effortless.”
Having gone through significant change over the course of its life, the challenge, says Jenkins, “has been to unpick all those different structural layers in order to make the building fit for purpose for another 750 years.” Geological problems, too, have played their part in this complex project which has resulted in the underpinning of Vaughan’s Mansion.
The building’s secrets have been uncovered as work has progressed. Carpenters of yesteryear left scrawlings of their names and ages on floorboards, and in the courtyard of the house, two medieval doors were revealed with their original 1620s timber frames.
The process of establishing the permanent exhibitions in the new spaces has enabled the best of the collection, which itself comprises of over 300,000 artefacts, to be evaluated again with the support of leading academics; something that had not been done for almost a century. Objects have become ever more intriguing as their story and deeper context have been discovered through research.
Emma-Kate Lanyon, Head of Collections and Curatorial Services for Shropshire Council, highlights the national importance of many of the collections on view in the new Museum.
“Trustees from the British Museum have been helping us to bring home the Berth Cauldron, a remarkable late Iron Age find from Shropshire which will be on display in the county for the first time in over 100 years. Another key item returning to us is the Corbet Bed, made in 1593 for a Shropshire family and loaned from the Victoria & Albert Museum.
“Local people, too, have donated a treasure trove of objects, including the supposed scaffold cloth from the execution of Charles I and one of Shrewsbury astronomer Henry Blunt’s groundbreaking nineteenth century models of the surface of the moon.” Awareness of the project has also encouraged members of the public to come forward and donate interesting pieces, including The Caughley collection of ceramics from the former factory near Broseley and the 1802 John Varley painting of Shrewsbury, for which the Friends of the Museum & Art Gallery raised the money to buy.
Alongside its permanent collections, Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery has invited a series of contemporary artists and interpreters such as Shirley Chubb, Neil Brownsword and Ilana Halperin to curate and interpret the exhibits and create specially commissioned works.
After five years, the redeveloped Museum complex has finally opened. With permanent and temporary exhibition spaces, a café, shop, education suite and the town’s Visitor Information Centre all housed in the complex, the Museum aims to be the starting point for visitors to explore the history of Shrewsbury and Shropshire, providing both a visitor attraction and an educational and cultural resource for the town.
Shropshire Council has provided the majority of the funding required to invest in the creation of the new Shrewsbury Museum & Art Gallery.
Additional support has been received from:
Heritage Lottery Fund
European Regional Development Fund
Arts Council England
The Walker Trust
The Art Fund
Friends of Shrewsbury Museum & Art GalleryBack to top