Located in the 18th century crypt of Wesley’s Chapel at City Road, the space had originally been turned into a museum in 1984. At the time, its design was progressive, even cutting edge. However, almost thirty years later the space had become tired, the interpretation required revision and many objects needed a well-deserved rest after being exposed to light for many years. Wesley’s Chapel (of which the museum forms an integral part) had had plans to refurbish the museum since the early 2000s but a lack of funds, made worse by the economic downturn in 2008, prevented fruition of the project. In 2012, however, Wesley’s Chapel and the museum received a major donation of around £600,000 from a sister Methodist Church in Korea which allowed the Chapel and the museum to approach other funding bodies for grants, to help cover refurbishment costs of approximately £1.3 million to date.
With Barker Langham as museum consultants, architects John McAslan & Partners (well known in connection with the recent King’s Cross Station redevelopment) as project architects, and Coniston as building contractors, the Chapel and museum embarked on an ambitious refurbishment project. The contractors chosen had excellent track records in museum interpretation and display as well as experience in transforming historic building structures. Their challenges were many – to work within a grade I listed building; to integrate and re-design a large meeting space next to the museum and to tie this to the museum; to ensure the space was used more effectively and to encourage visitors and the local congregation to use the museum more extensively while also allowing for the display of more objects from the museum’s collections. At the same time, a smaller meeting room and the curator’s office – previously a small space carved from the museum – were to be integrated into the new space to create a larger, more open and capacious space. This was necessary to allow for increasing visitor numbers, in particular large groups which tend to visit the museum during the summer months. Last but not least, the refurbishment provided an excellent opportunity to rethink and put into place vital new infrastructure. This included a new collections store with roller racking, a room for the volunteer heritage stewards of the museum, new air-conditioning and heating piping and ducting, as well as a new exit to the Chapel’s garden and John Wesley’s grave monument.
Chapel and museum were keen to emphasise the original Georgian architecture of the building. This was an aspect the 1984 museum design scheme had failed to do; asymmetry, free standing information boards and display cases as well as boxed-in architectural features had resulted in a space which felt anonymous and unrelated to the architecture of the Chapel above. The 2012 refurbishment stripped the space back to its original outline, revealing all wooden columns and ceiling beams as well as the very interesting floor.
The new display was organised thematically, with individual themes presented in clearly separate areas yet linked spatially and intellectually with one another. It was decided to arrange the display cases around the periphery of the space where possible, to emphasise the architecture, facilitate a more open space and create interesting vistas throughout the museum. Click Netherfield provided adaptable, very effective showcases with drawer spaces beneath to encourage interaction with the displays. In order to draw attention from the comparatively low ceiling, ambience lighting was built into the showcases at the top and bottom, especially around the periphery of the space; in this way only a few ceiling spotlights to highlight important objects and areas without showcases were required, and display cases appear weightless, as if floating in space.
Visitors can now explore the history of the complex and the site, look at the early development of Methodism through a display case on preaching and publishing and another on the first Methodist Chapel in London, the so-called ‘Foundery’ (the Chapel being housed originally in an old cannon foundry). They can also learn more about the chapel building ‘boom’ of the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the life of important 20th century preachers. There are displays on John Wesley, the principal founder of the Methodist movement, augmented by a number of important 18th, 19th and 20th century paintings. For those who would like to explore Wesleyan hymns or sermons, as well as the burial records of the chapel and archival material from the museum’s collection, such as old leases, letters and other documents, there are the museum’s new Apple i-Pads. I-pads offered an excellent solution to showing a variety of records – and allowing visitors to listen to music – in a simple yet effective and very familiar format.
At the centre of the museum a five-screen audio-visual presentation brings alive the story of John Wesley, the site and the development of Methodism, and ties together the museum experience. The museum worked with Spiral Productions in creating a feature which on the one hand was a film, but ‘felt’ more like a audio-visual experience. SYSCO provided the hardware and, although there have been teething problems with the technology, the new audio-visual feature is a wonderful addition to the museum.
The challenge of linking the meeting room next door with the museum has been solved through a large new showcase containing Wesleyana objects, especially ceramics; the display case acts as visible storage and encourages visitors to enter the actual museum space next door.
Although funding is still required to put in place two more display cases and an interactive table display to complete the refurbishment, the museum has had its busiest few months’ ever since re-opening last year. It now provides the ideal base from which to start exploring the Chapel above and John Wesley’s House on site, as well as the other attractions on site. Have you visited yet?
Museum Consultants: Barker Langham | Architects: John McAslan & Partners | Technology: Spiral Productions, SYSCO | Building Contractors: Coniston
All images courtesy of Hufton + Crow
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