This project set out to create a major new museum in Barnsley’s stunning and emblematic town hall. This is the first ever museum to share the stories of Barnsley, a borough of almost 250,000 people. Its opening marked the culmination of a major five-year programme of community engagement and the creation of a unique museum collection.

Transforming this landmark building,which has considerable heritage value in its own right, was ambitious. The five-year programme of engagement involved consultation with communities to generate content and to reveal stories. The project team worked with a wide-ranging group of partner organisations, from small history groups to heritage partners and many others. Creating a collection from nothing provided challenges as well as plentiful opportunities as thousands of people donated objects, stories and ideas. Even more took part in events to shape the new museum. A small number of examples demonstrate the depth and breadth of contributions: A wooden cot, given to a family in 1946 when released from a labour camp in Nazi Germany; a beautifully inscripted Qu’ran; a riot shield seized from the police at the Battle of Orgreave in 1984; a stone age hammer head found when a reservoir was built in the 1920s – used as a doorstop in a shed for over 40 years.

The resulting collection comprises a core permanent collection looked after for future generations; a semi-permanent collection of loaned objects which are with the museum temporarily; and a reserve collection of hundreds of objects in attics, cupboards, garages and sheds – offered for display, as needed, going forward.

Objects have been lightly but engagingly interpreted in a way that brings together the curatorial voice and that of donors and communities. Touch screens provide more depth and a chance to listen to words spoken by those who donated them. Alongside is a ‘Discovery Centre’ which dovetails the functions of the archives and museum. Visitors can dig deeper, explore extensive archival collections and new digital collections too.

The results have shown the great impact that the museum has had and what it means to local people. Footfall has been much greater than anticipated – almost 100,000 after just 7 months. Visitors report positive and often profound experiences. Pride, surprise and inspiration are constantly mentioned in feedback, with 96% of visitors saying that they will return.

The museum has become a vibrant focus for learning and activity. As well as being an attraction in its own right, the museum is a highly effective hub and signpost to heritage sites, activities and events across the whole region.

Sue Thiedeman, interim head of Culture at Barnsley Council, said: “Given that the Experience Barnsley Museum and Discovery Centre has been open for less than a year, we are proud to be mentioned in the same breath as such established attractions as the Tower of London, the Mary Rose and the National Maritime Museum. Experience Barnsley would never have happened without the support of a dedicated community steering group and the people of Barnsley, both past and present, whose contributions to the museum’s development, its collections and its archives have exceeded all our expectations.

“Barnsley, and indeed South Yorkshire, is often overlooked as a cultural and heritage destination. We hope this recognition not only attracts further interest in Experience Barnsley, but encourages people to have a look at our other heritage offers and those beyond the borough. You’ll be amazed.”

Back to top