FRIENDS HELP: The Friends of The Bowes Museum, from left, vice-president Fiona Turnbull, president the Earl of Ronaldshay, and, far right, treasurer Liz Beadle, make a donation to the museum’s commercial director Simon Lee
FRIENDS HELP: The Friends of The Bowes Museum, from left, vice-president Fiona Turnbull, president the Earl of Ronaldshay, and, far right, treasurer Liz Beadle, make a donation to the museum’s commercial director Simon Lee

New ways of displaying objects and engaging with visitors are planned by The Bowes Museum from April when the redesign of seven gallery and storage spaces is unveiled, as Dorothy Blundell reports

WHATEVER springs to mind when you hear the word ‘museum’, that will very likely change from April onwards if you visit The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle.

Whether you conjure images of dusty warehouse-style buildings stuffed full of old objects whose use is long forgotten, or perhaps hushed places of cultural erudition, at the Bowes they are breathing excitement into how visitors experience the collections, by giving them an up-close and hands-on introduction to them.

After a year in the planning, design and installation, and at a cost of £360,000, seven areas within the grand 18th century-style French palace have been repurposed. Four new galleries and three collection stores are being opened up ‘to inspire curiosity, conversations and creativity’ and to help visitors better exploring the collections by discovering stories about the objects.

The Curiosity Project, as it was titled, represents a new chapter for the public museum which opened in June 1892, thanks to the philanthropy of local wealthy man John Bowes, and his French wife Josephine. In a few short years they collected 15,000 objects plus about 200 paintings. Today, the collection numbers 58,000, yet only six per cent can be displayed.

The new project will increase that figure to ten per cent and of the 200 or so objects to go on show, more than three quarters have rarely or never been seen on display before.

The museum worked with more than 100 people of all ages, from individuals to families and community groups, to guide the thinking in how to shape the new spaces.

Vicky Sturrs, director of programmes and collections, said: “We’ve explored new ways to see and understand our collections. We’ve heard directly how people want to feel in their museum and what kind of environments and objects help shape those experiences. Our visitors told us they wanted to explore the stories behind our objects, have making experiences that help them get hands-on with materials and techniques and learn more about the artists, designers and makers whose works are cared for by the museum.

“I’m thrilled to say we’re able to make those happen through this refit. Being able to get more of the collections on show is key for me, and our new storage vaults help us with this.

“This is the start of a journey of curiosity at the museum too so we expect to redisplay these spaces regularly. In April we’ll introduce artists, designers and makers, ideas about neighbourliness and hospitality and the Teesdale landscape, all through items from the collection.”

On the ground floor, galleries are becoming interactive spaces to celebrate the collection, inspire curiosity and encourage exploration and conversation. There will be a curiosity space, where a changing soundscape will link the gallery to the outside as visitors move around the room investigating objects and artworks.

There will be a create space, where visitors can investigate materials and processes of collection objects. And there will be a conversation space, where visitors can relax, think and debate artworks that link to key challenges facing the world, perhaps coming up with local solutions to global problems.

There will be specialist guided tours of three vaults in the museum which are being kitted out with new shelving and storage to better care for and store objects, including furniture, textiles and ceramics.

In addition, a first floor room, which was for many years used for storage, will be known as the Hive. Here, visitors will be able to see objects, artefacts, documents and collections that have been curated through a collaboration of staff, volunteers and individuals/groups from the community. Staff and volunteers will be on hand to guide visitors and answer any questions.

The overall aim of the project is to empower visitors – to give them confidence to explore the rest of the museum’s collections with understanding on their own terms.

Funding for the Curiosity Project came from the Department of Culture Media and Sport in partnership with the Wolfson Foundation with a grant of £254,900. Additionally, the Foyle Foundation contributed £65,000 and the Friends of The Bowes Museum gave £40,000. The work was carried out by Huddersfield-based visitor experience design company, The Creative Core.

If you are interested in volunteering with the Curiosity Project contact Jess White, the museum’s co-production volunteer manager, by emailing

n On February 10, there are special behind-the-scenes tours to hear more about the redesigned galleries. The Silver Swan performs daily at 1.30pm from mid-February onwards. The museum is open daily 10am to 5pm.

n Half term activities: page 14

n Murmuration: page 16