Yorkshire Times
A Voice of the Free Press
Andrew Palmer
Group Editor
1:01 AM 23rd March 2024

Demystifying Curiosity: The Bowes Museum

The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.
Photo: The Bowes Museum©
The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle. Photo: The Bowes Museum©
There is a scene in Moonraker where James Bond has just landed in California, searching for the eponymous stolen space shuttle. He is helicoptered to the home of the evil Hugo Drax and is astonished to see the mansion that, although filmed at Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte, in France, for the purposes of the script, 007 has been told was recreated brick by brick on the Drax estate.

Anyone approaching Barnard Castle often has the same visible reaction of amazement and wonder when they spot The Bowes Museum, a Grade 1 listed building nestled in its Grade 2 listed parkland.

It’s the same for drivers who catch a fleeting glimpse of it from the A66 and take a gulp of awe at the vista, and the wow factor intensifies for the curious who decide they must visit the museum. It was built to designs by Jules Pellechet and John Edward Watson to house the art collection of John Bowes and his wife, Joséphine Benoîte Coffin-Chevallier, and opened in 1892.

I never lose that sense of astonishment as I tell the personable and enthusiastic Vicky Sturrs, the Bowes’ director of programmes and collections, who has a superb knack of being able to communicate in an engaging way.

New Gallery Spaces 
Photo: The Bowes Museum©
New Gallery Spaces Photo: The Bowes Museum©
There are so many exciting things happening and I don’t really know where to start, but Vicky is on a mission to ensure I get to see and hear as much about the developments as I can.

Ushering me into three newly opened Curiosity Galleries, albeit that they are in the process of being renovated, she tells me “this co-production of approximately 346 square metres of galleries and storage will improve access, display, and care of the designated collection and encourage, promote, and enable learning, curiosity, and conversation.”

The press release states The Curiosity Project ‘provides a catalyst for a new community-centred and multidisciplinary approach to connect collaboratively and creatively with all our communities in a new way, as well as co-produce new displays, care for the collection, and increase knowledge, skills, and good practice within our curatorial team.’

For Sturrs, that simply means working with different stakeholders and communities and asking them what they want to feel in and around the museum.

“What is it they want to learn about, see, and do?”

“Not surprisingly, people have become really attached to the objects, and they want to be able to use their five senses to explore and discover what stories lie behind the artefacts.

“My challenge has been to see how I can translate that to an immersive visit in the space we have.”

Sturrs’ vision is to take the conversational element and take the bold step of allowing visitors get closer to the objects. Not everything will be behind glass. Every design feature has been carefully considered, from films on the window to control natural light but ensure the space is bright to rotation plinths.

In a post-pandemic world besotted with social media that is used as a vehicle for commenting sometimes without context, background, or understanding, Sturrs’ task is not without its challenges.

New Gallery Spaces 
Photo: The Bowes Museum©
New Gallery Spaces Photo: The Bowes Museum©
Led by Sturrs, the Bowes’ team has curated a capsule collection of objects exploring the impact on landscape, industry, agriculture, and, of course, people.

“Some of the feedback was lovely and considered. Questions about the opulence of some of our gold-gilded exhibits. We were asked about wealth, how it fits into people’s lives today, and how relevant it is in 2024 society.

Sturrs’ is explaining everything to me as we are walking from the lovely café to the three new spaces.

“The test,” she says, “is how does a visitor feel relevant and welcome, and what does that welcome look like? The new galleries will look at how we represent home and family and things that are important to our visitors. We have a section that will be themed around home, hospitality, conviviality, and family. These are just light-touch introductions to help tell stories through objects that we've maybe not told before at the museum.”
Sturr's passion and gusto are infectious as she talks in layman’s terms about the changes and the already positive feedback.

Community is an important aspect, and the museum is working with different stakeholders, including artists, designers, and those who make objects.

New Gallery Spaces 
Photo: The Bowes Museum©
New Gallery Spaces Photo: The Bowes Museum©
As we chat, Sturrs says that they are also telling a story about women artists and makers who traditionally have been crafters but who have been hidden from some of the history. She has set about redressing the balance through choosing some the 56,000 pieces catalogued in the collections that the museum owns, to communicate to the public. Sturrs has identified the self-portraits of those artists, designers, and makers, the tools of their trades, and some of the things that they make, particularly focusing on cottage industries or home crafts, to tell a story that the museum has not told before and, importantly, in a more sustainable way.

The three galleries will open on April 2nd and the exhibition spaces have been designed with units in mind where items on display can be changed quickly and easily. An important factor, as according to Sturrs, nothing should be static. The curating team wants to have the flexibility and agility to respond to events happening in the world or national significant days like last year’s coronation.

New Gallery Spaces 
Photo: The Bowes Museum©
New Gallery Spaces Photo: The Bowes Museum©
My sneak preview highlights rooms that are modern in design, light, bright, and open. The museum has also commissioned David de la Haye, a Durham sound recordist, composer, researcher, and music technician, to create a sound track for some of the art works using natural sounds from around Durham Dales.

In the second of the trio of new spaces, Sturrs explains that the space will have a different feel, the light levels will be lowered considerably, and it has been designed as a conversation space. “It’s a space where we want visitors to dwell, relax, and think. It is more sensory.

“The third gallery is more vibrant, and there will be materials people can pick up and attend workshops.

There will even be opportunities, via the work we do with freelance artists who led Saturday workshops, for people to display their works.

“As with all our exhibitions, we want to provide a thread through a well-conceived narrative that links these new galleries to the wider examples in the rest of the museum.”

The way The Bowes Museum has responded to new ways of telling stories and thinking about different themes to make it relevant is impressive, even creating learning Collection vaults, for researchers and people learning the trade as well as tours where everyone can really understand ceramics, textiles, and furniture, all of which will be displayed in ways that have traditionally been eschewed.

It is about taking down barriers. For example, the furniture vault will have raised pieces so people can see different markings and details from the manufacturers.
Another innovation are the various education projects, especially the notable volunteering scheme that The Bowes Museum received from AIM Connected Communities.

The scheme is in partnership with Teesdale School and Sixth Form in Barnard Castle, where young people, aged 14 to 18, from across the school's rural catchment can volunteer. These young people will be at the centre of the project from its development, identifying barriers young people may face to volunteering. The museum will work with them to develop a model for young volunteers, including content design, direction, and delivery.

New Gallery Spaces 
Photo: The Bowes Museum©
New Gallery Spaces Photo: The Bowes Museum©
It's hoped that by creating meaningful volunteering opportunities that truly meet young people's individual needs, it will increase their levels of social connections, build their confidence, and increase their transferable skills.

"This project will directly support the museum's mission to engage more local people with the heritage on their doorstep. It will help develop a sense of belonging and ownership of the building and its collection, increase community connection and pride, and create work experience opportunities that increase employability by giving the young people involved transferable skills and an understanding of the creative industries as a future career option."

The take-up is staggering, and it means that young curious and inquisitive volunteers get a feel for different career options as well as an understanding of history in a contemporary world, importantly in a non-patronising way.

My visit has only touched the surface of the many exhibitions, and Sturrs is going to let me explore, made easier by her engaging and compelling story-telling, and along the way, I will see if there is anything about space travel.

The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle.
Photo: The Bowes Museum©
The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle. Photo: The Bowes Museum©
The Bowes Museum, Barnard Castle, County Durham
DL12 8NP
Phone: +44 (0)1833 690606

Opening times
Open Daily 10am - 5pm
Closed Only 25 - 26 December and 1 Januar

For more information on the Bowes Museum click here
For families click here
For parks and gardens click here
For the café click here

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