Located at the heart of the former county town of Presteigne, the grand museum building of the Judge’s Lodging tells the story of the lives of Victorian judges, and is open from April to June.
“Our enormous building is one of the most important of the town. It is not difficult to spot,” says Gabrielle Rivers, the museum development manager.
It was a working building and provided accommodation for judges until 1990. The local council, on the suggestion of interior specialist Charles Carter, then brought the lodging back to its 1860 heyday and turned it into a museum.
It houses furniture bought for the original use of the building, and, says Rivers, “its collection can be touched by the public”.
Built in the 1820s and refurbished in the 1860s, the building houses furnishings from both periods, and these form the core of the collection. There are also displays devoted to Presteigne’s local history, including portraits of local dignitaries, photographs of the town and objects used in daily life in the past.
“We wish to depict and preserve Victorian rural life as closely as we can,” says Rivers. “We want people to witness how these judges used to live as authentically as they can, which is why we made the collection entirely touchable.
"We want to see people having fun as they explore the history of the building and life in Victorian times, so we have activities such as napkin folding and jelly tasting.
“Our dressing-up masks are a particular favourite, where children almost get pushed aside in the grown-ups’ rush to try them on. And then our community space is often filled with co-produced exhibitions, such as this year’s exploration of objects through creative writing by local school kids. And we’ve commissioned a series of new portraits of town traders to recognise their support for the community during the pandemic.”
Rivers recounts one particularly unusual story: “A school group was playing hunt-the-thimble with us. They all gathered around what looked like a woven friendship bracelet – until we went to pick it up and it reared up and hissed.”
Help at hand
Rivers is the only full-time staff member, supported by four seasonal workers and 34 volunteers. “They support different areas of operation and include gardeners; a tearoom team; a housekeeping team who care for the period rooms; a maintenance team; and the collections team, most of whom have been involved with documenting and caring for the town’s objects for the past 12 years,” says Rivers. “They are led by Roger, who also recently designed a new museum store and collections workroom.”
“This is a big question for us right now. We are one of only three places in Wales to get money from the UK Government’s Community Ownership Fund, which along with a pledge from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and Architectural Heritage Fund support, gives us all we need to proceed with our plan to convert the former caretaker’s flat into two holiday lets.
"Once operational, these will go a long way towards providing a sustainable future for the building, which is just not achievable in our rural location,” says Rivers.
“As a two-star listed building with a huge courtroom, there is little that the building could be used for other than as a museum.”
Nandni Sharma is a freelance writer