Q&A | 'We are placing communities at the heart of our decision-making' - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘We are placing communities at the heart of our decision-making’

The Harris in Preston is going through a major redevelopment with co-curation at its core – head of culture for Preston City Council, Timothy Joel, runs us through the project's aims
Timothy Joel, head of culture for Preston City Council, outside the 19th century neoclassical exterior of the Harris museum, gallery and library in Preston
Timothy Joel, head of culture for Preston City Council, outside the 19th century neoclassical exterior of the Harris museum, gallery and library in Preston

Set to reopen in 2024, the Harris in Preston is nearing the end of its £16m capital revamp. Run by Preston City Council, the free museum, art gallery and library was opened to the public in 1893 in the neo-classical building that still houses it.

With collections of fine art, decorative arts, costume, textiles, archaeology and local history, the redevelopment – titled Harris Your Place – must encompass many factors, as well as conserving and maintaining an old building. In February this year, Beck was confirmed as the fit-out contractor for the capital project, and Ralph Appelbaum Associates have been working on the exhibition design prior to this.

Timothy Joel, the head of culture for Preston City Council, runs us through the scope of the project before the grand opening next year.

What is the aim of Harris Your Place?

Harris Your Place is a £16m project set to restore and reimagine the Harris for 21st-century audiences as a community, cultural and learning space. The project will not only improve the physical building but also see a change in how the service is delivered – we are placing communities at the heart of our decision-making, creating a joined-up cultural service and working in a co-curated and collaborative manner with our audiences. 

Why the need to redevelop?

The capital project is more than simply preserving the much-loved building; the Harris wants to ensure that it remains a vibrant heart of the community, a place where people want to spend their time. Alongside that, the Grade I-Listed building is more than 125 years old and has been in much need of repair – including the stonework, roof and basement.

We carried out extensive public consultation at the start of the project, which has formed the foundation for the improvements being made. This has included making the building more accessible and welcoming, as well as more dynamic through changing displays and attraction. We hope to reflect our communities within our displays by bringing together our collections to tell the wide range of exciting stories from Preston and beyond.

A dynamic redesign of the library should captivated readers of all agesPlanning and Design of the rendered image by Ralph Appelbaum Associates
What can visitors expect to see on reopening?

When the new Harris opens in 2024, inventive blended displays will give access to remarkable collections. The fit-out works will be consistently fresh and responsive blending architecture, collections and activities together in light-touch ways. New spaces have been designed to activate curiosity and reflection and offer library services in enriched settings, positioning the Harris as a blended cultural venue, true to its original purpose. 

We’re also excited to return many of the galleries and spaces to their original full height, as well as making them flexible spaces so they can accommodate anything from a school visit to a yoga class to an exhibition opening.

On top of all that, we have a new community gallery on the first floor that will provide local artists and communities space to display their work and tell their rich and diverse stories. We’ve put co-curation with communities at the heart of this redevelopment in order to celebrate the diversity of Preston and also keep the visitor experience fresh. Not to mention an overhaul of the commercial spaces giving visitors an improved shop and cafe.

How have you embedded community co-curation?

We’ve been actively working together with local communities to make sure the Harris tells the story of Preston’s diverse history and culture, so that local people can see themselves in the displays and have their voices heard. One of the ways we are doing this is by including hotspot labels voiced by a broad range of community groups and individuals.

The ground floor rotunda will also be a co-curated community display that will alternate on a yearly basis to showcase as many groups as possible. The 19th century Preston lawyer and our founder, Edmund Harris, wished to enrich people’s lives with heritage and arts and that is exactly what we aim to do with this redevelopment. Within our everyday work, we are aiming to put our local community at the centre of everything we do through our community empowerment guidelines. Our new plan of community empowerment, which we set about in summer 2022, is about working alongside others and finding ways to empower them – in other words, treating everyone as equals without judgements.

The ground floor rotundaPlanning and Design of the rendered image by Ralph Appelbaum Associates
Are you also working on decolonising the museum?

We are diversifying the voices within our displays and stories told by collaborating with our communities and partners, and we are working with a project curator to support some of the narrative developments that explore themes of trade, colonialism and migration.

There will be a particular focus on the tea trade, which the project curator will support the Harris team with expertise, guidance and experience throughout alongside, University of Central Lancashire academics and members of the community. And in our Discover Preston Gallery, which tells the story of cotton and Preston’s mill heritage, we are making sure we reflect the wider stories and impacts of this heritage in our storytelling and interpretation.

How sustainable is the project?

As a Victorian Grade I-Listed building in the centre of Preston, the Harris presents a challenge for the delivery of the council’s net zero ambitions. However, the new design is utilising a number of energy saving and decarbonising measures in its renovation, including the replacement of lighting with LEDs, and works done to the building’s fabric that should aid heating efficiency. A number of air-source heat pumps will also be installed, which will provide the heat source for six new air handling units. These new environmental conditions will make a significant improvement to our collections storage.

The new-look Creative StudioPlanning and Design of the rendered image by Ralph Appelbaum Associates
Will your exhibition programme change with the redevelopment?

With our new flexibility with the changing display infrastructure, we will be able to rotate our collections on public display more frequently, giving visitors the opportunity to experience more of our collections. We are also bringing our collections together, blending ceramics, fashion, fine art and literature collections into the same displays to strengthen our storytelling. And for the first time, we will be able to bring out on public display our significant collection of historic books including the Spencer, Harkness and Dr Shepard collections.

On top of that, we will give visitors the chance to explore more of our collections through digital collection portals if objects are not on display.

The temporary exhibition programme will be more ambitious too; through the Arts Council Capital Investment Programme, we have been able to upgrade the environmental conditions in our special exhibition galleries to meet government indemnity standards. Excitingly, this will allow us to present loans from other museums nationally and bring in bigger exhibitions.

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