Bagshaw Museum, Batley, Yorkshire

Mark Suggitt visits a museum that has retained its charm after a major redevelopment
Mark Suggitt

Batley is probably best known as the home of Fox’s Biscuits and its once-famous Variety Club. It’s another small former textile town within the huge conurbation of West Yorkshire. Anything special about it?

One special thing is Bagshaw Museum, which reopened last October after a two-year closure. Bagshaw is a neo-gothic mansion built in 1876 for George Sheard, a wool manufacturer.

Originally called the Woodlands, it cost £25,000 and looks like the home of the Addams family’s cousins. Inside, it is a delightful mixture of gothic revival and arts and crafts decoration. The house became a museum in 1911 after being purchased by the local authority for the vast sum of £5.

Walter Bagshaw, a retired businessman, became its first curator and avidly collected local material, ethnography and natural history. The museum was named after him following his death in 1927.

Now a part of Kirklees Museums and Galleries, it benefited from a rolling refit in the late 1980s and early 1990s, resulting in an innovative, eclectic and exotic mixture of ethnography, applied arts and Egyptology.

Mythical beasts sat next to an evocation of a rainforest and an Egyptian tomb, all in tiny spaces. It was a bit bonkers, but it worked, helped by a strong architectural presence in many of the rooms.

In 2005 a museum consultation asked audiences what they felt about the place. One concern was to test the need for a gallery that represented the substantial South Asian population within Kirklees. Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) cash supported the creation of a pilot gallery, Colours of Asia.

Feedback was positive, with older people wanting something that gave them and their descendents a link back to the sub-continent, and younger people wanting something that showed modern life. “People should not carry a perception that India is still a land of snake charmers,” was one comment.

More general market research revealed that people liked the diverse and exotic nature of the displays and the charm of the building. But there were things that could be improved.

There was no lift, no suitable space for temporary exhibitions and little on the history of Batley and its people. It all added up to a sizable project worthy of a bid to the HLF and Kirklees Council.

The results are new galleries on Batley and its People, the Spirit of Asia gallery, a small art gallery, a temporary exhibition space and the lift, which gives access to the whole building.

New arrivals

The local history displays occupy two small ground-floor rooms. From the People That We Meet looks at the growth of Batley and takes both a thematic and chronological approach, picking up on key events in the town’s history.

These include the arrival of Irish immigrants in the 1850s to work in the Shoddy (that is, cheap textiles) industry.

The second room, To The Places On the Street, looks at work, leisure and civic life. It includes Batley Variety Club, which flourished from 1967 to 1978 and featured Shirley Bassey and Roy Orbison among its draws.

An audiovisual allows you to guess the circumference of flared trousers and wonder at amazing haircuts, with musical accompaniment. How long before the front-of-house staff are sick of hearing Big Spender?

The design of the displays is elegant and restrained, driven by excellent text and well-chosen objects and images. The writing is clear throughout, supported by quotes from the oral history collection. There is a station to listen to personal testimony and an intelligent interactive game on the town’s development.

The adjoining Billiard Room has been adapted into a small gallery displaying Victorian pictures selected to reflect the period of the house. Drawn from the Kirklees collections, it features works addressing the role of women and class and society, including paintings by Watts and Atkinson-Grimshaw. Although there is a detailed handbook in the gallery, small individual labels would benefit the casual visitor.

Upstairs, the Spirit of South Asia gallery has responded to the demands of the audience consultation. Faced with the difficult task of portraying a vast and diverse area in a tiny space, it succeeds by taking a thematic, cross-cutting approach.

Traditional and modern

Themes such as food, transport, trades, faith and worship allow the collections to illustrate the stories. Each object has a small map to locate its origin.

There is a balance of the traditional and the modern; in the evocation of a rural village interior, we are told these are becoming rare. The inclusion of a spinning wheel represents both its utilitarian and spiritual significance.

Like the local history displays, the Spirit of South Asia gallery benefits from clear text and sound design. Architectural motifs and a range of oranges, yellows, blues and purples create a stylish effect.

The lack of space means that the results are more a primer than an encyclopaedia, but a range of short films allow deeper exploration. Local girls talking about how they deal with being British and Asian is illuminating, and has clear parallels with the earlier experiences of the Irish in the galleries below.

As so often with an old building, internal work revealed problems. The floor below the Enchanted Forest display was found to be structurally unsafe and so, despite its popularity, the installation had to go. The space now accommodates a small temporary exhibition area.
The results are a much-improved museum, which has maintained its charm and architectural joie de vivre. It has sensibly retained areas that worked and introduced new ones that harmonise with them and the building.

Kirklees now has a gallery that represents people of South Asian heritage and Batley residents can see what is special about their hometown in what remains a rather special museum.

Mark Suggitt is a cultural consultant based in Leeds

Project data

Cost £726,500
Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund £419,500, Kirklees Council £307,000
Architect Aedas
Main contractor Headmans
Exhibition design Bogacki Associates (to January 2009), Graham Wileman, G+ Studio (January to March 2009) Haley Sharpe Design (from March 2009)
Fit-out Early Action Group
Graphic print Digital Plus
Audiovisuals Blackbox
Display cases Click Netherfield

Correction 05.02.2010

Exhibition design Bogacki Associates (to January 2009), Graham Wileman, G+ Studio (January to March 2009) Haley Sharpe Design (from March 2009) was changed from Exhibition design Bogacki Associates (to January 2009), Haley Sharpe Design (from January 2009)

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