The recently extended Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon, which overlooks the River Taw, was built as a grand house in 1872. It was bought by local benefactor William Rock in 1887 to house the North Devon Athenaeum, a free library and museum.
The new two-storey extension, contemporary in design, has been constructed using bricks matching the original structure. It sits comfortably alongside the older part of the building. A glass entrance area houses the shop, reception desk, stairs and a lift to the upper floor. I received a warm welcome and was pleased to see that the museum had been able to maintain free entry (the visit took place before the Covid-19 lockdown).
The displays on the ground floor of the extension introduce visitors to north Devon in the 20th century, in particular the varied history of its world of work – farming, fishing and industry. The displays about salmon fishing on the Taw and Torridge estuaries, including a boat used for netting the fish, are especially interesting. This display is enhanced by the use of film and audio – which is used extensively, and well, in the new displays. There is also information on the pottery industry, with a large model of a kiln in one of the original galleries. But not all the space is devoted to work, and the Barnstaple Fair and Fair Proclamation Ceremony, which date back to at least the medieval period and take place every September, are given pride of place.
Upstairs in the extension are two small galleries for temporary exhibitions, office space and an education room. When I visited, the main exhibition was dedicated to Devon photographer James Ravilious. In the 1970s and 1980s, Ravilious documented rural life in north Devon, producing more than 80,000 images for the Beaford Archive. Attractively displayed, these images are drawn from the museum’s collection and illustrate how life in the county has changed dramatically even in the past 40 years.
In the adjacent Keith Abraham Community Gallery, documentary photographs taken by members of the local community on the theme of “the high street” are displayed alongside images from the archive. Apparently, one of the new images will be chosen to be added to the archive. As a local historian, I did wonder whether more than one should be added, to make a more significant contribution to the contemporary record.
The original museum can be accessed from either floor of the extension. Here, the displays, which are largely unchanged, tell the story of north Devon from its geological origins, through prehistory, important archaeological discoveries and into the Victorian era. The development of tourism and life on the farm and the home also feature. Most of these displays are old fashioned, although they still provide a wealth of material in a clear and informative way.
Military history, as well as information on the lives of those from the local area who served in various conflicts, is given a room to itself. There is also a separate gallery devoted to the North Devon Biosphere, which in 1976 was the first in Britain to be designated by Unesco. Examples of furniture made by local firm Shapland & Petter in the Arts and Crafts style are displayed in a room with wonderful views over the River Taw. My highlight of the original galleries was the room devoted to locally made art pottery, an important collection featuring works by William Baron, the Fishleys of Fremington, Thomas Liverton and James Dewdney.
The importance of industries that originally made use of locally sourced clay is underlined by a project that was ongoing when I visited. Terracotta tiles have been made and incorporated into a frieze on the extension and on a panel adjacent to the entrance. These were designed and made in a collaborative process under the guidance of artist Taz Pollard. Funded by Arts Council England, the project has involved adults and local schoolchildren. Inspiration has been drawn from the museum’s collections, including the art pottery of Alexander Lauder and Charles Brannam, and Shapland & Petter’s furniture. Local artists and volunteers helped in the production of more than 100 decorated tiles, which have been interspersed with 300 plain ones.
The museum has a significant collection of paintings – 73 of which are listed on the Art UK website – including works by important West Country artists such as Frederick Richard Lee, Thomas Adolphus Falcon and Brian Chugg. A temporary exhibition earlier this year had shown works by Lee from the collection alongside loans from Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum. However, I was disappointed that not even a small gallery space had been set aside for a changing display of the collection. In the hallway, three north Devon landscapes, one on-loan painting by Lee and a work by Thomas Sidney Cooper, are hung alongside 10 portraits, but this display doesn’t do justice to the museum’s art collection.
The tea room, now in the original entrance area, has been given the name of Bromley’s, a much-loved former cafe in the town. A set of photographs show Bromley’s in its heyday.
The origins of the museum will be recognised in the Victorian Library, which hadn’t opened when I visited. This will provide information on the museum’s forerunners, the Literary and Scientific Institution and the North Devon Athenaeum, as well as some of the Victorian collections. It will also be a space for researchers to use.
The new extension, although modest in scale, has enabled the expansion of displays and the development of essential money-earning facilities through a well-stocked shop and cafe. It demonstrates what can be done with limited resources to bring a local museum into the 21st century.
Peter Mason is a local historian