Westside story | Dorset Museum, Dorchester - Museums Association

Westside story | Dorset Museum, Dorchester

This impressively engaging revamp takes visitors on a trip through 250 million years of West Country history
Natural History Redevelopment
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Peter Mason
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Historic artefacts contrast with modern objects in the People's Dorset gallery Photo Philip Vile, Courtesy Real Studios

Approaching Dorset Museum on Dorchester’s High Street, little appears to have changed. The museum frontage sits alongside the parish church and a statue of the poet William Barnes, one of the founders of the museum. Visitors enter the building through the original elaborate Victorian facade. 

However, adjacent to the entrance, evidence of the new development can be seen in the simple frontage of the museum shop. Both the shop and the cafe are next to the entrance and, although they do offer an opportunity for passing trade, neither dominate in the way that these facilities often do elsewhere.

After passing through the entrance, visitors have the choice of going straight into the new extension or taking a diversion into the Victorian Hall, which was the heart of the original museum. 

For those who knew the museum before the development, going into the Victorian Hall will be an interesting, if not strange, experience. The space was originally crowded with glass cases of exhibits, and the last time I visited the museum, in 2018, it was occupied by “Dippy”, the diplodocus cast on tour from the Natural History Museum in London. Queues of people circled it as well as looking down on it from the balconies.

Now, emptied of all displays, the splendour of the hall’s newly painted Victorian ironwork can be admired. Even more surreal is the chance to walk on Roman mosaics, which felt almost sacrilegious.

The Natural Dorset section reveals secrets of the county's habitats and wildlife Photo Philip Vile, Courtesy Real Studios, Courtesy Dorset Museum

From there, visitors move into the Lulworth Gallery, which tells the story of Natural Dorset, from its unique and varied geological origins to the people who revealed its secrets; from well-known names such as the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and the paleontologist Mary Anning to lesser-known people such as the field worker and illustration artist Helen Richardson, whose exquisite watercolours of insects are on display. Computer graphics and simple-to-use technology enable visitors to delve deeper. 

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Artefacts on display range from the 2.4 metre-long skull and jaws of the Weymouth Bay pliosaur discovered in 2003 by Kevan Sheehan to a rare first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species containing a letter from Darwin himself. 

Contemporary issues are highlighted in Core Samples (2015), a sculpture by contemporary artist Isla Chaney, which reflects the stratified geological history of Dorset with plastic detritus as the top layer.

The fossilised skull of the Weymouth pliosaur, dating back 155 million years Courtesy Dorset Museum
Welcome developments

The next gallery provides space for special exhibitions. When I visited commissioned work, inspired by artefacts from the collections of the four Wessex Museums, by the artist Ann-Marie James was on show. A small external courtyard alongside the education room, displays sculpture by Elisabeth Frink. 

On the second floor the largest gallery is devoted to the people of Dorset, from its earliest inhabitants to today’s residents. A large number of items from Dorset Museum’s collection are attractively exhibited. As one would expect, the items typical of a social history gallery range from displays about agriculture, through civic events to shipwrecks and smuggling.

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Items that caught my eye included models of Dorchester’s brewery and the Dragon nuclear reactor at Winfrith, the mask of the folkloric Dorset Ooser used by a Dorset Morris dancers’ side and a beautifully crafted chair made by John Makepeace of Parnham House.

A panel about Dorset and the slave trade acknowledges that neither the slaves nor their descendants received reparations, despite the substantial sums paid to slave owners. We are reminded that the interest on these was only paid off by the British Treasury in 2015.

The eerie Dorset Ooser mask used by Morris dancers Courtesy Dorset Museum
Hardy perennial

Dorset can boast many famous people, including writers and artists, many of them celebrated here. Best known is Thomas Hardy and, rightly, the museum devotes three galleries to his life and work in addition to the recreation of the study from his home, Max Gate. Here there are opportunities to learn more through listening to extracts from his novels and to music that the Hardy family had played.

The themes that exercised Hardy, including rural poverty are highlighted. Two of Hardy’s pens are displayed giving the viewer the opportunity to imagine the painstaking hours he would have spent writing the thousands of words in his novels.

Bronze sculptures by Elizabeth Frink, an artist whose work is celebrated in the section Artists' Dorset Photo Philip Vile,

Paintings from the collection are used throughout the museum to illustrate aspects of the stories being told. However, the Artists Gallery showcases some of the most important items from the collection. Sculptures, drawings and prints by Elisabeth Frink, probably Dorset’s best known 20th-century artist, rightly take up nearly half the space.

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But room is also given to work by members of the Chaldon Herring artists’ community, including the writers John Cowper Powys and Sylvia Townsend Warner, as well as the sculptor Elizabeth Muntz. A highlight for me, among the works by earlier artists, is the 1742 portrait, Thomas Coombes of Dorsetshire, Aged 108, by William Hogarth.

A central atrium connects the three floors and basement of the new build with the Fordington Roman Mosaic displayed on one wall enabling it to be viewed as the work of art it is. It is only when one stands in this central area of the museum that one realises how much has been achieved in fitting the new development into Dorchester’s crowded townscape. There is a simplicity to all the surfaces and fittings and nowhere does the architecture distract from the items on display.

Focus on | Exhibition design

One of the biggest challenges that the exhibition design company Real Studios had was finding a way to unite the museum’s world-class, but diverse, collections, comprising 250 million years of Dorset’s history into a coherent, accessible and appealing presentation for families, enthusiasts and experts alike.

This was achieved by carefully selecting objects, rationalising displays along three core themes and weaving narratives of local communities and significant characters, all informed by the Dorset landscape.

The impressive triple-height atrium flags up the three exhibition galleries on the ground, first and second floors, and has stairs down to the newly excavated archive space in the basement.

The ground floor geology gallery is where the journey starts, with fossilised dinosaur tracks and Roman footprints coupled on a plinth just inside this gallery, signifying two major events in Dorset’s geological and cultural evolution.

Real Studios worked closely with the museum’s accessibility team to ensure that the museum meets the needs of all visitors.

The museum also has a new dedicated archive, new education spaces and the original Victorian library has been restored to create a public reading room with additional study and work areas.

Dorset Museum has been transformed into a vital local and regional asset, and a far more coherent and engaging visitor experience. This key museum’s impact on Dorchester’s historic quarter and its cultural and tourism offer will bring economic, educational and social benefits to the whole county.

Stories for all

A glass wall in the basement enables visitors to view the storage area and, on occasion, visitors can tour the stores and access the collections for research. Other spaces in the extension include a Story Space next to the Hardy galleries where copies of his novels can be read. 

The development successfully showcases the history and culture of the county of Dorset. However, given the importance of the county’s landscape, containing as it does a Unesco World Heritage Site, and the reputations of the artists and writers who lived there, Dorset Museum is of national importance, and this has been revealed by the new galleries. A visitor could easily spend a day in any one of these and return on numerous occasions for research, education or simple enjoyment.

Peter Mason is a local historian

Correction: The review published under Peter Mason's name in the January/February issue of Museums Journal was wrongly attributed to him.

Project data
Cost
£16.4m
Main funders
National Lottery Heritage Fund; Arts Council England; Garfield Weston Foundation
Concept architect
Carmody Groake
Exhibition design
Real Studios
Interior design
Real Studios
Main contractor
Acheson Construction
Exhibition fit-out
The Hub
Showcases
Armour Systems
Mount-making
Colin Lindley
AV and interactives
Elbow
Model-making
RAE Models
Collections and library storage
Bruynzeel Storage Systems
Admission
Adult £15; child £8

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