“I am desperate to bring people in again”: small museums in England on reopening

As indoor attractions welcome visitors back, four museums tells us how they’ll showcase new exhibitions after a particularly tough year

Wordsworth Grasmere, Lake District

From the new rooftop viewing deck of the Wordsworth museum, the veil of Grasmere looks mottled and spongy on a waterlogged day. The hills are smudged out by an ethereal cloud line that seeps into the fields beyond the four chimneys of Dove Cottage. From up here, it’s clear that the inspiration for Wordsworth’s poetry started right at his front door.

The rooftop deck, along with new garden paths and two glass walls inside the museum that look on to the hills and village, are designed to reconnect Wordsworth’s poetry to the landscape in which he created it – a key aim of the £6.5m transformation of his former home into a 21st-century attraction. Period paintings of the Lakes also punctuate the new gallery-like space, and the singsong of cuckoos and linnets that Wordsworth describes in his poems is played through the rooms.

Wordsworth Museum

Grounding the attraction in its location, the museum has been rebranded as Wordsworth Grasmere for its reopening, and community involvement has never been greater. After a year-long closure, it should have launched to much fanfare on the 250th anniversary of Wordsworth’s birth last April, but then Covid hit.

Dove Cottage briefly opened last August with immersive audio and new exhibits that restore the cottage to what it would have looked like in Wordsworth’s day. But building work on the neighbouring museum (which now has 50% more permanent gallery space) and the new roof deck was hit by Covid, and these two key elements will finally open on 18 May.

“Lockdown’s been pretty tough for us because we’d already gone a year without visitor income when Covid hit,” says museum director Michael McGregor.

If it weren’t for emergency funding from the Arts Council, Culture Recovery Fund and the local authority, the museum would be in severe difficulty. “Now that funding is tailing off, we need to get people in, but the visitor market is by no means anywhere near back to pre-pandemic levels,” says McGregor.

Continuing Covid restrictions means Dove Cottage and the museum will open with capacity capped at 50%, but few other adaptations have been needed.

The brief for the museum overhaul was to reimagine Wordsworth, giving contemporary context to a man who died in 1850, in a bid to reverse declining visitor numbers. “The project is built on three foundations: people, poetry and place,” says McGregor.

Technology enhances the journey through the museum, starting with a double-height wall of illuminated poetry quotes and ending in an audio-visual space with looped readings of Wordsworth’s works, including The Prelude spoken by Sir Ian McKellen, set to a Lakes landscape film.

The Cumbrian slate-coloured galleries also give space to diverse voices through films and manuscripts, including a prominent feminine influence on Wordsworth’s life – his sister Dorothy, who wrote the Grasmere Journals.
Adult £12, child £5, fives and under free, family £20-£32.00 (or £8.50/£4/£15-£23 without cottage entrance), wordsworth.org.uk
Lorna Parkes

Thackray Museum of Medicine, Leeds

Thackray Museum of Medicine, Leeds.

When the Thackray Museum of Medicine was forced to put its £4m reopening plans on hold because of the third lockdown in November, it became the first museum in the UK to be used as a vaccine hub instead. Thackray’s medical director, Prof Simon Kay, even volunteered at the centre, which has now delivered 50,000 jabs.

The museum, housed in a Grade II-listed Victorian workhouse on the grounds of St James’s Hospital, has amassed a nationally important collection of 55,000 objects covering the history of healthcare. Thackray himself was a local maker of surgical instruments.

After an 18-month closure to upgrade the museum, including building work setbacks, Covid came as a kick in the teeth for the team at Thackray. But they’ve continued to work throughout the pandemic to adapt for a Covid-safe reopening on 17 May, and have incorporated an outdoor cafe seating area.

Staff had to think long and hard about the new interactive, tactile displays . “Some interactives will be in ‘quarantine’ when we open but for most we’ve adapted procedures so we can keep our galleries interactive,” says Sue Mackay, director of collections and programming.

As the museum benefits from a large footprint, it hasn’t needed to reduce visitor capacity to enable social distancing (but will introduce timed entry). Laid out over two floors and 11 galleries, Thackray charts the medical innovations that have changed our lives, through displays co-created with academics, medics, schools, community groups and artists.

The visitor journey follows the trajectory of medicine: out of the dark and into the light. It starts on a dimly lit, recreated Victorian Leeds street with immersive audio and video, then moves upstairs into light-filled galleries exploring innovations including antiseptic, imaging, diagnostics and assisted birth. Visitors can assess MRI scans on a light box and even try their hand at operating a machine to detect polyps in a colon.

As fate would have it, one of the new galleries, Response to Crisis, includes a wall dedicated to epidemics. Now the museum is collecting evidence related to the Covid pandemic, such as vaccine vials and oral histories, to add to its archive. Another exhibit, Disease Detectives, is about understanding germs – a topic that has never seemed more pertinent.
Adult £11.95, child £8.95, under-fives free, family £18-£43, thackraymuseum.co.uk

The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Boscastle, Cornwall

Museum of Witchcraft and Magic, Cornwall

When first established in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1951 by film director Cecil Williamson, the Museum of Witchcraft met with fierce opposition from some of the town’s god-fearing residents. Moving to an abandoned mill on the Isle of Man it gained its own resident witch – Wiccan founder Gerald Gardner – though the two men eventually fell out and Williamson returned to the mainland. There was further opposition when it relocated to Windsor and then Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds, and it finally found a home in Boscastle harbour in 1960, where it has remained ever since.

Renamed The Museum of Witchcraft and Magic by current director Simon Costin, it is home to the world’s largest collection of artefacts relating to witchcraft, ritual magic, cunning folk and Wicca, and houses an extensive library of occult literature.

As a small, independent museum it isn’t eligible for public funding; its main source of income is from door takings. For Costin that has meant not taking a wage over the last 12 months.

“I have a day job as a set designer. It could have been crippling for us had I not set aside my wage at the museum for six years in order for there to be some kind of reserve,” says Costin. “That’s what saved us. Staff were furloughed and topped up on full pay.

“And social media has really helped. We would have chewed through that money without Instagram. We have about 75,000 followers, which is remarkable for a small museum. We guided people to our online shop – to our books, jewellery and ritual objects like our handmade wooden athame [ceremonial blades]. That helped us survive.”

The museum opens its doors on 17 May but can only accept 25% capacity based on timed entrances, which means no more than 32 people in the building at a time. “We had to weigh up if it was actually worth us opening but I am so desperate to bring people in again.

“The shop has been moved from the front of the museum to avoid any congestion, which means we’ve lost a whole gallery. Items from the shop are now numbered and behind glass there. It works a bit like Argos,” Costin concludes. Except, instead of a folding chair or battery rechargers, it’s charms, amulets and black candles on sale.

This year also marks the museum’s 70th anniversary and includes a new exhibition, In the Land of the Bucca, themed around the folk magic, customs, myths and legends of Cornwall. To round off a visit, the shop will be selling pewter Cornish piskies (fairies) as lucky charms. You’ll have to go elsewhere for your Cornish pasties.
• Adult £7, child £5, under-fives free, museumofwitchcraftandmagic.co.uk
David Bramwell

Wilberforce House Museum, Hull

Wilberforce House Museum exterior view, Hull
Wilberforce House Museum exterior view, Hull Photograph: Prabhulal Prasanna

When lockdown came in March 2020, Wilberforce House Museum closed its doors to an uncertain future. Some staff were seconded to other jobs, working in Hull’s parks and libraries, but for others the museum work did not stop. Simon Green, director of museums for the city, soon realised there was an opportunity and a challenge: “We were fortunate to have the support of the council and realised we needed to deliver exhibitions digitally.”

For Wilberforce House it was actually the culmination of a long process that had been going on for a decade, updating and rethinking the displays to reflect modern approaches to the questions of slavery and abolition. There was also a recognition that although William Wilberforce had been an important part of the campaign to end slavery in the British Empire (culminating in the anti-slavery acts of 1807 and 1833), he was only one part of it, and slavery still exists. “We get visitors from the US who can spend two or three hours examining the house carefully,” says Green. “We have had to respond to that kind of scrutiny.”

In place of outdated mannequins, the rethink has brought displays that emphasise the horrors of slave ships: one new item is a simple outline that shows the space allocated to a single enslaved person. “I can’t actually get into it,” says Green. “It’s a sobering experience to try.” Items related to William Wilberforce himself still take pride of place, but there are also explanations of other campaigning lives in Hull: Lil Bilocca, for example, a trawlerman’s wife who responded to the 1968 triple trawler tragedy with a blistering campaign for safety. Harold Wilson’s government adopted all the proposals, but Lil lost her job in the fishing industry, received death threats and, unlike William Wilberforce, died in 1988 with her successful campaigning unrecognised and almost forgotten.

For the museum, last summer’s brief easing of regulations brought a painful realisation: it could not actually reopen. The house is a relatively small merchant’s dwelling that backs on to the historic River Hull, and free access with social distancing was impossible. Now the plan is to test small group guided tours that can be prebooked online. The reopening for Wilberforce will come in late June, although Hull’s other museums and galleries will be back, with online booking, on 17 May.

“It’s been a challenging time,” says Green, “But also a chance to reflect on what we do.” The next objective is a major realignment towards maritime heritage, backed by a £38m national lottery grant with a new museum that Lil Bilocca might have appreciated: a North Sea cod trawler, the Arctic Corsair, veteran of the Icelandic cod war, to open with a new visitor centre.
Free admission, humbermuseums.com
Kevin Rushby

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Take the kids to … Royal Armouries Museum, Leeds
A world-class weaponry and armour collection, from rare swords to an umbrella gun, is on display at this excellent, free family-friendly museum

Phoebe Taplin

12, Apr, 2019 @11:00 AM

Article image
Take the kids to … Bolton Abbey, Yorkshire Dales
Woodland trails, a river straddled by stepping stones and the ruins of a 12th-century priory make this beautiful swathe of countryside a brilliant adventure playground

Katie Gregory

24, May, 2019 @5:30 AM

Article image
What a Shambles: a walk around York’s ancient walls and alleys
A grand railway station and one of Europe’s largest gothic cathedrals contrast with tiny medieval lanes on this stroll through the ancient capital of England’s north

Alan Franks

12, Jul, 2017 @5:30 AM

Article image
Take the kids to … Millennium Gallery, Sheffield
This free art gallery and museum celebrates Sheffield steel along with big-name artists, including the work – and cats – of John Ruskin

Phoebe Taplin

29, May, 2019 @11:55 AM

Article image
Event highlights from the Great Exhibition of the North
Music, heritage, art and design are celebrated in and around Newcastle as part of this major cultural happening. Here are our picks – plus 5 more shows to see across the north

Will Coldwell

15, Jun, 2018 @5:30 AM

Article image
Seven extraordinary villages to visit in England and Wales
Quicksands, time capsules, witch trials, the Elephant Man … These atmospheric villages all have a twist in their tale

Tony Francis

27, Mar, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
The UK’s best living museums: readers’ top 10 travel tips
Bringing the past to life with historic buildings and costumed guides has revitalised the museum scene across the country

Guardian readers

07, Feb, 2019 @6:30 AM

Article image
Top 10 regional museums in England

The UK has some of the world's greatest museums. Looking beyond the well-known national collections, we select 10 regional gems from around England for a truly stimulating day out

John Orna-Ornstein, director of museums, Arts Council England

16, May, 2014 @11:14 AM

Article image
Top 10 museum renovations and reopenings in England for 2021
From Wordsworth to Thackray, Spitfires to railways … see old treasures in bright new spaces this summer

Rachel Dixon

04, Jun, 2021 @6:00 AM

Article image
Fort for the day: Britain’s ancient hilltop camps are waiting to be explored
Our writer joins a hill fort expert in North Yorkshire and finds himself inspired to investigate further. Plus five more UK earthworks sites

Kevin Rushby

10, Feb, 2022 @7:00 AM