Nelson Boarding a Captured Ship, 20th November 1777, Richard Westall (1765 - 1836). © National Maritime Museum.
24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Journalist Olivia Laing ventured deep into the New Forest to see how a small independent museum is rapidly becoming one of the most innovative exhibition sites in the country.
The town of Lymington, set deep in the New Forest and lapped by the Solent, has never historically had a museum. But in 1998, the Lymington Museum Trust purchased an ex-primary school in the centre of town and, with great vision and persistence, turned it in to one of the country’s most dynamic independent museums.
Along with a social history collection, the museum boasts an art gallery with an impressive exhibition profile. Showing such luminaries as Picasso, Matisse and Hockney, St Barbe well exceeds expectations for the average local museum.
According to curator Steve Marshall, St Barbe has always aimed high.
“There’s always been an ambition, originally on the part of the trust," he tells me, "and I think the staff and the volunteers have picked that up. The trustees always envisaged that there would be a very high quality art gallery here.”
The gallery interior at St Barbe Museum. Courtesy St Barbe Museum.
While to many smaller regional museums the idea of showing work of national quality may seem intimidating, Marshall insists that the process has been relatively straightforward.
“Government indemnity standards were the thing, so that we’d have the ability to borrow from the national collections. That was built into the brief from early on, so we’ve always had the environmental controls in place.”
Once temperature, humidity and security issues were established, it was a matter of building up relations with the national museums. St Barbe have borrowed over the years from the National Maritime Museum, Tate, the Hayward Gallery and the V&A.
In a testament to their achievement Roy Clare, director of the National Maritime Museum, suggests that “St Barbe’s professionalism and innovative attitude have contributed to the success”.
The Battle of Trafalgar, 21st October 1805: Fall of Nelson, Denis Dighton (1792-1827).© National Maritime Museum.
The other side to this success is that St Barbe is deeply involved in, and aware of, the needs of the community. As Steve observes, “people can actually come and see an exhibition of Picassos on their doorstep. On some of the more ambitious exhibitions we see it as an important part of our remit, that, yes we are putting on these national quality exhibitions, but we’re doing it for our community.”
As such, many of the eight annual exhibitions have a local theme or display work of local appeal. In keeping with the town’s motto of “by sea and forest enchanted”, exhibitions of maritime art or paintings inspired by the New Forest are of special interest.
Shows have included Sea Change, an exhibition of paintings by war artist Richard Eurich, as well as the current show, Nelson Through Artist’s Eyes, which draws together paintings, prints and ceramics in a celebration of “Britain’s most illustrious sailor”.
A show that won St Barbe considerable accolades was The Gypsy Rai, paintings by bohemian artist Sven Berlin, who lived with Forest Gypsies from 1953 to 1970.
Sculpture from The Gypsy Rai exhibition by Sven Berlin. Courtesy St Barbe Museum.
The exhibition attracted many members of the Gypsy community (the New Forest’s largest ethnic minority) and, according to the museum, “is used as a model of how to encourage social inclusion”.
One visitor, who had previously been rather ashamed of her background, commented that “seeing her family on the walls of an art gallery made her realise that her heritage was something to be proud of, and not something to hide”.
Making links with and supporting the local community is something that St Barbe excels at. It supports Renaissance in the Regions by working closely with the South East Hub in developing museum provision in the New Forest.
Transport is poor within the Forest, and as such outreach and access are taken very seriously. The museum provides a schools service, run by Mark Tomlinson.
Artist leading a family workshop at St. Barbe Museum. Courtesy St Barbe Museum.
“Where a regional rural school would struggle to come here, we can take the museum to them. We take handling collections and costumes and work with the teachers and children. It’s been very successful and there’s a great demand for it”, Steve explained.
The museum’s learning programme is supported by New Forest District Council and the team provide learning support for six other museums across the region. As Steve points out, for “a small independent museum with two full-time members of staff, that is quite something!”
Selected by The Guardian as one of the Top 20 Museums to visit in the UK, St Barbe has also been described by Ken Thornber, leader of Hampshire County Council, as “something of a model independent museum”.
Participants at St. Barbe's Big Draw workshop, run jointly with theLymington & Keyhaven Nature Reserve.
But the museum has no intention of resting on its laurels. The 2006 exhibitions programme already includes Matisse, war artist Evelyn Dunbar and maritime painter Nigel Hughes. A model St Barbe may be, but static it certainly is not!
Olivia Laing is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.