Bedford Gallery and Museum completes first phase of plan to become "cultural quarter"

By Ben Miller | 08 April 2009
A picture of a brick building with a courtyard

The old Bedford Museum will undergo a complete overhaul

"I get frustrated that things don't happen quickly and instantly – I always want things immediately," admits John Moore, looking out over the courtyard behind The Bedford Gallery.

"But I think we know that we need a number of partners who all have different agendas to make it work, so we have to keep everybody on board and up to date. These things take much longer than you think they’re going to."

During a two-year development process, the Director has had to have patience on a par with the Grade II-listed building his Bedford Gallery has just moved into, which was previously unused for 35 years.

Moore has actually spent 10 years getting to this first stage of a scheme which eventually aims to unite the numerous ancient buildings within the surrounding complex into one landmark heritage centre for the town.

Below the gallery a second exhibition space doubles as a venue for meetings and talks, and beyond that, behind locked doors, lie dozens of rooms and derelict lobbies full of relics from the old gallery.

A picture of wooden boxes and glass cases in an empty room

Artefacts and cases from the old museum sit in rooms behind the new gallery

The main exhibition itself is both an impressive showcase of the excellent collection left to the gallery by Cecil Higgins and a neatly-designed, modern site to contrast its backdrop.

"You've seen there a glimpse into the future of the style and the feel that we want to develop," says Moore, relishing clean spaces and beautifully lit cases, as opposed to the crammed, ancient boxes of skulls and artefacts in the old rooms we've walked past which are, he feels, "crammed so full that you can't see the wood from the trees."

Erudite and dynamic, it's hard to do anything but root for Moore and his team to succeed, having taken over a museum and gallery with separate managements and multiple buildings.

"When you're passionate about something it can be quite difficult to buy everybody else in," he concedes.

"Of course it's not cheap, so it has been quite hard. It depends who you talk to and where they've come from. The council is very supportive generally, but there are some people who say, 'well, we're not interested in culture, let's save the money and close it.'"

A picture of an office with dated wallpaper and bare furnishings

Officials are hoping to renovate the rooms behind the scenes by 2012

This initial £2.5 million step, the majority of which has come from central Government sources, is as crucial for the momentum it initiates as the actual product.

"It's a bit like the Heineken effect – it reaches the parts others can't," quips Moore. "The Mayor was saying last night that he's really pleased to see phase one done because it starts the ball rolling to get the whole site finished and gives us the determination to complete it. It brings new people in and gets them talking about us.

"Some of those people might never even visit, but they know more about it and they'll tell other people, and it might be that they’re regularly in receipt of an outreach programme close to their community centre."

A picture of a modern gallery with chairs dotted around the room

The impressive downstairs gallery is also used as a space for meetings at talks

In an overwhelmingly multi-cultural town designated for Government Growth Area Funding (more than 20% of the population are from ethnic minorities), organisers have fostered a far-reaching education and community programme.

"Many people just love to know these places exist," Moore points out, expecting visitor numbers to reach 80,000 once building has been completed.

"They just want to know that their town celebrates their culture and past history. We've been able to employ two people to take our product out into the community, to groups who don’t even know we exist."

The location had literally been hidden from view – a mound obscuring the site has now been cut back – and the development of a nearby car park has given the complex a connection to the high street.

"That cultural regeneration of the town centre can only be good for Bedford," says Moore, who wants to have the majority of the £11.3 million for the full development project – including restaurant facilities, an extension of the entrance and vast expansions of the existing galleries and education schemes – in place by the end of 2009.

The local council has just become a unitary authority, taking on services for adult and children services and transport, and the idea to turn the museum into a cultural quarter has come from years of consultations with residents and discussions with council decision-makers.

"We took them to other towns and cities and said 'this is how using culture can help regenerate town centres,'" Moore recalls.

"We went to Coventry, Huddersfield, Knowsley in Liverpool, Basingstoke…not all the obvious places where you would naturally think of culture, your Gatesheads and Liverpools – they're in another league.

"We were looking at places where it had really made a difference, because that's what we want to do."

Click here to download further details and a full programme of events and exhibitions at the gallery until June 2009.

Look out for our exclusive curator's tour of the new Bedford Gallery next week.

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