Gulbenkian Prize Readers' Poll - Museum Of Barnstaple & North Devon

By Caroline Lewis | 24 January 2005
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Shows a photo of some white painted Arts and Crafts furniture. In the foreground, a hand is pointing at some sepia photos of furniture in a yellowed book. The holder, a woman, is reflected in the mirror of a wardrobe.

Claire Gulliver, Project Co-ordinator, with the Shapland & Petter display. © Mark Passmore. Courtesy Colman Getty.

**Voting for the readers' poll has now closed**

Between now and March, judges will be visiting the museums shortlisted for the UK’s largest arts prize, the third Gulbenkian Prize for Museum of the Year.

Here at the 24 Hour Museum, we want to know who you think should win the prize. Click here to see the full shortlist and vote for the museum you think should receive the £100,000, or read on to find out how the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon came to be on the shortlist.

The Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon is one of the smallest-scale museums shortlisted for the Gulbenkian, but the project which has propelled it onto the list alongside the big guys is based on a crucial piece of local history that is in turn part of international design history.

Shapland & Petter: 150 years is a research and community project centred on one of the town’s biggest employers, a furniture manufacturer that was once at the height of the Victorian Arts and Crafts vogue.

The project brings together oral history, digitisation and design research and is fuelling a renaissance of interest in the Arts and Crafts manufacturer.

Shows a photo of a man interviewing a two people, a man and a woman, both over 60.

The museum now has not only the company's design archive, but a great oral history resource. Courtesy Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon.

“They’re a critical part of the town’s industrial heritage,” Claire Gulliver, Project Co-ordinator explains. Back in the mid-19th century, the company’s founder, Henry Shapland, picked up the latest manufacturing techniques in America and returning to south-west England joined forces with accountant Henry Petter.

“The small business just grew and grew and came to be at the forefront of the Arts and Crafts movement,” continues Claire. “They were selling to all the fashionable people, in London, all over the country and overseas.”

However, although the company was competing with such famous names as Liberty & Co at the turn of the century, its name is not as well known these days and the project seeks to address this.

“They only make doors now,” says Claire, “and a lot of people don’t realise that they used to be so important. We hope the project will reclaim some pieces of furniture that can be identified as Shapland and Petter, as some were sold under other makers’ names or the name of the showroom.”

Shows a photo of a man and a woman, holding a large book. Around them is the display of furniture and interpretive boards.

Alison Mills and Ian Gooding, Group Operations Director, Leaderflush Shapland. © Mark Passmore. Courtesy Colman Getty.

The company is still at the heart of the town, in the works to which it moved in 1888, but it has merged to become Leaderflush Shapland and plans are afoot to relocate to out-of-town premises.

The museum acquired the company’s design archive from Leaderflush Shapland, which, along with the 150th anniversary of its establishment, initiated the project. The main Shapland & Petter exhibition will be held in May and June, coinciding with the V&A’s International Arts and Crafts exhibition. However, the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon will be taking a different slant on things.

“We were very keen that it wasn’t just the decorative arts experts who were involved,” says Claire, “so we’ve been talking to past and present employees who’ve been able to contribute their experiences and memories of actually working there – what life was like, what it meant to work there. So we’ve got not only the designs, but also audio and video recordings – there’s even a recording from the 1950s, which is wonderful.”

Shows a black and white photo of a bridge across a river, behind which is a complex of large buildings with a tall smoke stack.

The 1888 Shapland & Petter works. The Arts and Crafts furniture can now reach high prices. Courtesy Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon.

Many people have come forward to be involved in the project, from retired employees to secondary school children. An education pack has been put together for use in design and technology classes, which Development Manager Alison Mills hopes will attract girls to the subject because of the design element.

“Lots of local children have connections to the company – their parents or grandparents have worked there,” says Alison. “Wouldn’t it be great if some of these kids took the designs and went off and made some Shapland & Petter furniture?”

Much of the furniture was made to standard designs and mass-produced, but it was all put together by skilled technicians. A permanent digitised archive of the company’s work will demonstrate its range, quality and ethos, which still informs the present staff.

So why should Shapland & Petter: 150 years win the Gulbenkian money for Barnstaple and North Devon?

Claire says: “I suppose because its such an innovative combination, it’s a local and a national project at the same time. We’re very proud of what we have achieved, working with very tiny resources – both cash and staffing.”

Shows a photo of some interpretive boards from the display.

The company is a crucial part of Barnstaple's industrial history and many people have a connection to the works. © Mark Passmore. Courtesy Colman Getty.

The project was realised at a cost of £100,000, mainly from Heritage Lottery Funding. The museum staff can be counted on the fingers of one hand and are supported by volunteers.

Alison agrees: “We’ve found something about our town that’s of national and international importance… and it’s very topical locally. It’s not a dead industry – it was great once and it’s still great.” She hopes that the V&A will acknowledge Shapland & Petter’s importance and include one of their pieces in the London museum’s major exhibition this year.

“It would be a huge amount of money for us,” adds Claire. “There are all sorts of things we’d like to do, such as use the approach on another project. We would ultimately like to create a 20th century gallery.”

“I would love to be able to do something to look after our collections,” says Alison, “to safeguard them for the future. We’ve also had a long-standing ambition to revamp the upstairs of the museum and turn it into a dedicated 20th century gallery with an emphasis on social history, what it’s like to live in North Devon – pin down what’s special about the area.”

The 24 Hour Museum is conducting a poll to find out who our readers want to win the Gulbenkian Prize 2005.

To vote for the Museum of Barnstaple and North Devon, click here.

Between now and March, we will have features on each of the shortlisted museums, so if you haven’t decided who to vote for yet, make sure to read all about it on 24 Hour Museum.

To find out more about the Gulbenkian Prize, click on this link to visit the website.

**Voting for the readers' poll has now closed**

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