The Abbot’s Hall Project – work begins at last

I’ve just read the first of Maria Balshaw’s blog about the capital development at the Whitworth Art Gallery, so in very unoriginal fashion I’ve decided to write my own account of MEAL’s major development plans. Today was the first meeting of our Design Team to begin, the tendering process (in architectural speak RIBA stage F) to restore Abbot’s Hall, its walled garden, Crowe Street Cottages and to re-erect the old Settling House from Bury St Edmunds cattle market. It’s the largest project the museum has ever embarked upon and it’s taken three years from the submission of the application to the Heritage Lottery Fund to get to the compilation of the tenders for construction. Next week contractors come in to remove asbestos from the basement of the Hall and the potting shed from the Walled Garden. Builders will be on site from the beginning of November when the project begins in earnest

Abbot’s Hall is a splendid Queen Anne house and was the centre of the farming estate which the museum now occupies. In the hall we’ll be creating nine exhibition rooms (two of which will be for temporary shows). The displays will look at notions of home and belonging in East Anglia. Aside from retelling the story of the house we’ll be looking a number of subjects which illustrate the peculiarity and distinctiveness of life in the region, some of these are:

The work oral historian George Ewart Evans whose 12 books about custom and tradition influenced a generation of social historians.

The story of St Audry’s psychiatric institution in Melton for whose patients home life was characterised by apartness from their home communities .

Work with a Gypsy Traveller visual artist to explore notions of home alongside our own Romany collections including a beautiful floral tribute created for the funeral of a community leader back in the early 1980s.

In subsequent blogs I’ll give details of other elements of the development such as the works to the Walled Garden and Crowe Street Cottages.

We have a great team to help us realise our ambitions. In-house, our project manager Rachel and and  Museum Curator, Lisa will be overseeing contractors and content development. We are working with highly respected architects Purcell Miller Tritton and exhibition designers Bright 3D to ensure the buildings are respectfully transformed and the public are inspired by new galleries. It’s a joy working with specialists who take great delight in what I’d consider routine. Today Mark, the Mechanical and Electrical contractor was pleased to learn that electrical services to Crowe Street cottages will remain above ground. This despite being connected to what I’d consider a very obtrusive and unprepossessing telegraph pole situated a patch of land opposite the buildings. Apparently all connections in large towns such as Cambridge and Ipswich are now below ground and a surface supply is unusual. To compound this we discovered that Stowmarket was one of the first towns in Britain to install a standard electricity supply. This was carried out in he 1880s under the aegis of one William Prentice, the owner of Abbot’s Hall. This ‘discovery’ illustrates that even in the mundane and unlovely, there is curiousity

For the town of Stowmarket the Abbot’s Hall project reveals a hidden gem. As the former manor of Stow, the hall has forever been a private residence and will at last be open to the public. For the museum, the work reunites the Hall with the farming estate it once served and enables us to construct a richer narrative about East Anglian life. For me, the project has dominated three and a half years of my working life… I’ll be so glad when it’s finished.

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