£3.7m to transform Maidstone museum
PUBLISHED: 15:09 25 January 2010 | UPDATED: 16:34 20 February 2013
An ambitious museum redevelopment is helping Maidstone recapture its role as Kent's county town...
When I worked in Maidstone more than five years ago, our offices were based in Pudding Lane, just round the corner from a massive building site on the site of the old Fremlins brewery.
To be honest, I wasnt overly impressed by Maidstone back then. It seemed to be a county town by name only, and it had the feel of a tired market town that had seen better days. In fact, there wasnt even a decent market.
I can remember when, as a child growing up in Swanley, we would go on days trips to Maidstone my dad would take me to see the sights and smells of the livestock market, while my mum would make a beeline for the busy shops.
I havent been to Maidstone for several years and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised. The town has got its buzz back, and has woken from its slumbers.
The livestock market has gone for ever, but the shops are back with a vengeance. A feat all the more incredible after a year that has sounded the death knell for so many retail outfits.
The former building site is now Fremlin Walk, a bustling shopping throughfare, with a flagship House of Fraser department store, just like every decent shopping experience should have at its heart. And there are plenty of independent shops to give the town its individuality.
The towns tourism manager, Laura Dickson, is proud of the way Maidstones retail sector has coped with the recession.
The town centre has held up well. We have lost some shops but we have had new shops opening, as well as new restaurants in Earl Street. There is also a new restaurant on a barge on the river. The two river boats running up to the Kent Life museum (no relation! - Ed) have also been a success, she says.
There is another Maidstone success story worth shouting about: the towns museum. The East Wing of the museum is about to close while work starts on a hugely ambitious renovation and development project, which will propel the homely museum into a 21st-century attraction.
This wonderful museum is already a joy to visit, but it has so much more to offer. With more than 600,000 artefacts and specimens, it has the largest collection in Kent and is one of the best regional museums in the south east. But so much is hidden away from public eyes, due to lack of space and staff have only been able to exhibit two per cent of their collection.
Now a 3.7m is being invested to transform the museum, with 2m being allocated by the National Lottery. The Heritage Lottery Fund described the Museum as a treasure trove. They were impressed by the outstanding quality and staggering diversity of the collection, including:
Native art from North and SouthAmerica, the Pacific and Australasia.
The finest ceramics collection inthe region.
The best collection of artefacts from the richest Anglo-Saxon region of England.
More than 6,000 paintings, printsand drawings and sculpture byEpstein and Moore.
The most important collection of Japanese Edo-period artoutside London.
A comprehensive record of Britishflora and fauna and tens ofthousands of natural history specimens from Europe and the Far East.
Medals and memorabilia from theQueens Own Royal West KentRegimental collection.
40,000 fossils including the remains of Maidstones very own dinosaur,the Iguanodon.
The lottery grant was awarded as a result of the hard work and dedication of the curators and volunteers, led by the Museums and Heritage Manager, Simon Lace. He is delighted that the museum will be able to do justice to the collection. As the county museum of Kent we do have some amazing collections including Egyptian, ethnographic, art and local history, he says.
We have a gigantic natural history collection we have boxes with 200,000 insects and one of the finest collections of Japanese art. We had an expert come down from the Victoria and Albert museum to assess and verify the Japanese collection and he concluded it is one of the best five Japanese collections in the UK. We are eminently lucky to have this resource.
Simon adds: The museum has been extremely successful over the last few years. In the last five years, visitor numbers have doubled and they will now double again. Five years ago we had 1,500 schoolchildren visiting. Now our school and group parties bring in 9,000 children.
However we have had barriers which prevent even greater use of the Museum. Public facilities are below the standard which our visitors deserve and getting around the Museum is difficult, as there are 11 changes of floor level.
We have tried to improve accessibility, but there is only so much we can do at present. Accessibility is at the heart of the redevelopment plans.
Expanding the museum has created its own challenges. The core of the museum is a Tudor manor house dating from 1561. It was acquired by the council, along with its contents in 1855 from the estate of Thomas Charles, a local doctor. The Charles Museum was opened three years later.
In the late 19th century, local benefactors added huge wings to the Elizabethan mansion to house the growing collections and now the whole magnificent edifice is Grade II* listed.
So how do you expand a building with so much character? Simon was adamant that the new designs would be bold and exciting. We wanted something completely different to avoid it being a pastiche. We wanted a modern and functional design.
The design contract was awarded to Hugh Broughton Architects who won a Royal Institute of British Architects competition to develop designs for the new East Wing. Their design reveals the buildings 450-year history while providing a bold contemporary appearance that draws attention to the museum and towns rich heritage.
New elevations will combine glazing with diamond-shaped copper-alloy panels, creating a contemporary contrast to the existing brick buildings. Copper alloy has been chosen for its appearance and durability. The entrance will be re-positioned to the east end, bringing the Museum closer to the town centre, and will also house the Visitor Information Centre which will further boost visitor numbers.
In 2012/13, the first full year of operation, it is estimated more than 120,000 people will visit (almost double the number visiting in 06/07).
An orientation space will introduce visitors to the diversity of the collections with wow factor exhibits such as a 9m long Solomon Islands war canoe and a prime site for the life-size maquette of the Lady Godiva statue, which was created by renowned artist John Thomas. The development will also open up access to the gardens.
Simon is rightly proud of the ambitious plans for the museum, but he does have one regret. Now Im no longer a curator, more of a bureaucrat, and I work with curators. I do miss curating, especially when the paperwork gets too much.
But any regrets are quickly dismissed as he enthusiastically details the future plans. We want to use the collections more imaginatively, and the redevelopment will give us this opportunity, he says.
We should have the builders on site in March and work should be complete by March 2011. There will be a 16-week fit out, ready for opening in summer 2011. During the works, the museum will remain open only the East Wing will be closed.
With its grand museum and vibrant shopping, Maidstone is now living up to its billing as the county town. If, like me, you havent visited Maidstone for a while, give it a try, you may be pleasantly surprised.
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