History isn’t dead: how the old can bring life to the new

The proud restoration of the old magistrates court to create the new St Albans Museum + Gallery

The proud restoration of the old magistrates court to create the new St Albans Museum + Gallery

Barbara Hepworth exhibition in the new gallery.

Barbara Hepworth exhibition in the new gallery.

New developments, however successful, can often be devoid of the texture and history that gives a place both authenticity and identity. Identikit developments have spread throughout our cities, creating homogenous and repetitive shopfronts and brands. On the ground floor, our streetscapes and pavements are becoming bereft of character and individuality. Retaining and integrating texture and history, however small gives places personality. Small individual buildings or just an odd old wall are worth integrating into new developments. A good example, which we have been involved with is the new Museum + Gallery in St. Albans.

 St. Albans City has many years of trade in a bustling marketing place along Watling Street, a Roman road. Soldiers, children, market traders and ceremonial processions have kept this place active and lively for over 2000 years.

In 2017, despite the city retaining its major traders, the central building - an old magistrates court - was largely abandoned. The hallway was being used to sell second hand books and other spaces were simply locked up. The building was seemingly too quirky, individual and expensive to have any future.

With great vision and determination, the city council appointed a design team (including ourselves) and spearheaded a project to turn around this sad situation. Together we set about a plan to reinstate the building’s presence within the city centre, with the design of new galleries and exhibitions. The business plan was radical : a free museum and gallery, that paid for itself through an events programme that would bring activity not just to the historic building, but the streets and market place beyond its entrance doors.

We laid out the building to mix civic and fee earning events. A new independent local café at the building’s entrance tempts people into the museum and gallery. Its outdoor seating spills out into the marketplace and enlivens the city.

It is almost 1 year since we finished working there and the building was reopened. Last week we returned to St. Albans for a visit of the museum and gallery, with Councillor Annie Brewster. We wanted to see how the museum was settling in. What a contrast to our first site visit over 4 years ago! The historic building no longer sits silent, instead the museum and gallery has become a place to be, a place to visit and brings life and activity in the heart of St. Albans.

Since its opening the museum and gallery has won several design awards. The Vault Gallery, which was dug out under the listed building, has accommodated 4 very different exhibitions and now has a beautiful exhibition of sculpture and drawings by Barbara Hepworth. The showcases that we designed are full of memorabilia and fascinating supporting artefacts about her local connections. It’s of a stunning quality, as good as any exhibition in a national gallery. An exhibition of this quality could never have been dreamed of before the refurbishment.

On the first floor is the Assembly Room which looks onto the city market place. In the year since its restoration it has held weddings, fashion shows, awards ceremonies and classes. It is a multifunctional room with generous proportions, for everyone to share, at the heart of the city.

Unlocking the hidden opportunities in this building to house history, art and commerce has brought activity, personality and individuality to the old marketplace again. In St Albans history is not dead : it is bringing new life.

 To read more about the project please click here.

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