Tuesday, 21 May 2013

Want to Know What's Going on Inside Our Town's Music Hall? Here's Your Chance to Find Out

An extraordinary project is taking place in the heart of Shrewsbury and most people, if they’re anything like me, won’t know much about it.  I’m talking about the Music Hall, soon to become Shrewsbury’s Museum and Art Gallery.  Like many of you I’ve wondered what’s going on behind the old Music Hall’s dusty windows and closed doors. I’ve also wondered whether the move from the museum’s current location at Rowley’s House [such an iconic building on the Shrewsbury landscape] would be worth all the expense.

I have to tell you though, that I’m not wondering any more.  Last week, courtesy of Tim Jenkins, Heritage Project Manager, I was able to see for myself the changes being made to the Music Hall and catch the vision of what lies ahead.

And what a vision it is.  Even amid bricks and scaffolding, plaster lime washes, drilling, shoring and rebuilding, it’s obvious that something very special is happening in our town.  For two hours last week, as part of a small group, I picked my way through the vast open spaces that will soon be galleries housing everything from Shropshire’s prehistoric collection and its collection of Roman artifacts, right through history to the modern day.  There will be Medieval, Tudor and Stuart galleries. A large collection of paintings will be on show, some of which have never been exhibited before. A dedicated education suite, including lecture, conference and seminar rooms, is being built sponsored by the Walker Trust.  And right along the front of the building at first floor level, looking down upon the Square and the Old Market Hall, will be a gallery with the potential to house national and international touring exhibitions. 

Add to all of that a 13th century mansion of national importance – which is what we have in Vaughan’s Mansion – and it’ll be obvious that not only the exhibits, but the building itself will be important once the museum is open.  And, interestingly, if it wasn’t for the current building work, there’d be no Vaughan’s Mansion. Early in the building process it was discovered that over time [and due in part to serious manhandling in the 1980s], it had dislodged itself from the main body of the Music Hall and was tilting dangerously in the direction of the Benbow pub. Since then a vast amount of work has gone into saving it.  In addition, in clearing the ground around it, an ancient space has been re-born. The courtyard of William Vaughan’s mansion has emerged afresh from many years of being covered over by unsympathetic outbuildings. It’s set to become one of the major open spaces in the town centre.  

How much do you know about the old Music Hall? Like much of the Square, it’s situated on what was once an ice-age kettle hole, which means that building on that site has always been a bit of a geological nightmare. The original building was positioned between two higher parts of the Saxon town separated by the town pond in which nagging women were ducked [see my post on the subject, A Bog, A Square And One Big Stink].  In the 13th century the whole area was re-planned to create a new market place. The pond was filled in and its adjoining slopes terraced. Vaughan’s Mansion was built circa 1290 at one end of this new civic place, but hidden behind the street frontage. The classical frontage we now all see on the Square was built by the Haycock brothers, who were responsible for much of the buildings of that period in our town. Behind that frontage, to the left, stood the early Victorian Assembly Rooms. Then right across the building the Victorian Public Rooms were installed. In the cellar at the front of the building was a coffee house. And running through it all was what had once been the medieval passageway, Fire Office Passage, where ladders for the fire service were hung along the walls.

According to Tim Jenkins, when Fire Office Passage has been restored with York stone paving and lime washed walls, that old sense of public passageway will return to it.  You’ll probably know this part of the old Music Hall better as the entrance lobby leading down to the ticket office. Beyond that old ticket office, the Victorian staircase is being restored, and upstairs a view of the auditorium from gallery level was one of the highlights of the tour. 

It’s amazing to see some of these huge old spaces coming back to life. Maybe you’ll remember, as I do, the ceiling of the auditorium being painted a ghastly shade of murderous red. Almost none of the molding was on show.  Now it’s been restored to its original colours, and every last detail of decoration is on show too, courtesy of light pouring through windows that most of us will only remember as being blacked out.  It’s an incredible ceiling, and the auditorium beneath it looks pretty good too.  Once the Beatles performed in this auditorium. Soon it will be the museum’s main collections that are performing - all the way from mammoths through to Darwin.

This isn’t the first museum on this site, you know. In the 1850s, Shrewsbury’s first museum was opened here, one of the originals of its kind in the country. However, by this time, as part of ongoing work on the Assembly Rooms, a section of Vaughan’s Mansion had been destroyed.  This pattern continued, and right up until the 1980s a cavalier attitude to the value of Vaughan’s Mansion meant that much else was destroyed. In fact, according to Tim Jenkins, it was generally believed that in 1917 all of the roof of Vaughan’s Mansion was lost, but during the current building works the original 17th century roof over its west wing was found to be intact, if in desperate need of restoration. 

The mansion belonging to William Vaughan, wool merchant, has been carefully restored now, and is heading to be the jewel in the new Musuem and Art Gallery’s crown.  Its windows, walls and doors date back to 1290, its roofs to 1470 and 1623 and builders have introduced steel posts to stop the screen on its end wall from dropping through to the lower floor. When the work is finished, its gable end will be restored to its Jacobean splendour, and the craftsmanship of Shrewsbury’s 16-17th   century School of Carpentry will be on view.  In the undercroft beneath the mansion [where the old cinema was – remember all those films that used to break down?] massive two-and-a-half tonne beams have been installed to create a space where Shrewsbury’s Prehistoric and Roman exhibits can be shown.   It will lead out into Vaughan’s Mansion’s courtyard where there will be seating, an area for eating and drinking and space for performances.  This will be the first time in 150 years that this space has been opened out.  

I have to tell you that I’ve gone from wondering what the fuss was all about to thinking that Shrewsbury’s Museum and Art Gallery is really going to put our town on the map. What captured my imagination more than anything else [and a lot captured my imagination, believe me] was that gallery at the front of the building, designated for national and international touring exhibitions. It was the one thing above all others that stopped me in my tracks.  Currently the room is full of scaffolding and looks a mess, but the potential is undeniable.  The space is huge, and with its windows looking out over the Square and Old Market Hall, it’s going to be a beautiful room.

Already talks are under way with national institutions about the possibility of bringing major traveling exhibitions to our town. These would provide a fantastic draw for the museum.  Anybody coming in for them would find a wealth of other things to interest them, all housed in a building that’s of interest in its own right. We have plenty to be proud of here in Shrewsbury. Our Roman collection, courtesy of Wroxeter, is very fine.  We have the best Caughley and Coalport anywhere outside of the Victoria & Albert Museum. A year or so ago I glimpsed some of the collection of paintings that are currently stored in Rowley’s House, and what a fine collection it is. We even [if what I’m told is correct] have the bloody rag that once was used to wrap around Charles I’s severed head!

I am so excited by the potential of this Museum and Art Gallery.  What we have here could make a difference not just to Shrewsbury but the whole of Shropshire. For two hours last week, kitted out in jerkins, goggles, hard hats and hobnailed boots, our little group picked its way between builders and building work. We saw galleries, open spaces, teaching spaces and areas for cafes and shops. We caught a glimpse of the 1960s nuclear bunker that has always been a bit of a Shrewsbury urban myth - and yes, it really does exist, fitted to sleep twelve in the event of nuclear war, but containing one fatal flaw – a window.  We also saw the remains of the cells where prisoners were held for trial when the assize courts were held in the old Shirehall on The Square.

So what stood out most? I think for me it had to be that auditorium with the light pouring in.  Beyond its windows I could see the rooftops, ridges and chimney pots not only of Vaughan’s Mansion, but of much of our town.  It’s a living, vibrant town with a contemporary 21st feel, but I don’t think anybody in Shrewsbury would deny that it’s a museum too, in its own right.  We’re proud of Shrewsbury’s history and its fine old buildings, and here in its heart, we’ll soon have a Museum and Art Gallery to be proud of too.  

One of the aims of My Tonight From Shrewsbury was to get behind closed doors. Well, I’m telling you that behind the doors of the Old Music Hall, floors are waiting to be paved, walls to be lime-washed and galleries to house their first exhibits.  It may still look like a building site, but the lion’s share of work is done, the building has been restored and, in some cases, saved - and by Christmas this year it will be open to the public.

I can’t wait to see it in its final glorious state. 

-If I find out any more, I’ll keep you posted.

-If you want to see more, here’s a YouTube clip.

-The other members of the group photograph are John Long, David Waterhouse, Sir William Francis, Tim Jenkins and Howard Franklin  


  1. Th Museum is looking for volunteers for the packing up from Rowley's House, for cataloguing, and for various tasks once the Museum is opened.

  2. Sounds like something that would be good to get involved with. Thanks for that.

  3. Here in Herefordshire, the County Council want to close all our museums, and all but one of the counties libraries (oh, and all the public toilets, too!). I'm glad to see Shrewsbury has the right priorities about its history. I've re-blogged this on Morwenna's Tower, my writing blog, where I've been talking about museums.

  4. Eigon, this is not good news. I am so sorry. On this issue we have much to be thankful for here in Shropshire. But then you in Herefordshire do too. Your county has both history and mythology to be proud of. What a shame not to make more of it. I spent a lot of time on and around the Wye when I was researching for my novel The Red Judge, and came across some fascinating stories. I'll take a look at Morwenna's Tower and see what you say.