Here's how Preston's Harris Museum plans to attract the best exhibitions when it it reopens in 2024

Preston’s Harris Museum could attract bigger and better exhibitions if it secures the cash needed to open up a disused space within the building.

Sunday, 12th December 2021, 5:55 pm
Updated Sunday, 12th December 2021, 5:58 pm

The city centre landmark closed back in October for three years’ worth of renovations as part of a plan to make the attraction more accessible and show off its architectural splendour.

The £10.7m “Reimagining the Harris” project aims to create the country’s first “blended” museum, art gallery and library – with the money coming from sources including the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Preston’s successful Towns Fund bid and the Arts Council.

However, Preston City Council has now agreed to submit an application for a further £585,000 in Arts Council funding in order to allow a complete overhaul of the Harris’s three special exhibition galleries, which are currently earmarked only for “light touch” improvements under the wider scheme.

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There are big plans for Preston's Harris Museum

A meeting of the full council gave the green light to make the fresh bid, which would see a partitioned area on the second floor – close to where the textiles collection was housed – brought back into use after around 30 years.

The aim of the additional upgrade is to create a more flexible gallery space, which would allow the Harris to display a wider range of artwork from its own collection, as well as material loaned from major galleries and museums. It would also enable the venue to put on show sensitive artwork, including photography and works on paper.

Cabinet member for culture, arts and the night-time economy, Peter Kelly, said that the hope was for the Harris to be able to boast ”an exhibition space that is equivalent to all of the other areas [of the country]”, which would increase the “probability of getting bigger touring exhibitions, because [we would have] much more space to put them in”.

The meeting heard that a successful bid for the Arts Council grant – from the organisation’s Capital Investment Programme – would form the last of four phases of further work that are intended to be undertaken in tandem with the main reimagining project. The other three focus on the building’s basement, masonry, windows and second-floor balcony and welcome area.

A decision from the Arts Council is expected in April 2022, at which point Cllr Kelly said that a “fully worked out programme of works” would be published. If the bid is successful, the city council will provide a £65,000 contribution to the cost of the improvements to the special exhibitions area, funded from an existing £200,000 Towns Fund pot for second-floor gallery works.

At the same meeting, councillors also approved Walton-le-Dale-based Conlon Construction as the preferred “main contractor” to carry out the building work as part of the reimagining scheme.

Papers presented to councillors revealed that the company’s pitch to lead the project had scored 86 percent in an assessment by the authority. Two other – unnamed – bidders both achieved between 40 and 50 percent.

The council has adopted a two-stage tender process meaning that the preferred contractor can now work with the design team to develop the details of the project, which councillors were told “should provide more certainty on the cost” and enable advice to be sought from specialist subcontractors – reducing some of the risks inherent in such a significant revamp.

In a statement after the meeting, Cllr Kelly said that the “ambitious plans and vision we’ve had for the Re-imagining the Harris project are now coming to fruition as we take this huge step forward”.

“We can’t wait to progress this project, which will deliver an incredible, revitalised space for residents and visitors to Preston to explore arts, culture and fantastic events in the years to come.”

Michael Conlon, chairman of Conlon Construction, described the Harris as “a beacon for the arts and culture in Lancashire” and said that the firm was ”delighted to be the preferred project partner in bringing this vision to reality”.

He added: “As a local business, proud of our Preston roots, we have worked previously at the Grade I-listed Harris, having constructed the Discover Preston Gallery just ahead of the 2012 Guild celebrations.

“Our appointment to this project is a key milestone as we celebrate our 60th anniversary this year and reflect upon decades of successfully contributing to the built environment of the city and the county.”

The council will appoint a main contractor for the delivery phase of the scheme next April, as part of the second stage of the tendering process.

The Harris is expected to reopen at some point in 2024. In the meantime, the venue’s library and IT facilities are available at the nearby Guild Hall.

HERE’S WHAT’S HAPPENING TO THE HARRIS

The original £10.7m Reimagining the Harris project includes:

“Major repair and conservation work to the roof, stonework and basement.

***Enhanced accessibility into and through the building, using its three historic entrances.

***Creation of a new “vertical circulation core”, with lift and staircase.

***Enhanced visitor facilities including ground floor café, shop and reception and flexible events space, with seasonal pop-up café on the first floor.

***New open-access displays and innovative use of digital technology.