‘Custodians’ of Preston's hidden gem aim to realise Harris Museum potential

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It’s a juxtaposition that would leave art enthusiasts shuddering and shivering with trepidation.

Laid out in front of us are multiple rows of paintings in ornate frames.

Howard Robinson at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery

Howard Robinson at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery

A matter of metres away are some makeshift flood defences arranged around a drain.

In several of the corners are buckets catching drips. And parts of the walls show evidence of water damage.

“We’ve had flood water come up through there before,” museum supervisor Howard Robinson warns us, pointing at the drain.

The Lancashire Post is in the basement of Preston’s iconic Harris Museum, part of the Grade I listed building not open to the general public and an untapped resource with huge potential.

Behind the scenes at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery

Behind the scenes at the Harris Museum and Art Gallery

We have been invited in for a tour a matter of weeks after the facility and its ambitious Re-imagining project received both a funding setback and a boost.

Having missed out on £10m from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Harris did secure cash for the next five years from the Arts Council.

The two funding streams represent the split between the long-term and the short-term plans for the building.

And down in the basement, among the historical archives of books, paintings and costumes, this contrast is laid bare.

Coun Peter Kelly in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery

Coun Peter Kelly in the Harris Museum and Art Gallery

Eventually, when the HLF gives its backing, the basement could be opened up to the public with a performance space.

The wealth of artwork and historical artefacts can then be brought out from their shadowy home.

Jon Finch, project leader of Re-Imagining Harris, explains that only 65 per cent of the floor space of the museum is open to the public.

Securing the massive funding pot from HLF would enable them to make that more in the region of 90 per cent.

“I have been working for museums and libraries for 20 years and the challenges we are facing are similar to those most are facing (in regard to funding),” he says.

“The Arts Council cash (£900k over five years) will help significantly and allow us to continue to improve our exhibition displays and our overall offering.”

The general wear and tear issues are standard occurrences for a vast building established in the 19th century.

But the HLF major funding pot would enable bosses to undergo major restoration works, instead of short term solutions.

Mr Finch said: “In terms of the HLF, the competition was intense. Four out of 22 that bid received the funding, all I can say is that it is very, very competitive.

“And we have to be realistic that there’s going to be a similar number of bids next year and the year after.

“It’s about giving our bid the best possible chance and the AC funding will help us. Last year for the first time for a while we increased our number of visitors and that was because of the exhibitions we have been able to provide.

“There are things we can do to improve, but eventually we will need that capital to make the necessary long-term master-plan.”

Mr Finch and colleagues are well aware the HLF funding would be a once-in-a-lifetime event and the improvements would have to last generations.

In order to cater for all ages, they have been consulting with 16 to 25 groups to find out what they can do to appeal that demographic.

Continuing our tour, we find our way to the popular Brick Dinos exhibition.

Coun Peter Kelly, the city council’s lead on culture and leisure services, says the fact the museum has gone from showcasing renowned artist Martin Creed one year to Brick Dinos the next, shows the Harris can be an experience for all age-groups.

“We’re simply custodians of this building,” he explains. “Harris and Hibbert were visionaries of their time. This place would not have existed if they hadn’t have had the vision to do something different, the concept was very different at the time.

“I think all we’re doing is carrying on their work, we’re making it a more open area, a lot of people are concentrated on the front entrance but the real substantive work is what we’re doing with the basement.

“We want you to walk into the Harris and have a Harris experience. You will able to have books from the 17th, 18th century on display next to the museum collection. We want to bring these things up and showcase what we’ve got.

“The original vision of this place was for arts and culture and learning, if you look around the building it says that. So, actually, what we’re doing through the Re-imagining project is achieve what it says around the building.

“That whole section could be an events space, a performance space. The arts archives could be glassed off so you can watch our staff at work.

“Once you’ve done it, you can attract larger exhibitions so people then would be able to come in to see a Turner, for example. You can’t do that unless you’ve got the capability.”

So, in the short-term, the Arts Council money will allow Harris bosses to continue their efforts to boost their visitor numbers.

Meanwhile, work will be going on behind the scenes to push for another HLF bid.

It may take time but the true potential of this hidden gem will eventually be realised.