Durham Cathedral: Open Treasure

As well as the Romanesque architecture and most intact set of medieval monastic buildings in the UK, Durham Cathedral holds an astonishing collection of artefacts and manuscripts.

Open Treasure aims to maximise the potential of these assets, to contribute to the sustainability of the cathedral, and to make the cathedral accessible to all through the creation of new visitor experiences, facilities and spaces.

Vision and aims

The completion of a feasibility study in 2010 into visitor experiences and facilities at Durham World Heritage Site (WHS) prompted the cathedral to start considering options to address issues around access, facilities and presentation.

Although receiving 750,000 visitors per year, some areas were either not publicly accessible, such as the Monks’ Dormitory, or not well visited, like the café. There was also only a small display area for the cathedral’s collections, including three copies of Magna Carta.

This project has improved visitor welcome and accessibility, renovated the café and shop, and created several new exhibition spaces, including Open Treasure in the Monks’ Dormitory. The Activity Plan will help engagement with both local and wider audiences, including more work with schools and prisons.

The project cost around £11 million, including a £3.9 million grant from Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). Open Treasure opened in 2016 and received 40,000 visitors in the first 11 months. This is expected to increase following the official opening in late 2017.

Works and permissions

During the project, Chris Cotton was appointed Cathedral Architect as well as Project Architect. He carried out a new quinquennial inspection which showed that external stonework around the Great Kitchen and cloistral range needed extensive repairs to ensure their long term future. These repairs were incorporated into the project and carried out before internal works began.

Interventions to the historic fabric were mainly to provide level access and allow better presentation of spaces such as the shop and café. The project team consulted with the Durham Access Group about the potential for making these spaces accessible.

The first phase of development improved the facilities and layout of the café and shop, which are located off the West Cloister in a medieval undercroft. Although this involved levelling the floor and removing some internal walls, there was little objection to this phase, which also included adding a platform lift from the entrance to floor level.

Other works were more controversial, with Chapter and others initially uncertain about adding exhibition space within the Monks’ Dormitory, a library space. This involved creating a new opening in the Monks’ Dormitory to connect it to the new Collections Gallery, removing an area of 14th century foundations, and some 1950s infill leading to the Great Kitchen, where the Treasures of St Cuthbert are now displayed. Making the Monks’ Dormitory a fully accessible space also involved adding two lifts and an entrance to the cloister.

The project team and architect worked very hard to get the Fabric Advisory Committee, Cathedral Fabric Commission for England (CFCE), Historic England, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and others on board over these interventions. All were eventually agreed, although this took a long time to negotiate. Good relationships existed with the local authority before the project, and the cathedral found them very supportive.

There were strong feelings within the Chapter about the addition of a visitor desk at one end of the nave, near the cloister entrance. The Cathedral worked hard to try to resolve the issues and has introduced sensitive protocols around, for example, selling exhibition tickets during services.

At time of writing, the cathedral is in the process of developing new North and South porches. Permission is being sought from CFCE and a liturgical statement drafted which justifies the removal of the 1970s wooden porches and their replacement with glass doors to improve visibility and access. The cathedral has a £350,000 HLF grant for this £1.4 million project.

Costs and grant funding

The cathedral believes that it could not have carried out the £11 million Open Treasure project without the HLF grant of £3.9 million due to lack of resources.

Initial scoping suggested a cost of £7 million, however this grew during the project, mainly due to the need for external stonework repairs around key project areas. This was discovered after the cathedral team had completed most of its grant applications. Providentially, the local authority approached the cathedral at this time over potentially selling an area of arable land to the council for development. This sale allowed the cathedral to cover most of the cost increase.

The Chapter is generally positive about the relationship with HLF and the effect this had on the project. The engagement aspects of the project have proved a huge amount of work for the cathedral, which carried out the project using its own staff. HLF input helped to increase the pace of community engagement and audience development, including the new Activity Plan.

There were some issues to overcome relating to HLF criteria, and the project may have been overambitious in the number of criteria it chose and how these were met. More HLF advice on the criteria expected for this type of project would have been welcome.

Durham has commissioned an independent report on the project and its impact, including the work carried out to meet HLF criteria. This will help the cathedral learn lessons from the project to take forward.


Sitting as it does at the heart of Durham town and WHS, the Chapter is well aware of the complex balance of sustainability, the wider economy and maintaining access for all.

Although now proactive in asking visitors for donations, the cathedral understands the high level of support it has from local, often deprived, communities in the North East who would not be able to pay an entry fee.

At present, the Chapter is committed to maintaining free entry to the cathedral itself. It has adopted a model similar to that of the national museums: free entry to the main space, with charged for exhibitions. It is therefore important to make the most of income generating assets such as the shop, café and special exhibitions.

Reflections and learning

The project has fulfilled its original aims and has vastly improved the visitor facilities, access and exhibition spaces. Other than the porches, all work is now complete. The cathedral is however, still working on getting professional advice around the proposed oral history project, which has proved challenging.

While a great success in terms of outputs and outcomes, the project was hugely time consuming and sometimes stressful for the staff involved. There was a steep learning curve in a project this size and some key reflections include:

Project scoping

  • More time could have been spent scoping the project and considering issues such as staff skills and potential cost increases
  • Further scoping work on costs may have allowed the cathedral to be more ambitious in its grant applications
  • If the project were to start now, the cathedral would consider applying for a Development Grant from HLF to allow for more detailed scoping and analysis


  • Before going ahead, it is advisable to carry out every task which can be completed prior to the start date. This may include getting things like permissions, statements and appraisals in hand so a team can proceed with confidence
  • For major development projects, it may be worth getting a new quinquennial inspection so that surprises are not thrown up

Project Management

  • Consider whether external staff are needed for the project. The complexities of development work in an historic building cannot be understated. Durham created a project team from its own staff but now believe that hiring external project staff would have helped with workload and skills
  • Time can be lost if lines of communication and management are not clear
  • Responsibilities and sign off points should be agreed at the beginning and adhered to unless there is a problem

Knowledge sharing

  • The cathedral believes it would have benefitted from more discussion with others carrying out similar projects. They consider that it would benefit all cathedrals, and others taking on capital projects in historic buildings, if people were more willing to share experiences and knowledge
  • Durham is actively sharing the knowledge and experiences gained from this project