19th Century Church Becomes 'People's Museum' in Alnwick
A volunteer-run museum in a converted 19th century church in Alnwick overcame design, environmental and financial challenges to celebrate 10,000 years of Northumbrian history in a way that is sustainable for the future.
Bailiffgate Museum is a small independent museum in the Northumberland market town of Alnwick. Situated just yards from Alnwick Castle, the museum is based in a Grade II listed building converted from the 19th century St Mary’s Church.
Fittingly for a museum celebrating local history, the Bailiffgate building is itself of historic interest. The site has been used for religious purposes since the late 1750s, and was used as a house and chapel for the Society of Jesuits before the current building was built between 1835 and 1836.
The museum first opened in 2002 thanks to a large grant from the then Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF, now National Lottery Heritage Fund) and other supporters to fund the necessary works. Its permanent exhibition and collection tells the story of Alnwick and the surrounding area, with major features including a recreation of a 19th century printer’s workshop, an Edwardian schoolroom and a 1950s miner’s kitchen.
Bailiffgate is managed by a team of volunteers whose aim is to be a ‘people’s museum’ that not only preserves and celebrates the area’s heritage but also provides a community, educational and tourist resource.
During its original conversion in 2002 a number of significant changes were made to the building: a lift was installed to make the museum fully accessible, and the basement was extended to increase storage. The first floor gallery was extended to provide display and working areas and a new mezzanine floor was constructed, suspended from the original gallery.
The fabric of the building was however left largely intact. Original features including stained glass windows, an oak roof with gargoyles and a prominent 19th century organ are still in place.
The changes made to the building since its conversion from a church enable Bailiffgate to offer a highly flexible space. Its inventive structural, acoustic and visual features enrich the visitor experience and maximise the uses that the building can serve, such as exhibiting local art and hosting community events.
A further grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund in 2012 enabled a major reinterpretation of the museum’s permanent collection. A series of smaller grants have enabled improvements to Bailiffgate’s community gallery on its second floor, including movable wall panels and a flexible hanging system to allow exhibitions to be regularly changed without harming the walls.
The museum also aims to be as environmentally friendly as possible. It uses solar-powered blinds to cover its stained glass windows and LED lighting to reduce energy usage. Recently its volunteers have successfully raised funds to replace its 20-year-old boiler with a newer and more energy-efficient version.
Bailiffgate Museum’s volunteers are proud of their building’s success, but they face a number of challenges to sustainably manage the site, including time delays due to having to seek planning permission, the expense of using specialist tradespeople with the necessary expertise to repair the structure, and difficulty in making digital improvements due to the nature of the building.
Despite these challenges the museum continues to strive to maximise the benefits possible from sustainable and flexible use of its space.
In 2019 Bailiffgate launched a fundraising appeal for CCTV and security systems required to enable the display of nationally-important objects through the national Ready to Borrow scheme. The appeal’s funding target was surpassed in under five weeks, and its success will enable the museum to borrow important artefacts and paintings from national museums and galleries.
The first artefacts to visit Bailiffgate under Ready to Borrow include Viking objects for a Vikings Fact & Fiction exhibition in summer 2020, curated in partnership with Jorvik Viking Centre in York.