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What do the Water Babies and Gormenghast have in common?
Grosvenor Museum (Chester)
Member Name: collingwood21
Grosvenor Museum (Chester)
Date: 22/01/02, updated on 22/01/02 (136 review reads)
Advantages: Range of collections, free entry, wonderful building, city centre location
Disadvantages: SOme galleries are a bit old fashioned
The museum has its origins back in the Victorian period, when civic pride and the wealth of Britain reached its peak - any city that was to be considered important had to have its own museum as a focus for culture and learning. The building of a museum in Chester was first suggested in 1871, when the local Society for Natural Sciences (founded by Charles Kingsley of ‘Water Babies’ fame) proposed the idea for the purposes of using their collections to educate the public. However, it took a further two years before they joined forces with the Chester Archaeology Society and the local schools of science and art to start raising money for the project. The museum finally opened to the public in 1886, and is named after a local family who were major contributors to the fund. The building really reflects this attitude towards civic pride, with a beautiful Victorian red brick exterior and a mosaic and sweeping staircase through the main entrance. All very grandiose for a provincial museum!
So what is actually on display there today? Well, there certainly is a range of exhibitions, not only the archaeology galleries - the collections reflect the interests of the various bodies who founded the Grosvenor, with a few more recent additions. Currently, there is:
This is the newest part of the museum, opened last year after the awarding of a heritage lottery grant. The timeline is the first part of the museum you go into, just to the left of the reception area; it is only a small room, but pro
vides you with a concise overview of how the city has developed from the earliest prehistoric settlements to the twentieth century. Time periods are split up into major sections, each with a panel of information, illustrations and a selection of artefacts that typify the period in question. If you don’t feel like reading all that though, there is a video to hand that explains the history of Chester in a 10-minute presentation. This room also has a plan of the layout of museum to help orientate you and decide where you want to go.
-Newstead Roman History Gallery
Moving on from the timeline, you come to the first of two archaeology galleries, both inevitably devoted to the Romans. This is the older of the two, and sadly it shows - despite fresh painting and the addition of some new hands-on activities, you get the impression that little has changed since it was opened in 1952. Personally, I find the material in this room to be fascinating, and the quality of some of the finds (including a skeleton found down an abandoned well and Roman military equipment) is excellent, but the old-fashioned appearance and interpretation lets it down. The basic ‘objects in glass cases’ approach has long since ceased to be the dominant form of presenting objects in museums - visitors used to computer programmes, interactive exhibits and entertainment are not going to find this appealing if they are non-specialists. I would love to see the museum get a grant to sort this room out; it has so much potential!
-Webster Roman Stones Gallery
Next door lies the second, and far more modern, Roman stones gallery. Don’t be put off by the name though, this actually an interesting place to visit! On display here (thankfully not in glass cases I might add) are 35 of the museum’s best examples of carved Roman stonework, from a collection of over 150. These stones were found during repair work to the city walls in the late nineteenth cen
tury, where for some unknown reason they had been used to fill in a hole in the wall around AD300 ? protected from the weather for 1500 years, the quality of preservation is much better than you normally get. An excellent touch to this gallery is a painted replica of one of the stones, as it would have looked when new, which visitors are invited to touch.
-The Period House
This house dates from 1690 and is an addition to the back of the museum, which are connected via a conservatory containing the museum shop. Although some original features of the house do remain, it has now been converted into a period house display area, with reconstructions of Georgian, Stuart, Victorian and Edwardian rooms after the museum’s curator saved it from demolition in 1954. This is a rather strange experience, almost like walking through a series of National Trust houses that have been jumbled up together! I rather like it though - it is a good way of presenting the changing domestic setting in Chester over time, and the use of figures in ‘active’ poses and period costume help you to appreciate that these were once rooms people lived in, not a museum like the rest of the Grosvenor.
-Kingsley Natural History Gallery
Back in the main part of the museum, this is one of the first floor galleries (although please note there is currently no wheelchair access to the upper floor). Here you will find a history of Chester Naturalists, displays of local species and a hands-on activity centre (available whenever school visits are not using it). Not one of my favourite rooms I must say, but then I never was a big fan of stuffed animals! However, one interesting point that I picked up from playing around with the computer catalogues was that some of the birds kept by the museum were used by the BBC as props for their production of Gormenghast.
-The Silver Gallery
Being an important centre for silver production, the museum here displays
the largest collection of Chester silver held anywhere in the world, some of it dating back to the 1570s. This again is a simple glass case based presentation, but then they could hardly put silver on open display! The amount of silver in the room is really quite breathtaking, and worth going to look at even if you are not especially interested in the history of assaying and hallmarking.
-The art gallery
I must say that I was quite surprised when I cam across this room on my last visit ? a single gallery of paintings is not quite what you would expect to be tucked away in museum that is primarily history and archaeology based. The paintings range across many times and styles, but all are linked together with the common theme of either depicting Cheshire or having been painted by a Cheshire artist. This section is really mainly for locals (which I’m not - I live over the border!) so this wasn’t quite so interesting for me.
There are two other galleries in the museum devoted to temporary exhibitions (advertised in local press and on the website). Recent displays have included costume displays, works by local artists, local history and embroidery exhibits.
Chester Archaeology Service is based at the rear of the museum - they produce a regular newsletter and organise a variety of public events, including the Explorers Club for children. Phone (01244) 402009 for more details.
An object identification service is run by the museum on weekday afternoons, for natural history (Mondays), costume and history (Tuesdays), art and architecture (Wednesdays) and archaeology (Thursdays) and you can meet up with curators without appointment between 2pm and 5pm.
The museum is open 10.30am to 5pm Monday to Saturday and 2pm to 5pm on Sundays.
Admission is free, but donations are welcome!
The museum can be found at:
27 Grosvenor Street
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