A Trip Back In Time
We have some amazing historical buildings, museums and culture in Lancashire, but how many places do we actually visit even though they are on our doorstep? Writes Tracy Hargreaves
Probably one of the most iconic buildings in the centre of Preston is the Harris Free Library, Museum & Art Gallery, yet whilst I’m a regular visitor to the city, both for shopping and nightlife, I’ve never actually taken a trip there. Until now.
Since 1893, the Harris has enriched the lives of visitors and the local community by creating links between people, collections and exhibitions, by celebrating creativity and stimulating learning, something that continues today.
On taking my first steps into the museum, I could tell it was going to be a place I would enjoy looking round. I love history, but history from my local area is even more interesting.
The Harris was designed by James Hibbert, a local architect and Alderman of Preston and is a striking, Grade 1 listed, Neo-Classical building. Hibbert was born in Preston in 1831 and educated at Preston Grammar School. From 1855 he worked in partnership with Nathan Rainford, in the architectural practice of Hibbert and Rainford.
Hibbert used a Neo-Classical style for the new library, museum and art gallery. For the 1880s, this was somewhat old fashioned and differed markedly from the Gothic Revival Town Hall designed by George Gilbert Scott. To prevent a clash of styles, the building was set on the western side of the square, adjacent but not next to the old Town Hall. The main difference in the design was the decision not to construct a set of front steps directly from the busy Market Square but to have two entrances from either side of the building. The feature at the front of the building is the pediment which houses the sculpture representing The School of Athens.
The main feature of the interior of the building is the impressive central hall which rises through four storeys to more than 120 feet to the lantern tower. Hibbert’s design included not only the fabric of the building but he also devised an overall scheme that comprised the interior decoration and the actual exhibits. The mosaic floors and columns also reflect classical influences from Ancient Greece and Egypt.
On my visit, I met up with one of the three curators who work at the museum, Caroline Alexander, (pictured bottom left) who gave me a tour of this impressive building. Caroline has worked at the museum for 10 years and is responsible for the costume, textiles and ceramics collections. She studied art history at Leeds University and knew instantly she wanted to work in a museum or art gallery. “While I was a student I did lots of volunteering at Leeds City Art Gallery and the Royal Armouries, just to get experience. It can be hard to get a job as a curator as there are not that many vacancies available, but volunteering and just sticking at it pays off in the end! I was still studying when a temporary role came up at the Harris, which I took. Not long after, a curator’s position became available and I count myself as very lucky that I got it.
“Whilst I live in Warrington I’ve adopted Preston as my second home and I love it here – the people, the wonderful old buildings – there is so much history around us.”
She’s certainly right about the local history. As I wander through the exhibitions, Caroline fills me in on the costumes and textiles, all of which have a story to tell and of Horrockses, the largest mill in Preston which was famous throughout the 19th and 20th centuries for its cotton. It was especially famous for its fabulous cotton frocks in the 1940s and 50s sold under the label Horrockses Fashions.
Caroline’s role is to look after the collections and to talk to people about the types of exhibitions and projects they’d like to see at the Harris. Part of her job is working closely with local students, who not only visit to research the collection as part of their course work but also exhibit work at the Harris themselves.
She is a big advocate of promoting local talent and has a section in the costume gallery for ‘local creatives’, where people from the area get to showcase the clothes they make or outfits they style.
The current costume exhibition is called Preston Street Style and is a chance for visitors to discover fashion made or sold in Preston, to see who wore what, where, along with street art, photography and textiles.
“It’s important that our exhibitions are relevant to the people who visit us, so we like to go out into the city and ask people their views on what they would like to see on display at the Harris. People are generally amazed at the clothes we have from their local area – and this exhibition developed from that idea. In terms of how we display our collections – with fashion there’s lots of inspiration to be had from visual merchandising in shops, and from social media, especially Instagram. For Preston Street Style we teamed up with local graffiti artist Shawn Sharpe to design the back drop to our cases, just to try something different.
“On display we have everything from a lovely pink ruched hat made by well-known local milliner Edna Deakin, who was based on Church Street in Preston between 1928 and 1983. Edna’s shop stayed open through the war and only closed when Church Street was re-developed by the council. There’s also a lovely dress from Krafchik, a boutique established in 1918 in Preston by Polish emigrants Nettie and Benjamin Krafchick. We’ve also clothes worn during the 1922 Preston Guild and a suit worn by the roofer of St Walburge’s Church – the tallest spire of any parish church in England. So there really is something for everyone!”
The museum is bursting with fantastic collections, incredible artefacts and amazing paintings and is a definite must place to visit. But, as well as history it is also looking to the future, as it has recently joined in a major collaboration with Google to be part of Google Arts & Culture’s We Wear Culture digital project to create the world’s largest ever virtual exhibition of style.
We Wear Culture uses state-of-the-art technology to enable viewers to explore 3,000 years of world fashion and discover the stories behind the clothes we wear today.
The Harris is the only museum in the north west to feature in the project and will be amongst a list of stylish venues, including New York, London, Paris, Tokyo, São Paulo and around the world. As part of the Google Arts project, 150 objects from the museum’s fashion collection are now available to explore on-line and is one of a number of ways the Harris is using new technologies to bring the museum’s collections to life online.
The costume gallery is only one part of the museum to visit, the ground floor has a café and shop, the first floor has the Discover Preston gallery, and there’s also the fine art and history exhibitions as well as the library. The museum is also home to the famous painting: Pauline in the Yellow Dress. The painting by Sir James Gunn caused a sensation when it arrived at the Harris 70 years ago. It was given the accolade of ‘The Mona Lisa of 1944’ at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Today, ‘Pauline’ is still one of the most popular paintings in the collection.
“The museum is a great place to visit with all the family,” adds Caroline. “Whether you want to know more about the area or you live – or if want new and creative experiences in Preston, why not pop in and see us.”