Great expectations

photograph

Arches 12, Summer 2009 

A life-size T-Rex, Egyptian mummies, and a spear that conquered Ancient Greece. These are just some of the treasures on show at the Great North Museum, which is open to the public free of charge from 23 May.

After five years of careful planning and construction, the Great North Museum is finally taking its place as the cultural centrepiece of the University campus.

The £26 million project brings together collections from the Hancock Museum, Hatton Gallery, Museum of Antiquities, and Shefton Museum for the first time – placing natural history and art collections alongside priceless archaeological artefacts and interactive exhibits.

Comprising two venues on campus, the Great North Museum: Hancock and the Hatton Gallery, the Museum is set to welcome an estimated 300,000 visitors per year.

An architect's impression of the Great North Museum

The main part of the Museum is located at the historic Hancock Museum, on Claremont Road, which overlooks the city centre. Here, thousands of years of civilization will be chronicled alongside a deep exploration into the history of the natural world.

Within the walls of the refurbished and extended Hancock building are 11 new galleries, celebrating the wonders of the natural world, and the many cultures that have inhabited it. The ground floor explores the diversity and evolution of our animal and plant kingdoms, along with archaeological finds charting the history of the North East and an interactive model of Hadrian’s Wall.

On entering the Great North Museum: Hancock, visitors will be taken on a journey through the landscape of time, beginning long before the dinosaurs and culminating in medieval Newcastle. On the first floor, the extraordinary collections of the former Hancock and Shefton Museums will be on show, exploring the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Greece and Rome. More collections will delve into the wonders of other modern world cultures, and special exhibitions will feature in the new wing, at the rear of the building.  For a small charge, visitors will also be able to enter the planetarium, which will feature spectacular shows about astronomy and the night sky.

A life-size replica of a T-Rex skeleton, one of the museum's new residentsAmong the Museum’s permanent residents are a life-size cast of an African elephant; the Egyptian mummy Bakt-hor-Nekt; a full-size replica of a T-Rex skeleton; and Sparkie, Newcastle’s famous talking budgie, who was stuffed after his death in 1962 and is now the subject of a new opera by Michael Nyman.

Although the Museum has been radically updated, its historic features are carefully preserved.

Steve McLean, the Museum’s project manager, said: ‘People will recognise the famous Hancock façade but the refurbished interior and impressive extension are all brand new’.

Indeed, renovation of the building was kept in line with its Grade II* listed status with elements such as lime and horse hair mixed into the plaster, and roof tiles made from pure lead.

One of the Museum’s first visitors was Minister of Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism, Barbara Follett, who was given a sneak preview of the Hancock site in March. She hailed the museum as ‘mind blowing’ and a ‘perfect example’ of culture-led regeneration.

‘It’s a daring concept to take an old building and expand it into something very modern, but which still honours its past,’ said Mrs Follett. ‘And by bringing collections together in the way it has, the Great North Museum will create a fascinating educational and fun visitor experience.’

(l-r) Alec Coles, Director of Tyne & Wear Museums; Barbara Follett, Minister for Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism; Professor Paul Younger, Newcastle University’s Pro-Vice Chancellor for Engagement; Cllr Ged Bell,

The Hatton Gallery remains in its original location in the Quadrangle, only a few hundred yards deeper in the University campus, and has stayed open while work on the Hancock building has progressed.

Its permanent collection comprises over 3,500 artworks – including paintings, sculpture, drawings and installations – dating from the Fourteenth Century to the present day. Francis Bacon’s ‘Study for Figure VI’ (1956) forms part of the collection, as does Kurt Schwitters’ Merzbarn wall (1948) which is the only surviving installation by this leading European modernist.

The Museum also has an offsite resource centre and storage facility, containing over half a million items, which schools, students and members of the public can book to visit in the company of a curator. And there is dedicated space inside the Great North Museum: Hancock for school visits and researchers, as well as a number of cafés and other amenities.

Designed by renowned architect and Newcastle University graduate, Sir Terry Farrell (BArch 1961; Hon DCL 2000), the Museum was made possible with £8.75 million of funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The University and Newcastle City Council have also made major financial contributions, and other generous supporters include the European Regional Development Fund; One North East; the Northern Rock, Garfield Weston and Clore Duffield Foundations; and a host of other organisations and private donors.

The project is led by Newcastle University in partnership with Tyne & Wear Museums, Newcastle City Council, the Natural History Society of Northumbria and the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Professor Paul Younger, the University’s Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Engagement, said: ‘The natural history and archaeology collections which have now been brought together in the Great North Museum are the fruit of over 200 years of world-wide endeavour by North East collectors. Thorough documentation of these collections in comprehensive archives gives them great intellectual value.

‘As well as a stunning addition to Newcastle’s growing array of iconic cultural centres, we now have a world-class resource that will support academic study for years to come.’

The Great North Museum: Hancock will be open to the public from Saturday 23 May. Admission is free, and opening times are 10am–5pm Monday to Saturday, and 2–5pm on Sunday.

For more information, visit: www.greatnorthmuseum.org

published on: 5th May 2009

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