Historian Mike Ingram takes a look at the newly refurbished Northampton Museum and Gallery and asks if the money from the controversial sale of the statue of Sekhemka by the former Northampton Council, has been well spent?
Northampton Museum and Art Gallery in Guildhall Road in the local authority designated cultural quarter of the town has finally reopened after a major refurbishment, funded by the controversial £16m sale of a 4,000-year-old Egyptian statue Sekhemka statue in 2014. The impending sale attracted criticism from around the world, including from the Egyptian Government. However, in spite of the protests, the internationally important statue was sold at Christies to an anonymous collector and exported to the United States. It has not been seen in public since the sale.
Meanwhile, Northampton Museums, run at the time by the now defunct Northampton Borough Council, had the organisation’s Arts Council England Accreditation withdrawn leaving it ineligible for some grants. the organisation was also barred from Museum Association (MA) membership for five years after the MA ethics committee ruled that the sale had contravened Code of Ethics guidelines for financially motivated disposal.
The volume of protests against the sale of Sekhemka also resulted in a change in the code of ethics issued to museums across the UK.
The council has now reported that it has now reapplied and has been given provisional accreditation from the Arts Council and are applying for full accreditation now the museum had opened. They will find out if the application has been successful, in the new year.
Now, with the reopening of the refurbished museum, visitors, museum professionals, and most importantly the people of Northampton, can judge if the reputational damage to the town [the then Leader of the Council, Cllr David Mackintosh, was named “Philistine of the Year” by Private Eye magazine], was all worthwhile?
However, from what can be seen currently, there are a large number of extremely valuable items from the museum’s collections which are no longer on display.
Most worryingly for museum supporters who remember the divisive run up to the sale of Sekhemka, West Northamptonshire Council leader Johnathan Nunn told the BBC recently that he was “not sure” if a Sekhemka like sale would happen again, although he did say there would be a public consultation first.
The proceeds of the sale were split between the Borough Council (which has subsequently been replaced by the new West Northamptonshire Unitary Council) and the Marquess of Northampton as part of a controversial legal agreement over the statue’s ownership. The council received about £8m from the sale.
Work began on the refurbishment in 2018, but was first delayed for two years after asbestos was discovered in the building. Further delays followed due to the pandemic.
As part of the renovation, the museum has doubled in size, has a new, dedicated shoe gallery, a huge temporary exhibition space, a central hall with a three-wall projection playing different films, a large and airy atrium, and an enlarged shop, a cafe and an outside terrace.
The project cost was a reported £6.7 million, although what has happened to the remaining £1.3 million from the council’s share of the statue’s sale has not been made clear.
Visitors can also see three temporary exhibitions: “We Are Northampton”, which explores the town’s character which included a series of photographs of local people, cabinets of various pieces of memorabilia of recent town life, including its sportsmen and some of Clive Hardwicks incredible models of town buildings; “Challenging Perspectives”, an exhibition looking back at the life and work of local artist Christopher Fiddes, and the “Inspiration” exhibition, which explores how artists use the world around them to spark creativity.
Nick Gordon, cultural services manager at West Northamptonshire Council, described the revamp as a significant addition to the area’s cultural life and provides an impressive new focal point for art, heritage and culture, in the heart of Northampton’s expanding Cultural Quarter, stating,
“Visitors can discover our internationally important shoe collection, explore the town’s rich history, and experience an ever-changing programme of art, activities, events and temporary exhibitions.”
Council leader, Cllr Jonathan Nunn recently also described the refurbishment as “money well spent” So, was it actually worth it?
To cast a critical eye over the existing and new exhibitions requires a knowledge of not only the towns history, but also what was there in the museum before the refurbishment, a perspective that few seem to have.
To those who are not in the know, the building must appear exciting and shiny (as recounted in many press reports). So lets delve under the glitz and glamour and see.
These boots are made for…showing off our new museum. Northampton Museum’s new shoe gallery pays homage to the Doc Marten’s boots for which the East Midlands town is famous.
[Courtesy of Mike Ingram]
Starting with the new shoe gallery in the basement; those who have an interest in shoes and trainers will no doubt be most impressed.
The gallery is well lit, spacious and has shoes from all over the world. However, what it has very little about is the development of the Northampton shoe industry.
There is nothing about the appalling conditions in which people, including children, worked in small, cramped workshops or at home. Nor that the life expectancy of a male shoe worker was just thirty-six years old, or there was a very high incidence of accidents where many young girls were maimed for life. The beginnings of the “Monster factories” are only mentioned in passing and there is little about the great shoemaking dynasties, such as Tricker’s, Foster and Son and Crockett & Jones that did so much for the town.
The Christopher Fiddes collection of art is also impressive. Nick Gordon, cultural services manager, said:
“We decided the art galleries would focus on Northampton and Northamptonshire artists. “We will be taking bigger, touring exhibitions, but we want to have a strong local focus. We have a series of four local artists coming up this year.”
Sadly, this local approach seems to have taken the place of the once famous Venetian art gallery.
Here you could see works of the Venetian masters such as Francesco Bassano, Antonio Bellucci and Francesco Guardi, dating back to the 1500s, some of which were priceless. What has happened to the collection is unclear, but why would you place such important works of art in storage rather than let the public enjoy them?
Another important collection that has all but disappeared is that of ceramics once housed next door, including the Manfield and Jeyes porcelain collections. The ceramics collection included pottery from the 18th century made by the authors own ancestor, Thomas Whieldon.
The valuable numismatic collection which included the likes of rare Iron Age gold staters is no longer visible either.
However, “We are Northampton” is a light and airy exhibition and it is great to see, especially with the inclusion of the already mentioned Clive Hardwick’s models, and exhibits from past carnivals for example.
However, it misses several tricks, particularly with things which are still part of everyday life that were invented in the town.
It has been long forgotten that the first water powered cotton mill was opened in the town in 1742, the gas cooker was also invented in Northampton by James Sharp in 1826, as was modern shoe polish and more.
Curiously there is a tin of the first shoe polish on display, but there is no mention of its importance.
Something else appearing in this exhibition are pieces of Northampton’s own Queen Eleanor Cross.
The actual cross has only just been renovated by the Council, with the help of Historic England, so why were these two pieces not put back where they belong? We are not told.
There is a giant old poster almost ironically proclaiming Northampton’s historic market, considering how there are plans afoot to change it almost out of recognition. Yet there is almost nothing about the growth of modern Northampton which began in the mid-1800s.
This growth was predominantly led by the 19th century Liberals and non-conformists who played such an important part in the town, so is this omission a political decision rather than a heritage one? These exhibitions will apparently remain in place for around six months and the next one is reportedly based around the Vikings.
The spacious atrium is the link between the old museum building and the new part. It is here that the new café can be found plus access to the terrace. One wall is part of the old prison that stands on the site, complete with rows of barred windows as well as the original ornate entrance. So why is there so little about the prison, or indeed the Salvation Army Citadel on which it has been built?
It would have been good to open up a cell or two for the public to see?
We then come to the two town history galleries. These remain essentially the same as they did in the 1980s and before. Despite the cultural services manager’s comment that it is an opportunity to explore the town’s rich history, most of the town’s nationally important history is sadly missing.
There is a little on the castle, although what is there is, as the state of knowledge about it was in the 1980s. It is still erroneously depicted as having a square keep (something that there is no evidence for).
There is nothing too about the nationally important battles fought in the town and only a small case on the 17th century Civil War.
Nor is there anything about the trial of Thomas Becket in 1164 which led to his exile.
There is no mention of the nationally important treaties signed in the town or the important Scottish connections either.
In fact, a tour of these galleries would suggest that there was a flurry of activity from Roman and Saxon times and then nothing much happened until the Victorians (and even coverage of that era is scant).
Over recent years there have been a number of important Neolithic religious structures as old as Stonehenge discovered around the town, yet they also have no mention. Is it to hide that they have all been built on?
The same can be said of the comparatively recent discoveries of Roman and Saxon graveyards around the town.
Why do the authorities continue to ignore such an important history? It would have been good to see a simple but comprehensive timeline of the town’s history if nothing else.
So, to sum up, the purpose of the new enhanced museum is unclear from a tour of the building.
What is it meant to be for?
It certainly does not tell the story of the town. If anything, it is a vehicle for the shoe collection.
However, work has apparently begun on phase two. Whether the current glaring omissions will be addressed, we can only wait and see.
Meanwhile the new definition of a museum proposed by the International Council of Museums [ICOM] is that,
“Museums are democratising, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artefacts and specimens in trust for society, safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. They are participatory and transparent, and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit, and enhance understandings of the world.”
Does the reimagined museum in Northampton live up to that definition?
Go and have a look and make up your own mind whether it is £6.7 million [and Northampton’s reputation for culture] well spent, or whether the new look museum is, to adapt a phrase, “all shoes and no knickers”?
Mike Ingram is a historian, author and expert tour guide.
His most recent book is Northampton 5000 Years of History which earlier this year won the Best Publication award from the Northamptonshire Heritage Forum.