Over the summer we took the opportunity with the help of UGLE’s maintenance staff and a specialist contractor to transform completely the South gallery of the museum. This is the original museum space from 1933 as shown in this rare photograph showing it as it first looked. Many of the items in the photograph are still in the collections and the larger cases are still in use but upgraded with dimmable LED lights.
The museum first opened to the public in the early 1980s, until then it was for members only. Since then we have held many different exhibitions there. Over the years lots of extra display cases had been added to the room, some borrowed from other museums and others built by the in-house team in the 1970s. They made the gallery look a complete muddle and the windows were blocked up many years ago as places to show regalia and paintings. Compared to the North Gallery created in 2016 and the Library it now looked very tired.
In July we got the go ahead from UGLE who were funding the specialist sanding and resealing of the floor. This was a big job. In just seven weeks we de-installed 800 objects, scrapped 22 display cases and relocated 47, opened up the window apertures and installed conservation blinds, restored the floor and put back nearly 200 carefully selected items with new captioning and carefully targeted LED lighting. All the craftsmen of FMH got involved as around the floor works walls were painted and plastered, cases rewired, mouldings repaired and French polished and redundant wall fittings removed. Everything was ready in time for three thousand people to see the result during London Open House at the start of September. There were some surprises, the warm brown bands on the floor were made from a rare tropical hardwood unlike the rooms around where it was just a painted on stain.
If you are a regular visitor you may find the new look of the gallery surprising as it hasn’t looked like this for nearly ninety years. First time visitors are telling us that spacing out the objects helps them to focus on what they are seeing and that they find the space welcoming and bright. The new positioning of the cases gives us full wheelchair access for the first time so we can welcome all our visitors equally. We’ve added QR codes linking to some of our collection favourite videos and if you’ve already seen the videos you can now visit find all those favourite objects on display.
Hung on the stairs at the end of the gallery is a new acquisition. The tracing board of the Silurian Lodge, later inherited by the Lodge of the Marches has just arrived from Ludlow where it has been since the 1780s. In the revised cases we’ve themed things around simple captions and focussed on the glass, ceramics and silver that were in the original gallery. Down the sides of the gallery we’ve brought out early aprons and regalia from overseas.
Not everything has changed, the Sussex Plate, a massive table centrepiece given to commemorate the First Duke of Sussex’s silver jubilee as Grand Master has pride of place – as it has had since 1933. We’ve also taken the opportunity to bring out some beautiful items that haven’t been seen for a while. This is only a beginning in the gallery which is finally the beautiful, accessible and flexible space that we hoped to create.