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Inside the Harris Museum and Art Gallery ahead of re-opening

Posted on - 30th July, 2023 - 7:00am | Author - | Posted in - Arts, History, Preston City Centre, Preston News, Redevelopment
Scaffolding inside the Harris Museum and Art Gallery Pic: BBC LDRS

Fans of Preston’s Harris Museum will notice some big changes when the building reopens after its refurbishment – and they will all be for the better.

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That was the promise from the man leading the £16.2m overhaul of the much-loved city landmark, which closed its doors almost two years ago and is not due to welcome visitors again until late 2024.

Michael Conlon was speaking as he took the Local Democracy Reporting Service on a behind-the-scenes tour of the 130-year-old venue, which is midway through a wholesale renovation that will create the country’s first “blended” museum, art gallery and library.

See an interview below with Michael about the Harris project and how it’s progressing or watch on YouTube

Read more: Harris hoarding installed as construction work continues

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One of the most significant modifications being made to the popular attraction is a change to the layout which will see its office space shifted into the basement.  While that might sound like an inconsequential move that will matter not a jot to visitors, the relocation of that basic function will mean there is much more room to display the exhibits that draw people to The Harris in the first place.

“Those office areas can now be turned into wall space on the upper floors [for] hanging the artworks which otherwise might have been sat in the basement and only coming out once in while – so it’s [making] good use of the space and the walls, in particular,” explained Michael, whose Bamber Bridge-based company, Conlon Construction, is the lead contractor on the ambitious project.

Michael Conlon receiving Harris key from Councillor Peter Kelly
Michael Conlon receiving Harris key from Councillor Peter Kelly

In a strange quirk of fate, he and his wife were the last couple to get married in the museum before it closed for the works that he is now undertaking.  By the time he is finished, those couples who follow in his footsteps will have an even more spectacular backdrop in which to enjoy their nuptials – and to capture memories of their special day.

“The space that was used for our wedding is now going to be used for the art, but on the first floor, we’ve opened up one of the galleries [the reference library] to be a more lengthy and voluminous space for weddings.

“You can get 100 or so people in there easily, maybe more, and [couples have then] got access to go out onto the balcony and have their wedding photographs taken.  The bride and groom, in amongst the columns, overlooking the flag market – it‘ll be lovely.”

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Read more: How the rotunda in the Harris will look

Incredibly, for such an extensive overhaul of such an old building, Michael and his subcontractors are yet to encounter any significant challenges, he says – or at least “[nothing] we’ve not been able to overcome”.

“We’ve got a lot of expertise on this site…whether it’s [in] the stone carving, the leadwork or the specialist joinery work that we’re doing – so we’ll always be able to find a solution.”

Inside the Harris rooms where restoration work continues Pic: BBC LDRS

However, that is not to say that there have not been a few surprises over the last 11 months, when work officially began after a period during which the building was emptied of its collections following its closure in October 2021.

One of the most remarkable was the condition of the solid oak window sills – around 120 of them.   There was only a trace of rot in two of that tally, while all the catches also remained in working order.

“They’ve used good timber when they built the place.  A lot of [the windows] have been painted shut for many years and have probably had about 12 coats of paint on them, so that took a bit of stripping off – but all the ironmonger is in perfect condition.

“It’s good to see that that workmanship has endured the rigours of the climate of Preston for all that time,” Michael laughed.

Read more: Key to the Harris handed over to Conlon Construction as work begins

Another surprising find was a set of large, 1930s cinema stills prints which were discovered hidden in a cupboard after the venue had been cleared.

All of The Harris’ official collections are either in specialist storage or have been found temporary homes.  

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The Harris in Preston city centre Pic: Tony Worrall
The Harris in Preston city centre Pic: Tony Worrall

The overhaul of the building – carried out almost entirely by companies within a 30-mile radius of Preston – has involved major undertakings like the removal of the venue’s mezzanine floor and also more deceptively simple jobs like the repairing rooflights.  Yet very little is truly straightforward on a project like this.

“It’s a case of what type of glass you use – and whether or not it needs films on it to reflect sunlight,” explained Michael, who is Conlon Construction’s chairman.

“Because if you are hanging watercolours, they would be damaged by direct sunlight and ultraviolet [rays]. So things like that have to be taken into account in the design.”

Read more: The Harris all packed up ready for refurb work to begin

All of the painstaking effort, however, will be worth it, he says – as will the wait for people from Preston and beyond who are longing for the day that they can walk back through The Harris’ doors.

“It’ll be fantastic – for those of us who love the museum and have been coming here for years, it’s going to have had a refresh, so there’ll be new things to see and it’ll look a lot different, actually, to how it’s been in the past.

“That’s the whole aim…to update it, make it more accessible and make it more attractive to younger people, in particular.

“[So] to people who have never ventured in before…give it a whirl.”

Read more: Horrocks Mill homes plan in Preston city centre progresses

Preserving the past

While the idea of the project is to make The Harris fit for the future, those working on the site are all too conscious of the need to protect the heritage that has given the venue such a special place in Prestonian’s hearts.

To that end, many of its most cherished – but immovable – features have been protected with plywood to ensure that they are pristine when they are once again on show.

Michael Conlon says that the protection works were “our priority” when his team took control of the site last August.

“A lot of the architecture itself is precious, so…we don’t want to [damage it],” he said.

The risk of such damage would have been ever present – especially when the refurbishment involves feats like the construction of a floor-to ceiling internal scaffolding structure that is so complex, it took around 10 men eight weeks to erect it in full.

Tracing the family tree

A New Zealander tracing her Preston roots suffered a severe case of bad timing when she arrived at The Harris last month to see the names of her great grandfathers carved into the venue’s memorial to those local souls who perished in the two world wars.

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Not only was the building closed, but even if she had been able to be accompanied inside, the memorial is one of those features that has been boarded over to protect it during the works.

However, the workers on the site took her details and have promised to send her a picture of her relatives’ name on the display once it is uncovered – by which time she will long have returned to her southern-hemisphere home.

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