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Two years on from the Harris closing for major restoration we went exploring

Posted on - 15th May, 2024 - 8:00am | Author - | Posted in - Arts, History, Politics, Preston Council, Preston News
The Harris Museum and Art Gallery is seeing major work both inside and out Pic: Blog Preston

Wrenching away coke bottles blocking up drainage pipes, dusting grade-I listed artwork and battling asbestos are just some of the challenges being faced as the Harris is given the biggest Spring clean of its 130 year lifespan.

Touring inside the city’s currently closed art gallery, museum and library there is set to be a stark contrast to what went before when it re-opens.

While everything you’d expect is there the multi-million pound restoration project includes some major changes to the layout of the building which stands between the Flag Market and Lancaster Road.

Read more: New Preston mural set to adorn wall near Preston Bus Station

In many of the rooms the Harris feels taller and lighter – as mezzanine floors and false ceilings which were put in have been ripped out to restore the original vaulted high ceilings.

New lighting has been installed, sensitively done as opposed to the previous ‘office-style’ strip lighting in many of the rooms and the original windows have all been lovingly restored and when there’s a rare sunny day in the city then light spills in.

Blog Preston was given an exclusive tour of the building, from basement to roof, to see how the work is progressing.

@blog.preston The Harris Museum in Preston is set to open next year! We had an exclusive look around to see how work was progressing 🎉 #harrismuseum #preston #prestonuk #lancashire ♬ original sound – Blog Preston

Costing £16million in total the re-opening of the museum was pushed back to Spring 2025 as a number of structural challenges were encountered – including the discovery of large amounts of asbestos within window structures on the roof of the building.

Councillors are due to hear an update during Wednesday (15 May) evening about the Harris revamp and its position against budget – although the contents of the report are restricted from being viewed by the public due to ‘containing financial information relating to individuals or organisations’.

Cabinet member for culture and leisure services, councillor Peter Kelly, told Blog Preston: “It’s progressing against budget well.

“Against timescale we’ve had the challenge of asbestos in the roof panels and gantries, this has led to the opening being pushed to Spring 2025.

“I think people will walk into a very open, very well lit and very light space.

“We’ve really opened up a lot of the spaces compared to how they were before – and there will be different themes in the building.

“There’s also more ways to move around the Harris, with new staircases too.”

A spokesperson for Preston City Council told Blog Preston on Thursday, 16 May: “The Harris Reimagining project continues to make good progress and a report has been presented to May Council on the current programme position which remains on track for a spring 2025 opening to the public.

“The report contains some sensitive commercial information and so therefore cannot be released into the public domain at this time.”

Read more: New-look The Harris to be host to No. 9 and The Studio for city’s youth

Conlon Construction are leading the work on the Harris and site manager David Ragan said up to 150 contractors have been on site throughout the build, with around 30-40 each day at any one time.

Picking out his highlights from the work so far he said: “The amount of dust when we were doing the freizes around the rotunda and then up towards the Egyptian balcony, I don’t think those had ever been cleaned.

“It was just thick with dust. So thick.

“We’ve had lots of the trades people are from Preston, the majority really, so for them to work on a building as iconic as the Harris it’s just really special.

“I live over South Ribble way and what I’ve noticed is just how often you see it, you’ll be driving along and see the city skyline and there it is.”

Mr Ragan said, as we toured the basement, they had faced a real challenge with the drainage pipes. There were issues with them backing up and after digging out they uncovered the reason – a Coke bottle had wedged itself in a pipe and backed up the whole system.

“It was plastic,” said Mr Ragan, “but it had definitely been there a while”.

Read more: Giant crane marks key moment in Harris restoration

Scenes from inside the Harris as work progresses

A lot of the changes to the Harris will be unseen to the visitors eye – from new boilers in the basement, state-of-the-art heating system and a large new kitchen to supply the new cafe and catering service.

Head of culture at the city council, Tim Joel, told Blog Preston: “It’s progressing well, we’re on track and there’s lots of work going on site.

“Really pleased with progress to date. We’re now starting to see the shape of the internal building come to life.

“We’ve craned up metal gantries for air handling units, which will be to service the special exhibitions gallery. It’s really to improve the environmental conditions to meet the standards for heat, temperature and other conditions and means we can borrow from the likes of the V&A, British Museum and bring more collections to the city.

“One of the key changes we’ve made, we had feedback back in 2016 when we first started on the road to this was people said the building and displays didn’t change that much.

“We’re looking to change out collections more regularly and do more and different exhibitions.”

The next key milestone in the Harris work is in September when the collections return and start to be put into place.

Read more: How the Harris Museum’s ancient Greek figures were cleaned

A cultural gap

The Harris has been shut since May 2022 and this has left a cultural hole in the heart of Preston – but city council bosses say the wait will be worth it.

Cllr Kelly said: “A lot of people want to see it open, and while it’s been closed we’ve been able to take a lot of Harris events and collections out to schools and other community spaces.

“There will be a substantially bigger offering in the cafe, we’ve got an increased kitchen for prep, you’ll be able to come in, do meetings, have coffee and we’re opening up the side doors for outside seating.

“Whenever you go into any art gallery then smelling the coffee is really important. We need to create the right atmosphere. You’ll be able to go into the Rotunda and enjoy a nice, light, and lovely space.”

Mr Joel added: “One of the key changes we’ve made, we had feedback back in 2016 when we first started on the road to this was people said the building and displays didn’t change that much.

“We’re looking to change out collections more regularly and do more and different exhibitons.

“The creative learning studio – or glitter and glue studio as we’ve christened it – that might host a school trip first-thing but then host a more business-focused event in the evening.

“The Harris is not just a family museum, or just a gallery, or a library, it’s all of those things and a real community hub as well.

“It’s also a space for every community to use – for example we had the city’s deaf community meeting in the cafe before closing and we’re really hoping to see lots of community groups and organisations making use of all the Harris spaces once we re-open.”

Read more: First look of how new Rotunda in Harris will be

A new entrance

The consultation Mr Joel refers to caused controversy in 2016 when the original plans for the Harris revamp included knocking through its front wall to create a new entrance onto the Flag Market itself. This was met with horror by many Prestonians and heritage groups.

However, there will be a new entrance to the museum – although it’s always been there.

Previously used by staff only, the door from Lancaster Road into the Harris is being made a proper functioning public entrance and will lead directly into the new cafe and library area.

What will be the entrance from Lancaster Road into the Harris Pic: Blog Preston

Cllr Kelly said: “There’s been a real shift around in terms of where everything is in the Harris.

“The main entrance is still there and will have more extensive facilities there at the front in terms of toilets and a buggy park, but we wanted to make it much easier to get through the building.

“So there’s more ways into everywhere, a new staircase at the rear and more. We hope it encourages people to explore all of the building.”

Ghostly goings on

One place visitors won’t want to go is the basement.

We were reliably informed there’s been some elements of the supernatural in the Harris.

Staff tell of ‘Lucy’ the ghost of a cleaner who worked within the building. Her broom can often be heard dragging along the floor near closing time.

@blog.preston Is Preston’s Harris Museum haunted? You’ll have to see for yourself when it opens Spring 2025👻#preston #ghost #haunted #art ♬ Ghostbusters – Ray Parker Jr.

And during locking up in the basement a new ghost has been uncovered – unnamed so far – he shouts ‘get out’ loudly as the builders lock up the final room in the basement before heading off home.

Cllr Kelly explained: “It’s an old building so it has its quirks.

“In the basement you used to be able to hear the building talk. You could take a few bricks out, put your ear to it and hear all these sounds from throughout the building.”

It’s unconfirmed whether Cllr Kelly will be offering ghost tours of the building once it reopens.

Additional reporting by Ellie Browning

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