It’s Shrewsbury’s 19th century Music Hall as you have never seen it before.
The much-loved theatre complex in the heart of Shrewsbury has been dramatically transformed into a £10.5 million museum and art gallery, which will open a new chapter in the history of the centuries-old site.
We've been given a sneak preview of the new-look building which has remained virtually out of public view for more than five years. And the results are stunning.
Gone are the dark carpets, blacked-out windows and deep red walls of its theatre heyday. Instead, the labyrinth of corridors and the vast auditorium of the Music Hall have been opened up to allow natural light to flood in.
Collections, once packed away out of view at Rowley’s Mansion, have been organised into spectacular displays and feature a number of as yet unseen treasures including a large Roman coin hoard from near Shrewsbury.
And the 13th century Vaughan’s Mansion can finally been seen in all its medieval glory from an opened up courtyard.
Museum bosses hope the venue, when it opens in early spring, will cement the county town’s place on the cultural map.
They say it will also help create a cultural quarter which already boasts the Old Market Hall’s cinema and the Theatre Severn across the river.
This site itself contains a unique collection of buildings including the listed Music Hall and Assembly Public Rooms, a medieval shut, the town’s 19th century prison cells and even a 20th century nuclear bunker.
All of it has been painstakingly revamped. The work, which started back in 2009, has been hampered by delays due to unexpected structural problems – all part and parcel of dealing with buildings that date back to medieval times, say museum staff, and proposed opening dates have come and gone.
There has also been stinging criticism over Shropshire Council’s controversial plans to charge admission fees.
Museum bosses at the council admit the work has been tough and at times heartbreaking – they once faced up to the potential collapse of Vaughan’s Mansion, a rare surviving example of an early medieval first-floor defensive hall house, dating back to the 1290s. Astonishingly, experts have managed to rescue it and it will now house the museum’s medieval collection.
In what was once the main theatre auditorium the stage and seating has been removed and the new Shropshire Gallery part of the exhibition is overlooked by a mezzanine balcony allowing visitors to gauge the real size and opulence of the hall.
Dr Tim Jenkins, Shropshire Council’s heritage project manager, said he hopes that museum visitors will be pleased with what they finally see.
“It has been tough and at times it has been heartbreaking for us, but we couldn’t not do it,” says Dr Jenkins. “I think that when you think of the county and what it has to offer and you look at these collections, it is unique and you have to show it off. This is not an ordinary provincial museum, and it can be a real cultural attraction. I hope people will be really pleased with what they see.”
Visitors will be taken on a journey around the museum complex, era by era. And it starts off at the original entrance to the Music Hall in the town’s Square.
“This was originally two houses separated by a medieval alleyway known as a shut and that led up to the courtyard of a 13th century manor merchant’s house,” says Dr Jenkins.
“Later on the two houses were knocked together to form the public rooms and it enclosed the shut. Then they built the Music Hall into the back of that complex destroying about a third of the medieval merchant’s house. So the Music Hall is in fact three structures in one complex – the public rooms, the Music Hall and Vaughan’s Mansion. It is quite a complex.
“It spans about 750 years of architecture heritage all in one footprint. That has been a huge challenge.” He adds: “But we are over all that now and what we have ended up with is something quite special.”
On arrival at the new museum visitors will pass through the doors where they will be greeted with a path of York stone that is similar to that found in the Square, to reinstate it as a shut.
On the ground floor will be a visitor information centre and admissions, and a retail space in the old Oscar’s restaurant.
“It will be a point of arrival for visitors to the town,” says Dr Jenkins.
Huge glass doors now look out on to the courtyard and Vaughan’s Mansion, before visitors move on to the final piece of the jigsaw on the ground floor – The Prehistory and Roman Gallery.
“The way the collections work, as a visitor, is that you will go into the Prehistory and Roman Gallery across a link corridor into Vaughan’s where you will deal with medieval, then Tudor and Stuart in the link on the way back. Then you come into the auditorium, says Dr Jenkins.
“The collections are set up chronologically from Bronze Age all the way through to the civil war 1640s and then it is thematic – industrial revolution, Darwin and the Naturalists, geology.”
In the Prehistory and Roman Gallery are Roman tombstones, a Jupiter column, the previously unseen hoard of Roman coins, known as the Shropshire Hoard, and even the recreation of an iron age round house.
Dr Jenkins adds: “The other outstanding artefact in The Roman Gallery is the Hadrianic Inscription. The carving on there is deemed to be some of the finest Roman carving ever found.”
Upstairs, the former Darwin Suite, once the bar area, is now a temporary exhibition space. Across the floor is the old Music Hall auditorium, now known as The Shropshire Gallery. There is a costume section, geology and a large ceramic collection – one of the finest outside London. There are also Shrop- shire’s mammoth bones and a log boat.
“To have one significant item, you would be chuffed to bits but we have got such a lot,” says Dr Jenkins.
Into the main hall of Vaughan’s Mansion is the stunning Medieval Gallery. A Tudor gallery houses the Corbet Bed and a gable end rescued from the old Lloyds Mansion in the Square, which has since disappeared.
“We have been so aware of the love for the Music Hall. There is a real kind of passion for it by the local residents and people from out of the county,” says Dr Jenkins.
“I really do hope they will be impressed with what we have done.”