Week 10: Beautifying our Building

I mentioned a few weeks ago that artist Taz Pollard has started work on creating terracotta tiles to adorn the outside of our new extension.  This part of our project is funded separately by the Arts Council and was introduced to satisfy a planning condition that the outside of the building should reflect the North Devon artisan tradition and the important, Barnstaple-made, objects we have in the museum collections.

Barnstaple has a long tradition of using different coloured or moulded bricks and tiles to make its buildings attractive. We want our extension to continue this tradition.  The old Brannam Poteery in Litchdon Street and the Gliddon and Squire building in Tuly Street are two of our ispirations.



Alexander Lauder was a potter and architect who created many of the decorative terracotta tiles that decorate some of the buildings in the town.  He was a very significant man – he taught C.H.Brannam at the School of Art and architect William Lethaby started his career working for him.




100 years ago, Barnstaple workers, especially at Shapland and Petter and Brannam’s Pottery, were right at the forefront of British design and manufacturing. This was especially true between 1889 and 1914 when Arts and Crafts design was as its most popular.

We want the tiles on our extension to draw from their products, which are displayed inside the Museum, and inspire people in the future.  The tiles will form a frieze round all four sides of the new extension.


We have held a number of open sessions with local people, students and other artists to create the tile designs that will make up the frieze, and Tax is now starting production, ready for the tiles to be installed once the extension is built.  We expect this to happen early next year.  In November she will be working with local schoolchildren on more tiles to go wither side of our new shop windows.


Week 9: Bigger and better Exhibitions?

One of the things our extension project will be delivering is new temporary exhibitions galleries.  Our two new spaces measure 69 square metres (main gallery) and 31 square metres (community gallery).  They will also have the necessary temperature and humidity controls to enable us to borrow things from other museums around the country.  We have started planning what our new programme will look like when we reopen next year.

Lee, Frederick Richard, 1798-1879; View from the River, Barnstaple, Devon

This little painting of Barnstaple from the river has often been displayed on the landing in the Museum.  It is an early work by Frederick Richard Lee, a highly successful Victorian landscape painter who is still the only person from Barnstaple to become a member of the Royal Academy.  If you look on the ArtUK website, you will see that there are many of his paintings in various public collections around the country.  We are now looking at which we might be able to borrow to create an exhibition all about Lee here in his home town.

Briggs, Henry Perronet, 1791/1793-1844; Frederick R. Lee (1798-1879), RA


F R Lee was the son and brother of two architects, both called Thomas Lee, who built Barnstaple Guildhall and Arlington Court, among others.  He was very prolific, and his paintings sold very well.  In later life he retired to live at Broadgate House in Pilton, and also enjoyed sailing his yacht, including to South Africa, where he died in 1879.





As Lee was particularly good at painting scenery, he was in demand as a collaborator with other artists, especially with Thomas Sidney Cooper and Sir Edwin Landseer, who specialised in animals.  This painting now in the collection of the Tate Gallery, has a background by Lee and figures by Landseer.

Landseer, Edwin Henry, 1802-1873|Lee, Frederick Richard, 1798-1879; Scottish Landscape: Bringing in a Stag (figure and animals by Sir E. Landseer)

We are looking forward to bringing together more works by F R Lee to hang alongside familiar paintings like the one below, showing the railway at Bishops Tawton, which has been on display in our shop for the last 10 years or so.  We are planning that our F R Lee exhibition will take place in autumn next year.

Lee, Frederick Richard, 1798-1879; River Taw and the Railway, Bishop's Tawton, near Barnstaple, Devon

Week 8: From Undersea World to Coast Explorers!

Barnstaple Undersea World Concepts images
Some of the specimens from the Undersea World that will be reinstalled in Coast Exploreres

As the ground works continue outside we have been turning our attention to those bits of display that can be done before we get the extension in our hands.  One of the important areas is the new Undersea World, now to become a more interactive space called “Coast Explorers”.

While we want to keep the “immersive” feel to the new Undersea World, and make use of our specimens, we also want to include more opportunities for learning about our remarkable coastline and marine biodiversity.  We have met with members of Coastwise, the local volunteer group which both monitors and educates people about our coastal environment, and applied for funding to the Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’s Sustainable Development Fund.  We are delighted to say we have been successful in securing another £4000 to boost our existing budget.


undersea workd 2

The new gallery, located adjacent to the existing Tarka Gallery of natural history, will partly recreate the immersive experience of the old display, but include much more information, presented through physical and digital interactives to facilitate greater engagement for visitors and increase their knowledge. The Gallery will also include a section about the important coastal environment of Braunton Burrows and the Biosphere for the first time, aiming to encourage people to explore, learn about and care for our important natural and historic assets within the AONB, including discussion of topical issues such as plastics.

undersea world 4

Coast Explorers will include portholes into the undersea section to enable good views of our existing specimens, as if you are in a submarine.  It will include many more interactive opportunities to learn about our coastal creatures.

undersea workld 3


We see the process of creating this gallery as very much one of building relationships with Coastwise and other local groups and individuals, and developing natural history volunteering at the museum. This will lead to more opportunities – for example, as we are located in Barnstaple, with its concentration of schools, we will explore the possibility of working together to create “taster sessions” based on our collections that could lead on to coast visits (for example in collaboration with Combe Martin Museum).

We also expect to continue the collaboration as we create displays around the early history of the North Devon Athenaeum in the current Museum Library – this includes seashell collections, herbaria and significant seaweed collections that can form part of learning sessions as well as the new gallery.

Week 7: A Barnstaple Benefactor

This week I have been occupied in celebrating the 90th birthday of Keith Abraham, one of the museum’s staunchest, and most generous supporters.  Keith is following in the footsteps of our founder, William Frederick Rock  in his generosity to the people of Barnstaple.

photo 18

Keith Noel Abraham was born in Hedge End, on the outskirts of Southampton, on the 8th August 1928. His father Sydney was a market gardener.

As a boy growing up in Hedge End, Keith remembers selling strawberries on the Hog’s Back and was a bicycle messenger during the war. Nearby Southampton was heavily bombed, and Keith’s own house was hit. He enjoyed watching the Spitfires from the nearby Supermarine factory, developing a long lasting interest in military aircraft. He also raised money for the War Effort, receiving a letter of thanks from Lady Churchill herself.


Although he was a bright boy, Keith failed the scholarship exam for Grammar School at 14 and went out to work at Lancaster’s in Southampton. A few years later he was called up for National Service, serving as a private soldier for two years, during which time he developed his boxing skills. In 1950 he saw his hero Winston Churchill at the Conservative Party Conference, and was encouraged to go into politics, but party politics were never for him.

Keith’s career in the Motor Trade really kicked off after he left the Army. He worked for many years managing car spares departments in towns around the South East, including in Guildford and Salisbury, where he first met Freda, the manageress of a Ladies Dress shop. Both Keith and Freda were keen dancers and even though Freda was a little older than Keith she wasn’t able to resist his attentions for long. Their relationship led to a very happy marriage, creating the partnership which was the foundation of Keith’s business success.

Freda was a North Devon girl and, luckily for us, the Abrahams moved to North Devon to take over a declining Barnstaple company, L. H. Codd motor distributors. He turned this business around and at its height it saw a turnover of £3.5million a year. Keith built up relationships with countless businesses around North Devon, developing a reputation for excellent service and keeping his word, and Freda kept tight control of the company’s books!

Ever since North Devon became his home Keith has been involved with Barnstaple. He became a Barnstaple Borough councillor in 1968 (as an independent) and served as Mayor in 1972. The following year was the last for the old Borough of Barnstaple, and he is now the last surviving mayor of the old Borough. Among his many fond memories he has great stories about twinning visits to Barnstable Massachusetts and about organising boxing matches and entertainments at the Queens Hall.

Since he was a young man golf was an important part of Keith’s life. His love of sports led him to back a number of local clubs, including golf, cricket, gig rowing, and rugby, as well as being a major contributor towards the Tarka Tennis Centre.  He is currently the Patron of Barnstaple Rugby Football Club, and some of his greatest friends, including the late Dave Butt, shared his love of the game.

photo 20

Being in the motor trade, Keith couldn’t help but develop a passion for cars – and in his case it was Rolls Royces (and Bentleys.) He has owned a number of important cars over the years, winning a silver salver for the best car from the Rolls Royce owners club at one point. His favourite was a 1926 Rolls Royce 20 (represented in cake form here) which now reside on the Isle of Man. This car featured in a number of North Devon weddings when it was in Keith’s ownership.

In 1984 Keith he set up the Keith and Freda Abraham Charitable Trust to benefit the community and has donated several million pounds to various organisations over the years. Sadly Freda passed away, leaving Keith to carry on the Trust’s good works alone. He is now President of the Museum Development Trust.  Over the years he has helped acquire many important historic items, including Shapland & Petter furniture, as well as donating an important collection of 17th century spoons.

On Monday 7th April 2014 Keith was named as an Honorary Burgess of Barnstaple. He is only the fourth person to be made an Honorary Burgess, which is a ceremonial award given in recognition of exceptional service or the gaining of great distinction that reflects honour on Barnstaple.


photo 17

Week 6: Time for a Party!

New museum bug, specially ordered to hand out at the North Devon Homes Summer Fair

Even though we are only 6 weeks into our building programme, this week marked the half way point for our Pop-Up museum. Sadie, our Activity Plan Programme Coordinator, organised a party for all the people who have contributed stories and information about our five themes for the new Social History Gallery and 45 people came for a cup of tea and a piece of cake.

Pop up party 4 out on the lawn




We are just finishing the Town and Country theme at the Pop-Up and our Story collectors are doing lots of transcribing from audio recordings and also finding leads for future stories. Up to July we had trained 14 story collectors, recruited 12 community experts and collected over 80 stories from over 70 different people around North Devon.

This week we also had a stall at the North Devon Homes Community Fair, talking to families and encouraging them to come to the Pop up. There was lots of interest, which we hope will result in more people coming forward with their stories about growing up, living and working in Barnstaple and North Devon.

Pop up party 1 John Clarke, Frank Shapland and Gordon Spearman

We also had our third Community panel meeting on July 31.  We are holding these meetings at the end of each Pop-Up theme (every two months) to look at what we have learned and identify gaps and opportunities for more story collecting.  This month we met our Accessibility Champion, Yvonne Pope for the first time.  Yvonne works for Devon Living Options and will be advising us to make sure the new building and the galleries are as accessible as possible to people with various disabilities.  It is ironic that because neither the Pop-Up nor the existing museum have proper disabled access, we have to hold the meeting in Barnstaple Library!


Week 5: A D-Day Digression.

Of course there has still been a lot happening on site at the Museum, but this week I’d like to talk a bit about another project that affects museums in North Devon.  To keep you going here’s a rather strange panorama of our building site, taken by leaning out of my office window…


Next year is the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, which marked the beginning of the Allies’ combined effort to push Nazi Germany back out of Western Europe, and led to the end of the War the following year.  North Devon played a very special part in the months leading up to D-day, as the site of the US Army Assault Training Center.

The history of the Assault Training Center has been ably researched and vividly brought to life by historian Richard Bass.  One particularly successful project, about 10 years ago, was led by Braunton Museum with Braunton Academy, and enabled schoolchildren to research individual GIs, create films on Braunton Burrows and visit the Normandy beaches where so many died.  The result of their work were loaded on GPS-based Explorers (a technology which has come and gone), but can also be found on the project website here.  The late David Butt, then Deputy Head at Braunton, was one of the great enthusiasts for this project, and I am sure the young people who took part are still benefiting from the work they carried out.

More recently by the Friends of the Assault Training Center have been coordinating reenactment events on North Devon’s beaches. Next year there will no doubt be many more events.  You can find out more here and here.

Putsborough 2 WW lookout - compress for website

The Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty team has been awarded Heritage Lottery funding for a Coastal Heritage Project which includes looking at the imitation landing craft, gun emplacements and other physical remains which still pepper our coastline.  The project will create trails to support Ancestral Tourism so that the families of the thousands of US Servicemen who trained here can visit North Devon and find the places where their fathers and grandfathers lived, trained and enjoyed themselves.  We also hope that a group of North Devon Museums can put together displays that will tell the stories of their local area.

The Americans had a profound effect on North Devon.  25 years ago we carried out an Oral History project with Barnstaple Local Studies Library which elicited many stories.  I’m struggling to translate them from 1994’s .WRI format to present day .DOCX, but we are getting there, and they will be a great source.  One contributor, Eric Bennet, was born in 1930.  He may not be around any more but here is a part of his story:


I’m sure there are still plenty of people who were children at the time who can remember playing baseball, being given gum or even dancing with the Americans.

Our Pop-Up Museum at Bridge Chambers is mostly collecting stories about living and working in North Devon for our new Social History Gallery.  However, we have already collected some information about the War.  One story tells how the Americans burned all their kit when they left – including baseballs and mitts that the local children had rather thought would be given to them.  If you have any memories of the War, do please drop in and tell us about them so that we can pass them on into the future.

Next week I’ll be back to talking about the project.




A sixteen square mile corner of south west England, ten miles of Atlantic coastline, beaches, cliffs, headlands and sand dunes.
The only British location in World War II where American D-Day spearhead troops learned and trained in the tactics and skills of amphibious assault.
Research and exploration has built up a definitive and detailed history of this historic and unique site that was vital to the success of D-Day June 6th 1944.
A sixteen square mile corner of south west England, ten miles of Atlantic coastline, beaches, cliffs, headlands and sand dunes.
The only British location in World War II where American D-Day spearhead troops learned and trained in the tactics and skills of amphibious assault.
Research and exploration has built up a definitive and detailed history of this historic and unique site that was vital to the success of D-Day June 6th 1944.

A sixteen square mile corner of s

A sixteen square mile corner of south west England, ten miles of Atlantic coastline, beaches, cliffs, headlands and sand dunes.
The only British location in World War II where American D-Day spearhead troops learned and trained in the tactics and skills of amphibious assault.
Research and exploration has built up a definitive and detailed history of this historic and unique site that was vital to the success of D-Day June 6th 1944.

outh west England, ten miles of Atlantic coastline, beaches, cliffs, headlands and sand dunes.

The only British location in World War II where American D-Day spearhead troops learned and trained in the tactics and skills of amphibious assault.
Research and exploration has built up a definitive and detailed history of this historic and unique site that was vital to the success of D-Day June 6th 1944.





Week 4: Dust, dust and more dust…

This week has seen more demolition, more stories and especially more dust.  The whole of the countryside is, of course, exceptionally dusty at the moment, and while we are busy in the pop-up cleaning ancient Athenaeum dust off some things, the builders are busy depositing more dust around the Museum itself.

One of the first things we did this week was to remove the last painting still in the museum entrance hall – the enormous view of the railway being built at Bishops Tawton, by local Royal Academician Frederick Richard Lee, which has been on loan since we did a big exhibition of local paintings in about 1997.  For at least the last 10 years it has been on display on top of the beautiful black display cabinets in the entrance hall (which came from the old Brannam Pottery showroom in Litchdon Street).


So there were at least 10 years of dust on the frame, and some on the surface of the painting itself.  Sam has now started cleaning the frame by gently puffing it with air and gathering the dust in a vacuum with gauze over the nozzle.  It takes care, and experience, and we are lucky that Sam enjoys this kind of thing!  For the painting itself, we are taking advice from conservators as to whether we can ever-so-gently blow the dust off that too, or whether we need to have it professionally dusted.

The Lee painting is really interesting, and we are planning a big exhibition including lots more of his work when we reopen the museum.  There may be some new paintings to be discovered in private collections around North Devon, as he was a very prolific and popular artist.  You can find out more about him here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frederick_Richard_Lee

Meanwhile, outside the museum, work was continuing to clear the yard area for the extension.  We have found a strange air vent, perhaps indicating there was a cellar at one time, though that doesn’t seem likely so close to the river.

The room above the carriage entrance (which used to be the newspaper archive back in the 1970s) has now gone completely, together with most of the chimney and all the yard walls.  Hoardings are going up, and we have had our first visit from Pete, from South West Archaeology, who are carrying out a watching brief for us – his job is to watch any groundworks and record anything interesting that turns up.  At the moment it is just the foundations of the 1960s yard wall that are going, but later on, when the foundation trenches are dug, there is the chance something interesting might appear.  Pete can stop the work if necessary to make sure any archaeology is properly recorded and excavated.


Pete is the one on the left.

Most of the dust I am complaining about, however, appeared today (Friday) when the demolition crew started on the partitions in the old staff kitchen and toilet, which is to become the new Undersea World display.

photo 3


The toilet itself disappeared earlier (its OK, we still have the public toilet to use).

For some reason everyone thought the partitions were studwork and plasterboard.  All the galleries were screened off with polythene anyway, but it soon became apparent from the bangs and crashes directly underneath my office, that there was more than plasterboard involved!



Other things that I have been doing this week include sending out invitations for a 90th Birthday Dinner for Keith Abraham, one of the major benefactors of this project.  Keith is the last surviving Mayor of the old Borough of Barnstaple (he was the last but one, just before local government reorganisation in 1973, but the very last one has sadly died).  Keith ran a highly successful car parts business in Barnstaple for many years, and, through his charitable trust, has supported a wide range of local organisations, including the Barnstaple and Bideford Rugby Clubs, Cricket Club and the Gig Club.  If you see the gig “Lady Freda” on the river, she is named after Keith’s late wife, and the gig “Nipper” is named after Keith himself.

I also went to the funeral of Sue Garwood, the Chair of Ilfracombe Museum Trust, who died very suddenly a couple of weeks ago at the age of just 69.  Her energy, commitment and humanity will be sadly missed by all the museum community in north Devon.  But it was great to see Ilfracombe Museum determined not to let her hard work in the last few year at the museum go to waste. I look forward to assisting their development plans in any way I can.

At the end of the week, despite all the dust and banging, it is great to see such progress being made, and you can really see just how big our extension is going to be now.  This is the space we now have for the Undersea World:



And here is some of the dust that somehow migrated up the stairs!  Let’s hope there won’t be any more!