Exeter's 'Castle Quarter' begins

Niki May Young
Tuesday 03 Jun 2008

Exeter's prestigious museum and art gallery starts on site

Designed by architects Allies and Morrison for client Exeter City Council, an intricate £10m scheme combining a contemporary new extension with a sensitive refurbishment of existing Victorian galleries at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, has just started construction in Exeter’s historic city centre. Beyond the specific development of the museum and art gallery itself, the project is also seen as a catalyst in realising the potential of the ‘Castle Quarter’; an area that includes Exeter’s key cultural institutions.

Allies and Morrison was appointed to develop and deliver a scheme for a Heritage Lottery Fund application following a full tendering exercise in 2002. The redevelopment, which continues Allies and Morrison’s expertise in cultural buildings and conservation projects, is designed to transform the exisiting limited C19th Grade II listed buildings into museum and gallery accommodation that fully meets modern museum aspirations and standards. A 400 sq m new extension will provide increased display areas to complement the existing temporary exhibition facilities whilst also allowing the museum to host major national touring exhibitions. There will also be a new shop, café and learning facilities available to visitors.

An additional key feature of the project is the restoration of former galleries which have been lost to other functions and the project involves a complete re-presentation of the museum’s permanent collection, designed by Ralph Appelbaum Associates. Original vaulted gallery ceilings will be freshly revealed and complemented by replacing slightly down-at-heel lanterns with new ones, appropriate to the demands of contemporary display requirements. The development of a dedicated off-site storage facility will reinstate valuable display space and ventilation and lighting will be improved throughout.

Central to the project is a striking new footbridge on the edge of the museum site, adjacent to the Roman city wall, which will establish new pedestrian links to the surrounding historic landscape and buildings. Internally, a spine route connecting new and existing reception spaces will lend clarity to the circulation; voids between existing museum buildings will be internalised and top-lit to punctuate the route. A two storey slot, orientated towards the Roman Wall, will accommodate a cascading stair linking the two principal floors. An existing internal courtyard will form an assembly space in front of a spectacular two storey fully glazed display wall, accessible by a first floor level bridge.

Allies and Morrison’s design, which draws on the rich source of historical precedent, has been developed through ongoing consultations with English Heritage and Exeter Archaeology. In response to existing site archaeology and ground conditions the scheme employs a number of innovative technologies. External materials are informed by the context of the nineteenth century museum and the Roman Wall; the refurbishment of the interior of the existing late Gothic Revival building is sensitive to its Ruskinian roots.

The project won a major Heritage Lottery Fund grant of £8.9 million in 2006. Exeter City Council itself is the other major funder, and the remainder of the funding is drawn from a number of charities and institutions. The project is due for completion mid 2010.

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