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A New Museum for Castleford

People in Castleford have aspired to a museum of their own for over 50 years, and in December 2013 those wishes were at last fulfilled when the new Castleford Forum Library and Museum opened. Dave Evans, Museum Curatorial & Collections Officer, told Advisor about the community’s involvement in the new museum.

Castleford has a rich heritage to celebrate. There is an important archaeological landscape centred on a prehistoric henge complex at Ferrybridge. A rare Iron Age chariot burial was excavated here in 2003. The town itself traces its origins back to a Roman fort and settlement. More recently Castleford has seen the rise and fall of industries such as glass-making, potteries and coal-mining. The local landscape is often credited as an inspiration for Henry Moore, born and brought up in Edwardian Castleford and whose family worked in the mines and potteries. Linking all of these is the strong sense of pride in their town of the local people.

The new library and museum are in the centre of the town in a listed building. It was originally a small Carnegie library, extended in the 1950s. By 2010 it was badly in need of redevelopment, some of the building was in poor physical condition and the layout, floor levels and access were unsuitable for modern facilities. One option would have been to start with a new build elsewhere but such was the community’s attachment to their library it was decided to refurbish the old Carnegie building and extend it.

Preliminary plans developed with the community were very ambitious and without external funding had to be scaled back. In the end the overall footprint of the building was slightly enlarged by demolishing and rebuilding the extension with an additional story on this part of the building. The expansion provided space for much needed toilets, lift and a new staircase but there was also 90m2 for a new museum on the 2nd (top) floor of the new extension.

Again initial ambitions to display the whole history and heritage of Castleford had to adapt, but over long consultations with the community clear outlines for the displays were developed. These were to use the archaeological discoveries of the last 50 years to cover the area’s important prehistory and the town’s Roman origins, including Ferrybridge Henge and the chariot burial, and to look at the town’s more recent industrial heritage, including glass-making, potteries and coal-mining. Henry Moore’s upbringing in Castleford and later connections to the town were also to be covered.

The Iron Age chariot was a challenge to display. The remains consist only of iron and copper alloy fittings, the actual body of the chariot was wooden and has decayed. The iron pieces are primarily from the wheels (tyres, nave hoops and linch pins) but there is also an iron horse bit and a few smaller pieces. The copper alloy ones include terret rings (though these are decorative not functional) and decorative mounts. They are therefore not easily understood as an impressive high status vehicle. As originally found they were spread out, the wheels 2m apart, and the terret rings 4m from the wheels, so displaying them in a recreation of their discovery was not possible given the space available. The solution was to display them in front of an artist’s reconstruction drawing of the chariot with an unobtrusive mount focussing attention on the objects.

High quality mounting also made the most of the glass objects. The majority of Castleford’s glass output was bottles, but it was a centre for skilled glassblowing so there are a good number of ‘fancy’ pieces as well including witch balls and walking sticks. The ceramics range from high quality pieces from the Dunderdale works such as teapots to everyday ones from Clokie’s. Castleford’s mining heritage is particularly strong, but with the National Coal Mining museum only a few miles away it was decided to give it a personal and community interpretation, not focussing on the technical issues.

Henry Moore is probably the best known individual from Castleford. The display concentrates primarily at his childhood and education, and his later connections with the town. Pieces on show include his first know work on paper and painted ceramic produced at an evening class at the local Secondary school. His first sculpture, an oak wood carving honouring pupils from his old school who enlisted to fight in the Great War work is displayed alongside one of his more recent bronze sculptures which he gave to the town in 1980. There is also material looking at his World War II work for the War Artists’ Advisory Committee at Wheldale Colliery recording the contribution of miners to the war effort.

There are many other parts of Castleford’s story beyond these permanent themes and also there was a need for some changing elements in the museum, but 90m2 is not that large a space. It was decided that to be as flexible as possible it would not be subdivided to try and create a separate temporary gallery but instead changing displays on other aspects of Castleford’s heritage would be exhibited in the single main gallery.

It was also thought important to recognise the strength of feeling in Castleford for their heritage and to give the community control of their own stories and how they are told. It was therefore decided to dedicate the changing part of the gallery to community exhibitions. Changing groups are being be given the opportunity to curate the displays in the four cases here. The museum team help and support them, but they have the freedom to tell their own stories in their own way, choosing what objects to display (mixing museum collections with their own objects) and creating the interpretation for them, writing text and choosing images. Initial displays here include one on Castleford Tigers Rugby League Club put together by fans, and another on beauty created by hair and beauty students from the Castleford campus of Wakefield College.

The people of Castleford are quite rightly proud and passionate about their heritage. Needless to say, in spite of the long periods of consultation and dialogue, in the lead up to opening there remained a certain amount of apprehension as to what local reaction might be. The early signs have been very positive, with a good a number of visitors responding in a similar way – it might have been a long time coming, but there is a strong feeling that this is very much ‘their’ museum and is testament to the rich and extraordinary history of the area.