There was a time when every town in England that considered itself to be fashionable would build an Assembly Rooms. The kind of venue in which female characters in a Jane Austin novel would congregate during the season and, if they were lucky, fill their dance card with eligible bachelors and, god willing, find themselves a suitable match. Shrewsbury had one such venue. It was also a place where amateur naturalists would meet and display their latest curiosities to a baffled populace. Such venues were palaces of both fun and wonder. For Shrewsbury, it was the beginning of the creation of a collection that reflected a story stretching back beyond the earliest human habitation. It told of a landscape ravaged by internecine conflict across an ever-changing border between England and its Welsh neighbour. A place invaded and occupied by Romans. And a place where the very ground beneath your feet tells a tale of an epic journey of the land mass from close to the South Pole to somewhere closer to the northern one. Aeons of time and contrasts of climate that unfold in the stones of Shropshire. And over time, the people of Shropshire have contributed to that collection. It’s a collection that tells not only the story of Shropshire but of the whole of the British Isles, because nowhere is a collection so linked to the landscape that surrounds it. Within a matter of a few miles of this venue are sandstone Saharan bluffs and fossilised coral reefs and stone from ten of the twelve geological periods. For the last fifty years, it’s been known as The Music Hall. In the 19th century, Charles Dickens read from his latest work ‘A Christmas Carol’ from its stage. In the early sixties an up-and-coming four piece from Merseyside via Hamburg pleased, pleased the excited teenage crowd.
The Music Hall is now opening a new chapter. It will house Shropshire’s historical collection and for the first time, the dramatic story will unfold in a way our ancestors could never have imagined but would certainly approve. And what value do we put on such a collection at a time of economic stress and tightening local government budgets? A good question. There have always been tensions between the necessary and the cultural. Between emptying the bins, resurfacing the roads on one hand and museums, libraries and artistic pursuits on the other. But collections are more important than that. They are the story of who we are and the journey we took to get here. They tell the story of our place and the people who built it. They give us a sense of identity and tie us to our ancestors. We are who we are because of those who came before us and it’s worth reflecting on that occasionally before we get to big for our boots. Shrewsbury is the birthplace of Charles Darwin. In his twenties, he set out on a voyage of discovery that eventually led to one of the simplest most profound takes on the story of life. An idea that set Man firmly in his place. It was an idea grounded in observation and born of a perspective nurtured in the Unitarian Church which he attended with his mother and which still stands but two minutes walk from The Music Hall. In a town that produced so radical a son where better to take a stand against a view which places no value on such treasures? The Music Hall has been undergoing a transformation over the last few years and the story of that transformation has been one of struggle and tension. The Music Hall is actually a collection of buildings, parts of which date back to the Early Medieval. The old girl has thrown up a few surprises that couldn’t have been foreseen at the start of the journey. Its meant delays and extra cost. In some cases, costly intervention has prevented catastrophic colapse. It’s a balancing act but it is close to resolution and I’ve been inside to look at progress. In part two of this blog I’ll share some photos. Stay tuned.