Music Hall Part II

Frontage 1

So in my previous blog I reflected on the need to value Shropshire’s historical collection, soon to be housed in the restored and remodelled Music Hall. An outstanding collection in a remarkable range of buildings that are themselves, historical artefacts. It’s not been an easy journey. As the plaster was stripped back, decades of dodgy interventions were uncovered and created a few heart-stopping moments when solid walls were found to be not so solid after all. Armed with my trusty camera, I’ve taken a peak inside to let you see just how dramatic that intervention had to be. Thankfully, the worst is over and there are now real glimpses of just how spectacular the transformation is.

For over a hundred years, the main building was a theatre. The windows were blocked out and a stage took up one end of a room that had originally been designed for dances and mind-improving lectures. Now, the windows are clear, allowing natural light to flood in and reveal a spectacular ceiling. 

Assembly Room

Assembly Room

It’s a great space and will be the main exhibition hall. 

The open plan Assembly Room space

The open plan Assembly Room space

Regulars to the Music Hall will be familiar with the space as a theatre with a stage but the stage has gone and the room is open plan, as originally intended. The second of these two shots was taken from the balcony which will provide another exhibition space and a great view down into the main gallery.

The Music Hall is really a collection of buildings from a range of periods as outlined in part I of this blog. The most significant section is Vaughan’s Mansion, and early medieval residence on two floors. The ground floor would have been storage for goods and livestock. The first floor would have been the accommodation and space for entertaining. For it’s time, it’s an impressive building and a statement only a wealthy merchant could afford to make. In recent years the basement was a small cinema,  the precursor to the OMH which stands outside; a wool-trading hall now a bijou digital cinema and coffee-room – another excellent example of  the effective, complimentary use restored, historical buildings.  

View of the OMH from the conference room

View of the OMH from the conference room

Anyone with any understanding of historic building renovation will appreciate that no amount of pre-planning or setting of budgets can anticipate the surprises you find when you peel back the layers. They’re the kind of surprises that inevitably increase costs and push back completion dates. The Music Hall is no exception as the next few photos attest.

New support in the basement of Vaughan's Mansion

New support in the basement of Vaughan’s Mansion

A central supporting wall was found to end before it reached the ground, requiring substantial engineering intervention and a sizeable quantity of French oak and modern metalwork.

The Roman Gallery room

The Roman Gallery room

This space will become the Roman Gallery, reflecting the period of occupation that included a visit by Emperor Hadrian to nearby Wroxeter. It’s an example of how the collection at the Shropshire Museum will link to the wider landscape.

Support in Vaughan's loft

Support in Vaughan’s loft

In the loft of Vaughan’s, the intervention is even more industrial but necessary, all the same.

I appreciate that these images may not show the Old Girl in her best light and may give an impression that there’s still a mountain to climb but the corner has been turned and it’s the home straight. I’ve followed this project with interest from within the local authority that began the work and now as an interested bystander. I’ve always been passionate about Shropshire’s history and I can think of no better stage on which to display the artefacts that tell that epic story. When the doors do open, I’ll be first in the queue.

The Music Hall

The Music Hall


The Music Hall Part I

The Music Hall, Shrewsbury

The Music Hall, Shrewsbury

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.

April Fooled

Dunce Cap

Reflecting on the consequences of the Associated Press Twitter account hacking , it occurs to me that there’s still a widespread lack of understanding of the nature of social media among some institutions. And it’s costly.

Even a passing observer of the twittersphere will be aware of the speed at which events are reported on Twitter. Take the Hudson River air crash as an example . Note that the story broke with a photograph taken by a passenger on  a nearby ferry on his mobile phone and that the fake message on AP’s hacked account was only text. Now ask yourself how many people are milling in or around the White House on an average day and how many of those are likely to have a smartphone and a link to a social media channel. In this day and age, the odds are pretty high.

If  (god forbid) an explosion did go off at the White House, there would be multiple messages with photos and video flying around the twittersphere within moments. I won’t add a link to the disturbing scenes captured in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings but I think I’ve made my point.

A bomb has gone off at the White House? Go on Twitter and search the hashtag #whitehouse or #obama or #bomb or anything similar. Use your common sense. If there’s tumbleweed blowing across the desert and the sound of crickets, the chances are, it’s a hoax.

Let’s not blame social media or hackers for the market crash. It was an institutional failure of common sense and ironically, social media had the answer all along.

Now Playing


It’s a sign of my age that I’ve reached the stage where I find myself saying “back in my day”. Ask my grown kids. But unlike my parents, those four words are not followed by something like “people danced properly” or “you could tell the girls from the boys” or “you could understand what they were singing”. You see, I was born in 1960, so imagine what my musical soundtrack has been. Early, fan club releases of the latest Beatles single (my sister Susan was a member), Tamla Motown and the birth of a host of genres; 60’s psychedelia, prog rock, fusion, disco, punk rock and so on. I love the music scene right now and you’ll forgive me, I’m sure, if I can’t help noticing the historical nuances in the music of  today’s artists like Tame Impala and aplaud bands like The Strypes not only for their musicianship but there unabashed respect for the source of their wild, driven, old skool R&B.

My first exposure to pop music was from the radio and from listening to the music my two elder sisters would bring home but from the age of 12, my voyage of musical discovery was guided by regular visits to the local record shop. Come Saturday, I’d happily haunt that place for hours. Flipping through the racks of vinyl records, admiring the art work, looking for new releases and occasionaly buying one. And while I browsed, the record store assistant was playing music; new stuff, stuff by bands I’d never heard of and I loved that. In the early 80’s, I even realised a teenage dream by blagging a job behind the counter of the record department of WH Smiths in Chiswick…now playing ‘October’ by U2.

I do less browsing now because I have @BBC6Music and every hour is like a browse through a cool record store.

The days of the record store chain may be numbered but the independent sector is fighting back. Which is great because independent stores were always cooler and the staff were more knowledegable and passionate. I’ll be celebrating Record Store Day  for all the great music I discovered while browsing the shelves at independent stores in West Bromwich & Birmingham in the 70’s and Shrewsbury in the 80’s, for the happy memories of Chiswick in 1981 and for the great gigs it led me to. Back in my day, people were passionate about music and broke the rules and didn’t care what their parents said. The only difference today is that the parents are telling their kids to “turn it up!”. So, long live the record store!

We’ll take it from here

We'll take it from here

We’ll take it from here

Regular readers (do I have any?) will know of my involvement with the Save The Clifton campaign. At present, five of us are working to save a cinema and adjoining building to create a multi-use community arts centre.

Over the years, I’ve had some involvement in cultural capital projects in my capacity as a local government officer and it would be fair to say that recent austerity has put the kibosh on a great deal of publicly funded cultural investment. But even if we claw our way out of the present mire, I wonder if there’ll ever be a return to the levels of investment we saw a decade ago?

Remember all those ill-fated Millennium projects?

The Clifton got me thinking whether the future is community-inspired, community-owned-and-run projects as the new norm?

Sure, someone has to stump up the money in the first place but isn’t it the case that for the long haul, the sustainable business model – the well of enthusiasm and sense of ownership, the lack of political interference that independent people-power projects provide can offer is the best hope? (that’s quite enough ‘P’s – Ed). In our case, only time will tell but we’re looking beyond the straight out commercial approach to creating a centre where arts are used for community cohesion, to tackle isolation and to offer opportunities to engage in the Arts as a form of, well, therapy. We’ll need to find backers and we’ll certainly be looking at share issues and crowdfunding but if we can persuade the local authority to support us in saving the building, we might just be able to say “we’ll take it from here.”

A Nice Cup of Tea

Have you ever noticed how on TV soaps the initial response to any kind of tricky problem is “I’ll put the kettle on and make a nice cup of tea”? It seems tea solves all things. It’s a view that’s at the heart of the Brewcamp movement. Tea, cake and solutions.

Last night I attended the first Telford Brewcamp. We were lucky enough to have the #brewcamp founding fathers with us in the shape of Dan Slee, Darren Caveney, Simon Whitehouse and Andy Mabbett which was a ringing endorsement for what I hope will be a new event in the local calendar. Our venue was King’s Street Cafe, Wellington TF1 1NS and our hosts plied us with coffee and homemade cake. Pete Jackson was the instigator of the event and pulled together a healthy mix of local gov bods, councilors and hyperlocal activists.

Here’s one case study from last night: I happen to live five minutes from the venue so this was most definitely a home fixture. Just up the road in Lightmoor is one of a number of new communities springing up in a town that was ‘New’ forty years ago. And in that community are some particularly switched on people like Lightmoor Mark & Jake Snr who recently took it upon themselves to live stream the Telford & Wrekin Council meeting. From an iPhone on a tripod to three cameras mixed through Google Hangout, the set up is more sophisticated than most council’s offer; if indeed they offer it at all. It’s community action at it’s best. The council have embraced the streaming and councilors even winked at a play along, spot-the-cliche drinking game devised by local community news feed Telford Live. In Lightmoor they’ve also set up twitter text alerts to the mobile phones of residents who don’t access social media so they don’t miss out on community news. And the ambition doesn’t end there. They’ve given serious consideration to providing a feed of the council stream to the flat-screen TV in the communal lounge of the local sheltered housing complex for elderly residents.

So Telford#brewcamp was a great success IMHO and it’s cool to know that there are so many engaged people in my neighborhood. If you haven’t been to a Brewcamp, I’d recommend it. Better still, organise one of your own.  Dan Slee sums them up HERE and check out the Lightmoor blog HERE

D:Ream On

On the eve of CommsCamp13 I find myself reflecting on the roller-coaster ride of the last 18 months in local government communications. Back then, I may have hoped that services would be beating a path to my door and asking for social media accounts but it would have seemed a long shot. The notion that we could build a case for front line officers to be empowered to tell their own story and not be fed through the mill of traditional corporate comms would have seemed equally unlikely. But at Shropshire Council, 50+ Facebook pages, a couple of dozen Twitter accounts and a sprinkling of service blogs later, here we are. A perfect storm of cuts and dwindling resources are no small contributing factor to the wider adoption of innovative communication practices; it seems innovation loves a crisis. But disruptive innovators in a  number of councils have played their part too. Contrary to D:Ream’s hopeful anthem of the 90’s, we can’t assume that things will only get better. There are more challenges ahead for local government in the UK and that will require a new generation of disruptive innovators with even crazier notions. I’m hoping to meet some of them tomorrow at The Bond. Follow #commscamp13 and see the day unfold.