New galleries explore city’s social history

THREE new spaces at Wells & Mendip Museum were formally declared open in March by historian Tony Scrase.

Among those who attended the opening ceremony were the Mayor of Wells, Councillor Tanys Pullin, and the Canon Chancellor of Wells Cathedral, the Rev Dr Megan Daffern.

Two new galleries on the first floor explore the social history of Wells, and new complementary installations on the ground floor have been created to enable people with limited mobility to share in these stories.

The former study of the museum’s founder Herbert Balch – a local postmaster, caver and self-taught archaeologist – has been restored and brought into the visitor experience for the first time. Items on display include personal effects including Balch’s desk and the magnesium lamp which he took down to explore and document the caves below the Mendip Hills.

The new spaces were designed and installed by Devon-based Far Post Design, and made possible thanks to an award of £194,600 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and a bequest from the late Jean Imray – a former trustee of the museum and Wells City Archivist.

The first swan to be taught to ring the bell for food at The Bishop’s Palace is prominently displayed

This funding has also supported a three-year programme of activities, under the project title Search & Learn (Herbert Balch’s motto). The museum team have worked with Somerset Art Works and Wells-based charity Heads Up to deliver a series of courses and events encouraging local people to explore their creativity, drawing on the museum’s collections for inspiration.

A new ceramic mural, depicting Herbert Balch and two key figures from the history of Wells (Bishop Bekynton and Dean Turner), has been created for the museum garden by a team of volunteers led by local artist and museum trustee Philippa Threlfall.

A series of pop-up exhibitions have been held to showcase these creative activities, and explore different aspects of the history of Wells. Topics have included the Wells Pageant of 1923, Wells High Street and the Wells City Band. Project funding has also helped to support the museum’s current temporary exhibition Smashed in the Cellar.

Money from the National Lottery Heritage Fund has helped pay for the new galleries

The museum is working with specialist learning consultants and local schools to develop learning resources linked to the new galleries, and has partnered with newly created CIC Museum to You to bring stories from the collections to local residential homes and care settings.

A partnership with Somerset Film is enabling the museum to bring some of the stories explored in the new galleries to a wider audience. Four short films have been commissioned covering the story of Herbert Balch, the changing face of Wells High Street, Carnival in Wells and the closure of the Mendip Hospital, and these will all be made available via YouTube.

David Walker, the museum’s Curator said: “I’m so pleased to see the new galleries open, and the associated community and learning activities taking place. It is great to see the work of dozens of people over several years finally realised.” The galleries can be explored without charge on Wednesday, April 3, when the Museum holds a free entry day.