Rural Art Space

April 23, 2007

Mary White is the Director Shrewsbury Museum and Art Gallery



The Shrewsbury Museum Service as Adrian Plant said has a tradition of working with contemporary artists, and we work within what is called Cultural Services in the Borough Council of Shrewsbury. We have a real commitment within this town to culturally led regeneration, and we see cultural activity and the arts as a real driver, also an economic driver for the town, which is quite significant, because it has taken quite a while to get there. To convince councillors that the arts are not just something flaky that you bolt on at the end, but that the arts have to play an essential role in developing a town like Shrewsbury, which has a wonderful heritage. I very quickly want to explain some of the initiatives that are happening in Shrewsbury at the moment: we have just started work on building a new theatre by the river which is a major achievement for this council. It has probably taken twenty years to get there, but we’ve done it finally, and work has started. The building we are in today, the Old Market Hall Film and Digital Media Centre has been quite an icon in the process of development of making link between the heritage and the contemporary and is again one the very significant buildings in Shrewsbury. It was built as a market hall built by the Drapers Company in the 16th century. Later it was used as a magistrate’s court and nobody got in unless you were here because you have done something you shouldn’t. It became redundant as a court about a decade ago, and there was a long period where no one could decide what to do with it. The proposal to put a cinema and a cafe in here was such anathema to many people, that there was literally public fighting in the streets about it. Members of the council were physically attacked because of what they were seen to be doing, to destroy the heritage of Shrewsbury. People actually had to see the realised vision of a cinema/cafe/public building, to recognise how the contemporary arts, contemporary technology and a contemporary social life could sit within a historic building without destroying it. The building had been beautifully revealed. Nobody had ever seen this roof for hundreds of years, it was completely boxed in with bits of chipboard and stuff. Then suddenly it was revealed and there was a connection and people could see how that could work. I think that was a revelation for this town, that you could actually have both, the historic and the contemporary, and one didn’t have to destroy the other, but one could inform and illuminate the other. And that’s really the principle on which we are now working. We are looking to develop our museum service, and we have a number of other projects on the way, but they all are predicated on this premise: that you could have a meaningful relationship between the old and the new, and that can be part of the creative process.
We have probably more listed buildings for a town of this size than anywhere else in the country. It is an amazing historic place. Charles Darwin was born here. It has quite an extraordinary topography, because of the way it’s surrounded by the river, and the way that the river shapes the town. It shapes it physically, but I believe it also shapes it psychologically as well as socially, and certainly politically.
Shropshire itself is a very interesting county. It is the largest land-mocked county in England, with probably one of the smallest populations for its size. So in Shrewsbury we are very conscious of the fact, that although this is quite an urban centre, this is not really what this area is all about. It is very much about the relationship of centres of population and a wider rural population. The town itself, its whole history depended for hundreds of years and still does on its relationship with the rural area. And of course not just the English rural area but extends over the border into Wales, which is only five miles away. Historically our contacts and commitment is very much towards the West, into the hills and the mountains, and as far as the sea. So there is a real focus for this town on its rural hinterland. We have hardly begun to explore that relationship effectively, and therefore I think it’s terrific that this day is happening. This is going to be a springboard for wider work within the whole of our area, both the urban and rural areas.

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