Conference: The Period Room: Museum, Material, Experience The Bowes Museum, 18-20 September 2014

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Last September The Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle hosted a conference that was organised jointly with the University of Leeds that looked at ‘Period Rooms’. The Bowes Museum was an excellent backdrop for this international meeting of experts on the subject. A recent re-display of the collection of period rooms in the collection of the Bowes Museum was in some form a catalyst for the conference, and served as a very interesting case study for in situ debate.

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The Bowes Museum is an extraordinary creation of the Victorian age, although Second Empire would be a more appropriate stylistic label. This was the creation of John Bowes, the illegitimate son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore, and his French wife Joséphine Chevalier. The childless couple spent most of their time in France, but when they decided to leave their collection to the nation it was the fact that they used nearby Streatlam Castle as their main home in England that dictated the location of the site for the museum. The French Architect Jules Pellechet created something unusual for its setting in County Durham. Inspiration came from the Louvre in Paris, and the town hall of Le Havre. 

The impressive collections amassed by John and Joséphine are strong on decorative arts, and interiors were fitter out in an appropriate fashion to display them, which can still be seen in the way the French furniture of the 18th century is displayed. 

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The former English Period Rooms have been re-displayed in a more dynamic and fragmentary fashion, moving away from the traditional approach of a furnished room. Key elements of the most important rooms in the collection have been selected and are shown alongside furniture and other items as part of the collection, not just a backdrop. This is an approach that has also been used successfully at the British Galleries of the Victoria & Albert Museum.

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The full conference programme included a range of topics related to current research and approaches to Period Rooms. The animated debates and interesting new insights clearly illustrated that there is a renewed interest in a museological display of historic interiors that was once considered staid. One of the conference delegates, Lisa Urbanic, wrote a fuller review of the conference and the topics that were discussed for the Decorative Art and Design Group which can be found here.

It was a pleasure to present my own research in the form of an interactive ‘sandbox’ session, a format well suited to  something that is still very much a work in progress. The conference organisers clearly intend the discussion to continue and build on the enthusiasm and momentum of the conference, the creation of a dedicated website that will be maintained after the event is a first stepping stone to achieve this goal.

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An excursion was organised to visit nearby Auckland Castle where we were generously received and entertained by Jonathan Ruffer, the driving force behind the recent transition of Auckland Castle from an ecclesiastical residence to a museum with a focus on Spanish Art, and Christopher Ferguson, the Head Curator. I wrote a more detailed post on Auckland Castle after an earlier visit a few months ago.

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