Rescued Pennine museum reopens, double the size

A museum that was rescued by its community reopens this weekend after a £2.2m refurbishment and expansion.

The Whitaker Museum in Rawtenstall, Lancashire, in the Rossendale Valley lying in the shadow of the Pennines, had fallen almost into disuse and was known locally as "the museum that never opens", owned by the community and run by Lancashire County Council, but taken over in 2013 by three enthusiasts who met when they worked in the social care sector. Its collections include a large group of stuffed animals, local history items and art by local artists.

Carl Bell, and Jackie and Julian Williams set about organising volunteers to establish regular opening, renaming what had been the Rossendale Museum and devising a five-year business plan. Appealing to the community for help, volunteer numbers increased from ten to 73.

The redevelopment, funded by a National Heritage Lottery Fund grant, has doubled the size of the museum and added a café, restaurant, children’s recreation space complete with artist in residence, and an activities centre as well refurbished galleries.

“The Whitaker has always been such a special place, built on the foundations of our region’s industrial heritage and gifted to the people of Rossendale” said Carl Bell, a former local government official and now the company’s managing director. “This significant refurbishment will provide a renewed space for visitors to imagine, explore and unwind.   

“The re-development has seen the museum’s footprint double in size, increasing our exhibition space and allowing for a new café, event and community space, helping us to genuinely share the rich heritage of the area. Giving us the ability to support wider cultural events through commercial activities for years to come.”   

The museum had been created in 1901 and given to the people of Rossendale by Richard Whitaker, who been born in the area and returned after making his fortune in the Canadian steel industry. Still owned by the community, it came under the management of Lancashire County Council’s museums department, but in times of austerity the costs of running were too much for the local authority and after negotiating with Bell and the Williamses who had set up the not-for-profit Whitaker Interest Company.

A new staff has been recruited led by a creative director, Gaynor Seville. “I’m excited to build upon the strong foundations at The Whitaker and bring the museum and art galleries into the next chapter of its journey” she said. “We have an incredibly talented, creative team who are committed to the highest standards in terms of artistic output, engagement with visitors, community outreach and commitment to collaborating with and supporting the best artists, both locally and nationally.

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