Priestgate Vaults

A new visitor attraction in Peterborough

priestgate_vaults07:33 Wednesday 13th January 2016
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

DOTTY MCLEOD: Here’s a question. Should entry to museums always be free? Well it is at Peterborough Museum, and it’s had hundreds of visitors since October. It’s thanks to its Priestgate Vaults tour, which is actually under the Museum itself. The good news comes as the Museum Association says more museums around the country are having to charge entry fees to make their budgets balance, and that the number of museums shutting completely is also growing. The organisation’s director Sharon Heal says the Government must pay attention to the difficulties being experienced.
SHARON HEAL: People want museums on their doorstep in their locality that reflect the culture and the history and the heritage of the place in which they live. London is a cultural capital. It’s bound to have more investment than other areas, but I think there’s a real danger actually that the Government is seen as a patron of the arts in London, and as a Philistine in the regions, if it doesn’t do something urgently about the regional museum funding cuts.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Well our reporter Kerry Devine went along to meet the Head of Cultural development at Vivacity in Peterborough, Richard Hunt, to see how they’re ensuring the city’s museum stays free.
RICHARD HUNT: Just at the entrance to the Peterborough Vaults, the Priestgate vaults underneath Peterborough Museum. And we’re going to go down. I think there’s a group down there, and we might be able to see what it is that they’re doing. (FOOTSTEPS)
KERRY DEVINE: First of all the smell. It’s quite clayey, isn’t it?
RICHARD HUNT: We’ve got all of the atmospheric smells. These are original cellars underneath the Museum. They’ve been here since .. some of the rooms date from about the Tudor period. They’re a bit damp. They’re a bit musty. They’re pretty much as they’ve always been since that time.
KERRY DEVINE: It is just like a long dusty corridor that we’re looking down, dimly lit.
RICHARD HUNT: That’s the lanterns hanging from the ceilings. And you can peek inside the rooms and see it’s even darker. Your eyes will gradually acclimatise but, you know, we don’t want you seeing into every corner. It will spoil some other surprises down here.
KERRY DEVINE: And this is the first time these have been opened. Tell me a bit about the project opening, because it must have been a huge project re-opening them.
RICHARD HUNT: So the cellars have been used for casual tours and things like that over the years, but they were too unsafe to bring people down in a large quantity. We were successful in attracting some funding from the Arts Council through their Museums Resilience Fund, which has paid or helped us pay for kitting out these cellars. So we’ve been able to clean them up, we’ve been able to fit them out as they would have been at different points in the history of the Museum building. And then using the latest audio-visual technology we create for you the sights, smells and sounds of the different periods.
KERRY DEVINE: And his is the first time ever that you’ve done this, isn’t it?
RICHARD HUNT: it is. This is a very new venture for the Museum. The Priestgate Vaults opened for Halloween.
KERRY DEVINE: So how has it been so far in terms of people coming to the tours? have they been popular? Has it been a success?
RICHARD HUNT: It’s been a really big success. Halloween week was obviously fantastic. We had hundreds of people down here. We run a tour every day during the week at two thirty in the afternoon, and there are two tours at weekends, one in the morning, one in the afternoon. And then we run more during half-terms and school holidays.
KERRY DEVINE: Also in the news today, the Museums Association is talking about admission fees, and the struggles that museums and art galleries are having. How important do you think it is that museums stay free?
RICHARD HUNT: Vivacity is really committed to free entry, and we’ve got no plans for charging for entry at present. And the Priestgate Vaults is part and parcel of our way of trying to mitigate some of the effects of the financial squeeze that all museums are feeling at the moment. So for us it’s about a new visitor attraction, a chargeable visitor attraction, that helps us to offset some of the cuts that we’re feeling elsewhere. The Museum’s a fantastic walk through a huge swathe of British and world history. It’s in a wonderfully renovated building. It’s fantastically accessible for the whole family, and then things like the Priestgate Vaults just add on an extra attraction. But it’s a really exciting time to be involved in heritage and culture in Peterborough.
DOTTY MCLEOD: Richard Hunt there from Vivacity, speaking to Kerry Devine. And those vaults, they’re 500 years old or thereabouts. They are open every day for tours in Peterborough, and they’ve only recently been opened to the public for the first time.