New and improved Petersfield Museum

This article was originally published in the Old Bedalian Newsletter 2021.

By Alice Shaw (née Sedgwick, 1992 – 1999)

Alice and Lead Trustee Bill Gosney (far left) and the construction directors, July 2019

After spending most of my time in the Bedales Art Block, I left in 1999 to study Art History at the University of York followed by a Masters in Museum Studies at the University of Essex. I always knew I wanted to be around art but was realistic about my own abilities not to rely on making a living from it!

After graduating I worked at the British Museum and V&A in temporary exhibitions, then at the Science Museum on permanent galleries and capital projects. In 2015, my family and I left London and moved back to Steep in search of space and fresh air for our two young boys. At this point it felt inevitable that my career in museums would be put on hold while our family grew up.

Soon after, however, I heard that the local Petersfield Museum, which opened the year I left Bedales, had recently purchased the adjoining Police Station. It also received a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund to renovate its existing building in the Old Courthouse, and design and build new galleries, collections facilities, exhibition and learning spaces and a courtyard café. I felt strongly that this project and I shared a destiny, and was delighted to be appointed as Project Manager in December 2016.

My job was to engage and lead a design team to deliver the museum’s vision of being at the heart of local life and also offer a compelling attraction for visitors from further afield. The historic Victorian buildings combined with striking architecture will create welcoming social areas and stimulating learning spaces. It will be a family friendly space that will inspire visitors of all ages to investigate the region’s many historic and cultural assets and to explore the surrounding countryside.

During the design development process, it was proposed that a map of the South Downs National Park be inlaid into the surface of the courtyard. This is made of granite slabs showing Petersfield and surrounding villages represented by brass and stainless steel icons. Some will be easily recognisable to those who know the area but some are more obscure so accompanying interpretation will be used as a guide to explore this striking artwork and the local area. This was all designed pre-COVID, but now offers a safe way to access the museum in an outdoor setting. Visitors can enter the cosy courtyard for a coffee and enjoy the wide-ranging, engaging collections and diverse educational and events programmes.

The team celebrate the end of construction, November 2020

The new and improved Petersfield Museum will tell the story of this ancient market town and surrounding villages through objects, art, literature and dress produced or collected by its residents. The collection includes the work of local artist Flora Twort and archaeology from prehistoric barrows on Petersfield Heath. Forming a significant part of the collection is The Bedales Collection of Historic Dress donated to the museum in 2007. This includes over 1,000 items from the 18th century to modern day and was built up over a 50-year period by the school, and particularly by music and drama teacher Rachel Cary Field (staff, 1941 – 1975).

The collection mirrors 250 years of social and cultural change and includes rare and nationally significant pieces, including an item recently loaned to the Design Museum for the ‘Women Fashion Power’ exhibition. A number of garments have strong local provenance and the great majority of the collection formed part of the Bedales Wardrobe.

Of the dresses, an aesthetic, Liberty style, cream silk dress from the mid-1890s is particularly rare, as are comparable Arts and Crafts garments from the early 1900s. Such ‘countercultural garments’ survive in small numbers, with the V&A, Museum of London and Platt Hall, Manchester holding most of the few surviving examples.

The museum also holds a nationally important collection of some 2,000 books by and about the renowned poet, writer and Steep resident, Edward Thomas (1878-1917). Like so many others, and this is still so true today, the Thomas family were attracted to this area by three things: its direct rail link to London, its countryside and, of course, Bedales, which Edward’s wife Helen knew of before it relocated from Haywards Heath in the early 20th century.

The Poet’s Stone

The collection is held within a new Edward Thomas Study Centre which is open, by appointment, to students, readers, researchers and visitors, who can explore his work and then the wonderful landscape around us that inspired him, and many others, so much – and continues to do so. Edward Thomas is amongst the War Poets commemorated in Westminster Abbey. The Poet Laureate Ted Hughes considered Thomas to be “the Father of us all”, and his life and work is included in the National Curriculum. Thomas’ time living in Steep coincides with a critical phase in his life when he made the transition from literary critic to poet.

Thomas’ connections to Petersfield are important to understanding his life and work, which features and interprets the countryside of Hampshire, the South Downs and the south of England. Amongst items on display, or available to view, in the Edward Thomas Study Centre is a copy of one of his daughter’s Bedales exercise books, in which he has drafted three poems.

The Petersfield Museum’s courtyard, looking across to the café and Edward Thomas Study Centre

In the museum’s final gallery, visitors can see a film of original footage shot on location in Petersfield and the surrounding area, capturing the local diversity of architecture, history, landscape, wildlife and culture. This includes shots of both the Harrow Inn and views from the Poet’s Stone, which many of you will be familiar with. The stone is a memorial to Edward Thomas, which is still the subject of regular walks from both the main school and Dunhurst and Dunannie.

What makes this film so special, emotive and rooted in the area, is that it is overlaid with a recording of Daniel Day-Lewis (1970 – 1975) reading Thomas’ poetry, the use of which was permitted by the Poetry Archive.

Like so many things, the pandemic has delayed the opening of the museum, but we very much hope that doors will open to the public later this year. Working at the London national museums was infinitely inspiring, exciting and challenging, but having the chance to be part of the team to create a museum in my hometown, is a dream come true.

The new and improved Petersfield Museum opened to the public in June 2021. Tickets can be booked in advance online at the Petersfield Museum website, or at the Welcome Desk as you arrive at the museum. The museum is open Wednesday – Saturday, 10am – 5pm, and Sundays and August Bank Holiday, 11am – 4pm.