Museum Profile – Bowes Museum

Purpose built in the style of a French château, The Bowes Museum is in the historic market town of Barnard Castle.

Opened to the public in 1892, the Museum bears the name of its founders: the businessman, and son of the 10th Earl of Strathmore, John Bowes and his French actress wife, Joséphine.

The couple were devoted to each other and created the Museum to share their passion for art and to enrich the lives of people in the area they loved, John’s family home in Teesdale, County Durham. The grade 1 listed building was designed under John’s instruction by French architects to make Joséphine feel at home in England. Sadly neither of them lived to see it completed.

The magnificent Museum houses their extensive and diverse collection, over 30,000 items in total, ranging from silver and metals to furniture, old masters, sculpture and ceramics, as well as fashion and textiles; and curators today continue to add items carefully chosen to complement their vision. It holds Designated status in recognition of the outstanding collection.

The Museum sits in 20 acres of grade 2 listed parkland, surrounded by woodlands, a formal parterre garden and nature walks aplenty. The grounds, which are open throughout the year, are also home to the town’s tennis and bowling clubs.

With the North of England’s most important collection of European fine and decorative arts and the UK’s largest collection of Spanish paintings outside London or Edinburgh, as well as an internationally acclaimed exhibition programme and over 100 events a year, more than 100,000 people annually visited the Museum pre-pandemic.

A popular Café with views over Teesdale and a fabulous shop with gifts that reference the collections add to the visitor offer. In the summer months a take-away kiosk operates from a gatehouse with drinks and snacks for people using the grounds.

When COVID hit, the Museum, which is a charitable trust, furloughed 80% of staff and quickly took its collection, exhibitions, events and outreach programmes online, allowing it to continue to reach out and support its community, giving them a means to continue to enjoy its activities.

It created art in the park events, using the grounds to show community youth art exhibitions and installing guidance signage and sanitization stations so members of the public could continue to use them safely for their daily exercise during lockdowns.

The Museum put in place a reopening team, who focused on the Museum meeting all the criteria to make it COVID secure, ensuring a safe, welcoming and relaxing return for visitors. Feedback shows they got it right with the majority of visitors saying they felt safe, secure and thankful to be back, many choosing the Museum for their first foray out from their home.

Sadly though, the Museum’s life size silver swan automaton (pictured above) has become a casualty of the pandemic. Not able to play before the crowds it drew daily pre-pandemic because of social distancing measures, it has seized due to lack of use. The Museum is now working on securing a funding package to conserve, preserve and redisplay this iconic object.

The specialist skills of the Museum’s conservation department are also in demand, and include working on commissions for other institutions and individuals, and offering advice, guidance and practical support for the conservation and preservation of paper and textile based objects.

Most recently the team completed a project for Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery; conserving, repairing, preparing and helping mount around 40 costumes and accessories on acrylic mannequins, and continuing to advise on environmental controls and on-going care of the items.

The Museum is looking to the future with guarded optimism, it has recently put in place a five-year business plan and is currently creating a transformation project to strengthen it for the future. It is applying to the relevant funding bodies to bolster its resilience and is also in the process of appointing new trustees to help reshape it, to ensure its continued success and that it remains relevant for future generations.