Construction work to create a vibrant, interactive history hub in Durham City is expected to be complete by next autumn, following the appointment of a main contractor.
Durham County Council has confirmed Kier as the developer to restore the Grade II listed Mount Oswald Manor House and turn it into a local history hub, bringing together archive, heritage, and registration services at a single location.
Kier is due to start on site this spring with work expected to be complete by autumn 2022, ready for historical records and objects to be moved to their new home and the installation of an exhibition showcasing the lesser told stories of working people who have been pivotal in shaping the county.
Following an overwhelmingly positive reaction during the consultation process, planning permission was granted last year and former owner the Banks Group transferred the site to the council for a nominal fee.
The history centre will provide a secure future for the more than five miles of county archives, charting almost 900 years of history, which are currently located in County Hall.
It will also provide a home for historic registration records, the Historic Environment Record, local studies collections and the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) collection, reuniting the DLI objects and written records for the first time since 1998.
Expected to be ready to open to the public in 2023, it is hoped the new history centre will attract more than 70,000 visitors per year with its state-of-the-art search rooms, innovative digital facilities, dedicated learning space, exhibition and interpretation spaces, and café.
The project will also see the relocation of Durham Register Office from Aykley Heads to the site, offering enhanced facilities for weddings and civil ceremonies in the historic surroundings of the manor house.
Cllr Simon Henig, Leader of Durham County Council, said: “We are delighted that a main contractor has been appointed so that work can begin on the exciting new centre which will provide a unique gateway to explore the whole history of the county and its people. It will allow us to open up new spaces for residents and visitors to use and enjoy as well as providing a secure future for our important heritage collections.”
Dan Doherty, regional director at Kier Regional Building North & Scotland, said: “We are delighted to have been appointed to deliver this specialist project and continue our working relationship with Durham County Council. We have vast experience in restoring first-class refurbishments of Grade Listed properties and look forward to being part of this iconic scheme for County Durham.”
In 2020, the council secured a development phase grant from The National Lottery Heritage Fund which was used to develop an exciting and engaging activity and events programme, and to progress the centre’s ambitions for innovative digital engagement and digital exhibition elements.
A Stage 2 bid has now been submitted to The Heritage Fund which, if successful, will see these plans become reality with public programmes taking place across the county from early 2022.
As part of the development of the project, pilot sessions were delivered virtually for schools and community groups by the Durham County Record Office, the DLI, and the Historic Environment Record.
Focusing on historical archives and objects from Ushaw Moor, the sessions explored what life was like during the period from 1899 to 1910, at the height of the coal industry and the Boer War.
The sessions aimed to demonstrate how archive material and historical objects, such as photos, maps, school records and census documents, can be used to investigate the past and uncover the stories of working people and everyday families, and what buildings and communities were like in those times.
The sessions looked at details of one soldier and what his life would have been like. The team used a visualiser to show the objects and archives in a digital format.
The Historic Environment Record was also used by the school and community groups to investigate the earlier past of Ushaw Moor, including a possible shrine to Thomas Becket, the archbishop murdered in 1170 during the reign of Henry II.
Cllr Joy Allen, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for transformation, culture and tourism, said: “I am delighted that we will be able to bring together all items from the collection with the DLI archives cared for by Durham County Record Office, for the first time since 1998.
“Whilst the building will physically bring the collections together, if our bid to The Heritage Fund is successful our engagement programme and digital plans will integrate these diverse collections in innovative ways, opening up these treasures of our county to new audiences.
“We will be able to deliver more sessions like the virtual exploration of Ushaw Moor to communities, schools and groups, and we will be able to offer an exciting programme of activities, changing exhibitions and digital innovation.”
Colonel Ted Shields, chair of the DLI Trustees, said: “The DLI Collection symbolises the fighting spirit and determination that characterised every County Durham household living through hard times. The benefit of bringing together a number of services and collections is the opportunity to deliver a more coherent narrative, including how the wider story of the county has been shaped by the DLI and the people of this regiment.”
More information about the history centre can be found at www.durham.gov.uk/historycentre