William Morris Gallery

Lorna Lee

William Morris Gallery

Lloyd Park, Forest Road, London, E17 4PP


Walthamstow, United Kingdom

Art Fund Prize Museum of the Year 2013

Transforming the William Morris Gallery

ls"I do not want art for a few
' (Morris 1877)

William Morris argued that art was too important to only be enjoyed by the privileged few. He spent most of life trying to bring this ideal into practice; he wanted art to be part of everyday life, and available to all.  This ambition sums up our aim for the William Morris Gallery.

The Gallery reopened in August 2012 following a pound;5million development project, funded by Waltham Forest Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund, and many other trusts and organisations. The building and existing galleries have been refurbished, the collection redisplayed, and a new extension created with an ambitious programme of exhibitions, events and education. In 2013, in recognition of its transformation, the Gallery was awarded the biggest UK art award- The Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year.

About the collection

The William Morris Gallery holds the world's most comprehensive collection relating to William Morris (1834-1896) - the radical Victorian designer, craftsman, poet and campaigner- housed in his childhood home in Walthamstow, London. Following Morris death, there was increasing local interest to commemorate Morris in his birthplace; residents had started to collect Morris's work, with the aim of establishing a museum dedicated to his life. By the 1930s they had secured the backing of two important patrons, the artists Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956) and Arthur Heygate Mackmurdo (1851-1942) who both donated a substantial amount of work from their own collections. Following agreement with the local Council, the William Morris Gallery opened in 1950.

The Gallery's collection continues to grow to reflect the full range of Morris life, works and legacy; the most exciting Morris discovery for many years, the Peacock and Bird carpet, was acquired by the Gallery in 2010.  Today the internationally renowned collection includes designs, wallpapers, textiles,  furniture, ceramics, stained glass and fine art along with items representative of Morris's political and literary life.

ls"A Sleeping Giant'

Before redevelopment the Gallery was uninviting; with collections displayed in darkened rooms, with shuttered windows. Visitor facilities were poor - no social spaces and no refreshment facilities - and visits declined to fewer than 20,000 per year. 

Waltham Forest is one of the most deprived areas in England with a diverse mix of communities and a low cultural offer.  Described by one Art Fund judge as' a sleeping giant', the Gallery had lost touch with local residents and consequently its funding was reduced; this was a difficult period. However visionary supporters campaigned to rethink the Gallery; Waltham Forest Council listened and an inspired team turned the situation around with invaluable support from the Friends of the William Morris Gallery. We repositioned the Gallery and redefined the role it could play socially, culturally and economically.

Morris' vision of art and education for all became the underlying principle for the redevelopment - to move away from being a niche Gallery, to become a welcoming, engaging and inspiring place for a wide range of people. The project was informed by extensive research - we asked our visitors what would make their visit better, and we also consulted with people who did not visit. We concluded that we needed to improve physical and intellectual access, preserve the historic fabric of the building and restore the connection with the original gardens - now a popular public park.

The Transformation

Working with architects Pringle Richards and Sharratt, we have restored the Grade II* Georgian building (built c.1740), to reveal its original features and create a light, airy and welcoming space for visitors, whilst providing a safe and secure environment for the collection.  The main entrance has been made physically accessible and visitors can now access all floors using the new lift. Original wooden panelling, chimney pieces, timber and marble floors have been expertly refurbished.

The spaces in the building and the layout have been rationalised to maximise its use, relocating staff offices to enable a new learning centre to be established. An elegant extension houses a special exhibition gallery and a tearoom, with a new environmentally controlled object store in the basement. The designers found innovative ways of using Morris'' patterns throughout the new building: on the extension roof to shade the visitors from the sun, and also on the glass panels and doors. The tearoom has proved a great success, attracting park users and many families into the gallery.

The interpretation within the displays is layered to appeal to those who have little knowledge of Morris and also to those who are more familiar with his works. An introduction gallery explains who Morris is, why there is a Gallery devoted to him and what you can expect in the rest of the building. A series of mechanical and digital interactives designed for children and families form an integral part of the displays. Text is written in plain English, complemented by film and audio; and for those who want to know more, the Gallery has pull-out drawers with further information, a research library, a new website and guidebook.  A range of events and activities for families adults and schools also offer new and innovative ways of bringing the collections to life.

In the past year alone we have welcomed 127,000 visitors and feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. ls"I''ve travelled 3000 miles to see the house and it didn''t disappoint - beautiful.''

The Gallery today

The gallery has been transformed into an engaging space where many people come to spend a day, enjoy the collections, take part in an activity and have a cup of tea before exploring the park. The special exhibition gallery has brought world-class contemporary art to Waltham Forest, attracting new audiences and offering different perspectives on Morris' ideas. Morris was such a complex personality and his career so diverse that artists from many different practices find a rich wealth of material to respond to. Our programme has included Turner Prize-winners Grayson Perry and Jeremy Deller, who brought his show from the Venice Biennale, in which Morris played an important role.

"The gallery does all this with scholarship and insight in an open and accessible style. There is no dumbing down here, but a great programme of outreach. No compromise on aesthetic and curatorial excellence, but an equal commitment to ensuring that as many people as possible come to understand the importance and wonder of William Morris. As a result, one of the poorest boroughs in the country now has one of the greatest museums in the country."
(Judge- Art Fund prize for Museum of the Year)

We have achieved what we set out to do - more people, from different backgrounds, young and old, families and individuals, now come to the Gallery and enjoy their visit. We are now defining the next stage in the development to ensure that the Gallery remains resilient and that we continue to surprise and delight our visitors. Morris was continually pushing boundaries - learning new skills and expertise in his adult life. We are determined to build on the success of the project and show the real positive difference that a high-quality cultural destination can make to its local community and beyond.


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