Royal Cornwall Museum has been through a tumultuous few years, but the team have not had time to dwell.

Alongside invitations to speak at national conferences, winning national awards (Best Small Museum, Kids in Museums) and raising millions for capital investment projects, the small team of 14 have held 19 exhibitions, hosted 6,000 school children and engaged 3,500 in community projects.

With a board of trustees chaired by Julie Caplin-Grey, the deputy CEO and finance director for Hall for Cornwall, and under executive co-directorship of Jonathan Morton and Bryony Robins since 2020, Royal Cornwall Museum is in the midst of an extensive transformation that includes its name, identity and the building and home to the 200-year old institution.

In the past 12 months, the museum has seen visitor numbers increase by 42% and the team are pushing to raise numbers to 60,000 by 2026. While Truro undergoes its own transformation, the impact of the museum and art gallery’s growth could be significant, with Royal Cornwall Museum having the potential to play a leading role in the city’s cultural regeneration. Contributing to the rising visitor numbers is a new approach to programming, such as the award winning exhibition Adrift: Lego lost at sea.

The exhibition, which ran last summer, followed the story of the Tokio Express, a cargo ship which lost 62 containers off Land’s End in 1997. One of the containers held nearly five million pieces of Lego, which soon began washing up on Cornish beaches and beyond. Lego continues to wash up to this day.

The exhibition was inspired by Tracey Williams’ Lego Lost at Sea project, and asked questions about plastic pollution, ocean currents and environmental impact. Royal Cornwall Museum is not afraid to tackle challenging topics through its exhibitions. For example, Ugly Truths is an exhibition to engage visitors in conversations about British colonialism and the legacy of this in collections, including in those of the museum.

Programming has explored Cornwall’s second home crisis and rebellious past. Shortlisted for Exhibition of the Year at the Cornwall Heritage Awards (losing out to Adrift: Lego lost at sea!) was the collaborative Pride 15 exhibition which explored the varied history of Pride in Cornwall and the lives of LGBTQ+ people in Cornwall from the 17th century to the modern day.

Artistic director Bryony Robins is behind the museum’s changing approach to exhibitions, storytelling and subject matter: “What is the point of museums?” she asks. “Our belief is that the response to this question needs to evolve, and our ambition is to redefine our role so that the museum integrates with our local community, becomes more relevant and more dynamic.

“It’s why our programming featured the Truro Open, where anyone living in Cornwall could submit work, and almost all our exhibitions explore Cornwall’s heritage but within a modern context. We have the ability to start meaningful conversations and engage with sensitivity on difficult topics.”

The process of transforming the museum began in January with an extensive capital project. The transformation addresses both practical challenges, such as a severely leaking roof as well as reimagining and updating exhibition spaces to make them more engaging for visitors. Funding for the museum has come through a number of successful bids. It has been supported by Arts Council England which awarded £1.5 million through the Museum Estate and Development Fund to address the infrastructure and urgent maintenance needs of the museum sector.

The Heritage Lottery Fund provided £250k towards building resilience and sustainability, while Cornwall Council awarded £460k from the Truro Town Deal and in December announced £2.1 million from the Good Growth Programme, which is managed by Cornwall Council and funded by the UK Government’s Shared Prosperity Fund, which aims to help level up communities across the UK.

The Mineral Gallery, which houses an internationally significant collection of rocks and minerals and tells the story of Cornwall’s mining heritage dating back 2,000 years is the first space undergoing transformation. Set to re-open in July, the space will have improved accessibility and the addition of a digital lab to support learning activities. Sponsoring the transformation is modern-day champion of Cornwall’s mineral extraction industry, Cornish Lithium.

As a charitable organisation, the museum relies on paying visitors, members, funding and fundraising and support from organisations such as Cornish Lithium is invaluable. “I’d be lying if I said that we don’t feel a degree of responsibility steering such an old and important institution through challenging times, not just for us, but for museums and the cultural sector in general,” says chair of the board of trustees, Julie Caplin-Grey.

“But the support and response we’ve had demonstrates that people care about the museum and its place in our community, and we have the ambition and the strategy to secure the future of the Royal Cornwall Museum for the next generation.”

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This article first appeared in the May 2024 issue of Business Cornwall magazine.