A VISION to create a new history centre showcasing County Durham’s rich heritage are a step closer to reality after plans were approved.
Durham County Council has been given the go ahead to restore the grade II listed Mount Oswald Manor House and turn it into a "vibrant and interactive local history hub", bringing together archive, heritage and registration services at a central location near Durham.
The council said reaction to the proposed history centre had been "overwhelmingly positive" and now that planning permission has been granted, the manor house’s present owner, the Durham-based Banks Group, will transfer the site to the council for a nominal fee to secure its future use and benefit for local people.
It is hoped work can begin on site next year with a view to opening to the public in 2023.
Aimed at telling the story of County Durham’s past through historic records, photographs and objects, Durham 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, environmental and archaeological records, and local studies collections.
And, for the first time since 1998, all items from the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) collection, currently housed at Sevenhills in Spennymoor, and the DLI archives, which are currently cared for by Durham County Record Office, will be brought together under one roof.
The project will also see the relocation from Aykley Heads of Durham Register Office, offering enhanced facilities for weddings and civil ceremonies making the most of the historic setting and the surroundings of the manor house.
An inspiring and engaging exhibition programme will be at the heart of the new centre, with a focus on the stories of working people and everyday families.
Plans include state of the art search rooms, including innovative digital facilities, a dedicated learning space, exhibition and interpretation spaces, and a café. There will also be themed activities and events, as well as a countywide outreach programme for children, schools and communities
Earlier this summer, the council was awarded a £150,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation to support the creation of an interactive exhibition space within the centre, where visitors will be able to discover the county’s rich history through nationally and internationally significant collections.
The project has also secured a £43,500 Stage 1 development phase grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF). This will be used to develop an exciting and engaging activity and events programme, while also allowing the council to progress the centre’s ambitions for innovative digital engagement and digital exhibition elements, ahead of a Stage 2 application next year.
The council is keen to gain residents’ views and will soon be launching an engagement exercise to encourage people to share ideas and help shape the centre’s exhibitions and events programme.
Cllr Joy Allen, Durham County Council’s Cabinet member for transformation, culture and tourism, said: “The granting of planning permission is an important milestone in the Durham History Centre project and also in the story of County Durham.
"It allows us to bring a historic building back into use as a dynamic heritage hub where our history will be celebrated and preserved for generations to come. This includes bringing together the county’s treasured DLI Collection and Archive for the first time in more than 20 years, providing more opportunities for exhibitions and engagement.
“The history centre will provide a place where people of all ages can discover more about those who came before them. It will also be a place where history continues to be made and recorded through weddings and civil ceremonies.”
The Durham History Centre planning application was determined by planning officers using delegated powers. A consultation in 2018 received more than 600 responses, with 83 per cent of respondents in favour of the proposal.
Cllr Allen added: “As we move forward, I would encourage residents to continue to take part in the engagement activities. Durham History Centre will belong to the people of County Durham so please make sure you have your say about the kind of exhibitions and activities it offers.”
John Ruddick, senior property development manager at The Banks Group, said: “The redevelopment of the Mount Oswald site was designed by Banks in support of the county council’s vision to drive economic growth across the county, and it’s fantastic to see this latest stage of the project reaching such an important milestone.
“Locating the history centre in the Manor House ensures that it has a home that reflects its importance to the city and county, and also provides this landmark local building with a highly appropriate and sustainable future purpose.
“As a long-established, Durham-based family business, we’re very pleased to be gifting the Manor House to the people of our home county and look forward to seeing the exciting plans for the history centre realised in the coming years.”
To find out more about Durham History Centre and to keep up to date with the latest news, visit www.durham.gov.uk/historycentre.