Behind the Scenes

On your visits to Durham Cathedral, have you ever ambled through the historic Cloister and wondered just what lies beyond those locked doors? As an archaeologist (and the fact that I’m just plain nosey) I certainly have, and last month I had the opportunity to get closer to the action and see the spectacular spaces hidden behind those doors.

As a member of Durham Cathedral’s 995 Club, I was invited on a guided tour of the work being undertaken for Phase 2 of Open Treasure, a major development project which is transforming a number of buildings adjacent to the Cloister into state-of-the-art exhibition spaces. These ‘upgraded’ 14th-century rooms will hold invaluable collections and host artefacts that will tell the story of the Cathedral’s history, from Roman stone to Anglo-Saxon fabric, medieval sculpture and much more besides.

The tour began in the vast Monks’ Dormitory, the last remaining intact late 14th-century monastic dormitory in England. The hall itself is a real treasure, with original oak-beamed roof structure and elaborately carved and presented bookshelves, original stonework and elegant windows. The enthusiasm of the Durham Cathedral team was obvious, and they made it so easy to visualize the new exhibition space, which will house interactive displays and the Cathedral’s stone sculpture collection as well as the Cathedral library.

After a discussion about fireplaces hidden by the mid-19th century library refit, the group moved through to the old library search room, where we were told that the medieval monastic library had to be moved for the first time in over 300 years before the current project could begin! From there, we moved into the new Collections Gallery which will house some of the most secure display cabinets ever made, including custom-made prototypes, to protect objects from the Cathedral’s internationally renowned collections as well as artefacts on loan from other museums and learned institutions.

For me though, the visit to the Great Kitchen was the highlight of the tour. The kitchen is one of only two surviving monastic kitchens in England, with the most fantastic ribbed ceiling that instantly provoked awe when the group entered. The walls contain rows of arched doors and huge fireplaces, and when we entered the kitchen we could see that the floor had been excavated: the kitchen was the focus of archaeological investigations by Durham University’s Archaeological Services in 2014 and found a huge collection of fish and animal bones that represented the monks’ diet. The processing of this material is currently still ongoing.

Joining the 995 Club and supporting Open Treasure was a ‘no brainer’ for me. The behind the scenes tour of the exhibition spaces was a fantastic opportunity and with the money raised from the 995 Club funding the Open Treasure project directly, small businesses can make a real difference through their support.  If you’re interested in our region’s history, or simply wish to associate your business with landmark Durham Cathedral, then I cannot recommend the Durham Cathedral 995 Club highly enough.

Tony Liddell, Archaeologist for Vindomora Solutions and 995 Club Member.

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