The Whitaker Museum and Art Gallery, in Rawtenstall, East Lancashire, reopened last year after a significant multi-million pound redevelopment funded via the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

It has been a rollercoaster ride ever since as we continue to welcome thousands of visitors through the doors to experience our strange and unusual museum collections, including social history, natural history, paintings and many bizarre artefacts.

A committed small team run The Whitaker, all proudly working class and serious about contemporary art, its relationship to heritage, and our daily lives. We are striving to be something special in Lancashire, welcoming our local visitors, as well as the surrounding arts scene. And we’ve been delighted that visitors curious about what we’re creating at The Whitaker have been coming in droves from the cities which surround us, hearing about this hidden gem in the Rossendale Valley (that is actually just down the road from Manchester).

What makes The Whitaker unique is the combination of the museum displays alongside serious contemporary art exhibitions, showcasing the best work regionally, nationally and internationally. The last year has seen shows from, among others, Kara Lyons, David Hancock, Ruth Murray, Paula Chambers, and the most recent group drawing exhibition Sixty Drawings + Ten, including performance art at the opening event. There are also two permanent galleries and a beautiful large event space in The Old Stables, now used for film screenings, family events, seminars and exhibitions.

But that’s not all. The in-between spaces – corridors, cabinets and the Old Entrance – are mini-exhibition areas too, where artists are commissioned to develop semi-permanent installations, and students and other creative groups are supported to present their work. They have full access to the museum’s collections and use of a specially designed research room as well as studio spaces.

Transforming the building

The next exhibition is going to cause quite a stir and will be a significant moment in time for The Whitaker, showing the ambition and vision of the artistic programme.

Aideen Barry, an Irish artist with a major international practice and recently back from leading on a Lithuanian European Capital of Culture arts commission, will be presenting for she is always creeping, an incredible body of work across all galleries which has been especially imagined for The Whitaker.

Physically, the building will be transformed, windows and doorways blocked out and a deep purple colour washed throughout to set the stage for a multi-disciplinary extravaganza. The exhibition will include film, sound, drawing and digital animation – with sound and imagery overwhelming visitors, playing with the senses, marking out connection, dislocation, and our bodies in a changing world.  

The title of the exhibition comes from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s gothic feminist novella The Yellow Wallpaper, which explores misogynistic and claustrophobic attitudes towards the mental and physical health of women. Not only a pertinent topic for the times we live in, but also a topic which Barry interrogates through her work.

I first met Barry more than 13 years ago while working in public art commissioning in Ireland and have commissioned and worked with her internationally since then. I am consistently surprised by her inventiveness and creativity, her unwavering commitment to her practice, and generosity in supporting other artists.  From the minute I took over the creative direction of The Whitaker, it was an ambition to bring Barry and her work over to us.

The exhibition opens on August 20 at a special free event starting at 2pm. Everyone is welcome to attend and the show runs until October 16.

As well as the exhibition, we’ll also be hosting a series of workshops around for she is always creeping so that visitors can ask questions of the work, consider it from different angles and engage more deeply with it. 

Community is key

Engaging with the communities which surround us, from our local visitors in Rawtenstall to the students taking their first trepidatious steps into the art world, runs through the spine of The Whitaker. We are for everyone, and we encourage ownership of the place and credit all visitors with the intelligence to ‘get’ the work, to want to be challenged, and to have their curiosity encouraged.

Despite welcoming the brightest contemporary artists to The Whitaker, we are not trying to compete with the big boys of the art world. We are churning the road up on our own journey and inviting anyone along who wants to be on board. We’re giving new and emerging graduates opportunities to experiment, and a fresh new platform for established artists to test and evolve their practice, all against a magical landscape and weird and wonderful museum collections. Together we are creating an island of fabulousness.

Come join us – the X43 from Manchester city centre will have you on the island in no time.

By Gaynor Seville, Creative Director at The Whitaker

Aideen Barry exhibition: August 20 – October 16, 2022. For more information, click here. 

For a virtual tour of The Whitaker, click here.