On Tuesday, 15th September the new Downpatrick High Cross Extension was opened at Down County Museum. I was pleased to be amongst the large crowd who were present to see the new premises.
The main attraction of the extension is, of course, the High Cross itself which holds centre stage in the main room. It’s quite dominant in the room and is exceptionally well lit so you can appreciate the detail in a way that just wasn’t possible when it was in its original position outside the Cathedral. Out of doors you had to take on trust the various illustrations that were said to be carved on its surface, now you can make them out and have some idea of the stories it intended to convey. In addition these are well explained in the exhibition.
Raising the Cross in Down “tells the story of the Downpatrick High Cross and its place in the early Christian tradition of County Down” using artefacts, reconstructions and interpretative panels. It’s a good exhibition which takes the visitor through Christian history in the locality right up to a nicely inclusive panel covering the various traditions in Downpatrick today.
Elsewhere in the extension the new café will be run by the local charity Mainstay DRP. The tearoom has tremendous views across the rolling countryside. Downstairs Harvests from Land and Sea is an exhibition telling the story of farming and fishing in County Down which contains machines, tools and artefacts which will be familiar to many local people.
Another room includes the At Present Confined: Life in the Old Gaol exhibition which tells the story of many of those who were imprisoned in the gaol between 1796 and 1830. On show in here is a display of hand-made bonnets made by many schools and local groups as part of the ‘Roses from the Heart’ project, run by Tasmanian artist Christina Henri in 2013. A number of local groups took part in this project which was international in its scope and which commemorated the thousands of women and children who were transported to Australia in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
While some of the people who were transported to Australia were hardened criminals many of them, and many of the woman, had done things which we would regard as quite trivial today. So in 1820 Jane Armstrong at the age of 16 was transported for seven years for stealing two spoons. In 1832 Mary Burns, who was born in Downpatrick, was transported for seven years on a charge of vagrancy, which today we would probably call homelessness. Quite a few women were sent away simply for vagrancy. Altogether something like 25,266 women were transported from Britain and Ireland to Australia and the artist Christina Henri has been trying to commemorate them both here and in Australia by getting people to make bonnets. Children in local schools were encouraged to make bonnets with the name of each woman on as well as the name of the ship she was transported on. Along with Canon Rogan I was very pleased to be asked to take part in a ‘blessing of the bonnets’ in the Museum at the time.
Down Museum has long been an excellent Museum but the new extension is a very impressive addition to its display that fits in well with the Museum’s care and appreciation of local history and its engagement with schools and the wider community.