Willmott Dixon staff are learning a thing or two about ancient Egypt during their renovation of Bolton Museum.
I had hoped my first experience of Open Doors would deliver something different to the usual site visit, and Willmott Dixon building manager Graham Leigh doesn’t disappoint.
As we tour the contractor’s refurbishment of Bolton Museum, he breaks off from talking about steel frames to tell us a little about King Thutmose III, ruler of Egypt in 1450 BC.
A replica of Thutmose’s sarcophagus will be one of the main attractions at the museum when the renovation completes towards the end of this summer. Mr Leigh’s impromptu sidenote shows how a job like this gets under people’s skin.
The importance of the museum’s regeneration is reflected in the turnout for our Open Doors tour.
One guy tells me he’s from a society that meets regularly at the museum, and he asks plenty of eager questions about the project’s progress. Another visitor is a plumber from a nearby site who lives in the area and has been waiting for a chance to peek inside the museum.
Mr Leigh says: “A lot of people don’t understand how a refurbishment gets from A to B. All they know is it takes a long time.”
He thinks Open Doors helps people appreciate what goes into a construction project. One local woman on the tour, who has followed the scheme closely from its conception, says she is only now appreciating just how complex the job is.
The stone-clad, steel-framed museum was originally opened in two phases either side of the Second World War.
Bolton Museum collections manager Sam Elliott tells me it was built to send a message that Bolton was thriving and had a strong cultural heart – and to show off its remarkable collection of ancient Egyptian artefacts.
However, by the 2000s the interior was starting to show its age. In 2016 the museum secured £3.8m from the local authority and central government to fix up its entrance area, gallery and the main museum.
Most of the attention is focusing on the roof and ceilings. Bizarrely, previous custodians installed suspended ceilings in some rooms and blocked out much of the light coming through the 585 windows that adorn the roof.
The refurbishment, which began in July last year, has ripped down these ceilings and replaced windows, with the addition of the same UV filters the Louvre uses to protect its artwork. Light now floods into the rooms upstairs, showing off the freshly repaired and cleaned pale terrazzo stonework.
All this work is being carried out while the ground floor of the building, which houses a library, remains open.
Mr Leigh tells me Willmott Dixon works closely with the museum to minimise disruption, which means the team doing some out-of-hours work – especially when cleaning the terrazzo stonework, which required harsh acids that produced noxious fumes.
Ms Elliott hopes the refurbishment will give Bolton the same boost the museum provided when it first opened.
“The prestige of this job is unbelievable,” Mr Leigh adds. “It has been a privilege to work on, and hopefully I’ll be here when I’m 80 and I can be that old person pointing and saying, ‘I did this’.”