By Elizabeth Dale, contributing writer at myCornwall.
If you are looking to feel closer to an ancestor, uncover more about your village’s past, discover something fascinating about the history of Cornwall and its people, or simply relax and read a book in a calm and welcoming space, then there is only one place you should be heading. After years of planning and anticipation Kresen Kernow, the new home for all of Cornwall’s archives, opened in Redruth in September 2019.
Kresen Kernow, which means simply ‘Cornwall Centre’, now houses the world’s largest collection of documents, books, maps, newspapers and photographs relating to Cornwall. This state-of-the-art archive centre, now one of the finest in Europe, was built within the crumbling shell of the former Redruth Brewery building and now offers the visitor an absolute treasure trove of local knowledge as well as educational talks and exhibition spaces.
The project, begun in earnest in 2012, has been a monumental undertaking, pardon the pun, but the resulting building is truly a celebration of the history of the site and Cornwall’s heritage. The light, bright contemporary interior incorporates many of the original features from the once derelict brewery site, including the magnificent 100 year old, 30 metre high red brick chimney which is the last of its kind in the area. Large windows and a huge sky-light let the natural light pour in and make the building feel open to the elements. Inside the visitor can discover a library of 60,000 printed books from fiction in the Cornish language to historical tomes. There are also quiet and comfortable study areas.
Importantly the new exhibition spaces enable Kresen Kernow to showcase some of the archive’s 1.5 million documents, from diaries to wills and letters, parish registers to indentures, all Cornish life is valued and preserved. In the utterly absorbing glass display cases in the Treasures Room the public can see, often for the first time, some the rarest, most precious and surprising treasures from Cornwall’s past. Treasures that have been hidden away in strongrooms until now.
Kresen Kernow is now enabling the centre’s passionate and knowledgeable staff to present the history of Cornwall in a modern and engaging way. The new facilities are designed to encourage visits not only from those researching their family trees or looking for deeds to their house but from local schools, colleges and universities so that the younger members of our community can experience how exciting the past can be.
“We will continue to grow our activity programme, working with different groups and trying different events and activities.” Chloe Phillips, the Learning Lead at Kresen Kernow, tells me, “We have lots of schools booked into our lovely learning room and are still running our outreach programme. We’ve also got lots of university and college visits booked in too, as well as activities with different groups. We’re always trying new things, such as an after-school manga drawing club inspired by our collections.”
And the plan is to really nurture that engagement. Nearly 12,000 school children have already participated in workshops and activities since work at the site began.
Vitally the new Kresen Kernow has made a huge difference to the archive’s ability to store and look after Cornwall’s written history. The old facilities at the Record Office in Truro had been bursting at the seams for many years. There were collections that the archivists were desperate to give a home to but they were unable to store due to lack of space. The new centre provides a staggering 14 miles of shelving in its strongrooms. This extra space will give the archive plenty of room to grow and securing its future for many years to come.
It has been a hugely complicated and at times stressful undertaking moving not only the sheer volume of material but often material that was often in a delicate condition.
“Moving 850 years of history onto 16,000 shelves was a mammoth undertaking,” says Chloe, “and there were some stresses and strains along the way, but everyone has settled in well . . . reaction has been very positive, lots of praise for the building. We’re all delighted with the new spaces we have and the opportunities they give us to look after collections better and share them more widely.”
The extra space also means that the essential work of preservation is much easier too. Materials come into the archive from a wide range of sources from individual donations to large collections from landowning families. The collections are often suffering from the ravages of age and need cleaning and preserving before they can join the rest of the archive. Kresen Kernow has also been working hard to make the archive accessible in the modern world. It is a long and painstaking process but to date they have, with the help of volunteers, digitised more than 8000 items, including many fascinating images from their collection of hundreds of thousands of photographs.
There are exciting plans to open a cosy café on the site, which is a lovely, short walk along the leat from the town of Redruth, as another way of drawing people in to the building. But what is clear is that Kresen Kernow is not just about bringing all of Cornwall’s archives together, this building and the people in it are also passionate about bringing the Cornish communities, both here and further afield, together too. This space is one that we should all be proud to have available to us and one we should take the time to enjoy.
To read more from Liz, visit her blog The Cornish Bird and follow her on Facebook and Twitter @TheCornishBird.