Gallery of Wonder

The Gallery of Wonder was an Arts&Heritage project presented across Northumberland at seven agricultural shows, fairs, and events, during the Summer and Autumn of 2015.

The project

The Gallery of Wonder was a major touring exhibition of newly commissioned artworks by leading contemporary artists, funded by Arts Council England. Led by Arts&Heritage, the Gallery of Wonder referred back to the origins of museums – the collections of wonder and natural history and medical exhibits, shown within travelling caskets.

Delivered in collaboration with Irene Brown of Newcastle University, this contemporary Gallery of Wonder commissioned new work to engage new audiences in marvellous and magical contemporary art.

The mobile art gallery – housed in a large, black, customised tent – travelled to seven rural Northumbrian agricultural shows, fairs, and events during the Summer and Autumn of 2015. The gallery exhibited specially commissioned work by Aideen Barry, Mat Collishaw, Tessa Farmer, Polly Morgan and the Quay Brothers; alongside works by Irene Brown, Mark Fairnington and Aura Satz.

Irene Brown is a sculptor and site–specific installationist. Her research and practice is engaged with wonder, focusing on the history and philosophy of science, specifically cabinets of curiosity (wonder cabinets), investigating the threshold between aesthetic and scientific realms. In 2010 she established the Gallery of Wonder (GoW) as a discussion point and exhibition facility for research into the evocation of wonder through visual display.


“You would not expect to see this at a County Show, worth every penny. We need more of this, we cannot always afford to come to the city to see such work and experience new things. It deserves every success.” – Visitor to the Gallery Of Wonder at Spittal Seaside Festival, 2015

“I can never get my eldest grandson off his PC, he is always plugged in but in here he is looking and engaging and exploring. It is a real experience.” – Visitor to the Gallery Of Wonder at Woodhorn Miners’ Picnic, 2015

At each venue the crew erected the gallery: a big black circular tent decorated with countless piercing eyes, some set with small lenses providing a distorted peep into the shadowy interior. Outside, a ‘Barker’ (performed by artist Dennis Jobling) enticed the public to purchase a ‘magic ticket’ to gain entrance to the mysterious exhibit.

Within was an exhibition of new works of art created by seven nationally and internationally known artists who had responded to the idea of wonder; captivating an audience and holding them spellbound by what they see.

The atmosphere in the tent was frenetic at times, with visitors engaged intensively with each work, often forming small groups, family members and strangers together, pointing out and discussing particular features. They competed in making discoveries, debated intentions and argued different opinions. They interrogated the invigilators and made their own imaginative interpretations if no definitive answer was forthcoming. This degree of animation, excited discussion and unselfconscious interaction between visitors was of a type seldom, if ever, experienced in galleries and museums, and was further evidence that the tent setting maximised the sense of ‘ownership’ over the experience of viewing contemporary art.

The tented gallery made specific reference to the history of travelling booths and side shows at fairs, when items of curiosity such as waxworks of famous people, coronation tableaux and strange misshapen creatures were presented, juxtaposing the exotic and the amazing, the scientific and the fantastic and firing the imaginations of visitors.

“The Gallery of Wonder added something unusual and different to our show. It was very well received by our visitors.” – Judy Willis, Hexham Auction Mart Offices, May 2015 (Bywell, Stocksfield with 254,184 visitors)

“The black tent covered in piercing eyes caused a great deal of interest. Once inside, it gave an opportunity to encounter art at its most intriguing, giving visitors a chance to see art created by nationally & internationally known artists in a rural setting. This aroused the imagination of our visitors.” – May Wilson, Powburn Show, August 2015 with 2,000 visitors

“It gave visitors to our Seaside Festival a chance to view and appreciate different forms of art in a less formal place.” – Mike Greener, Spittal, Berwick upon tweed in August, 2015


“This degree of animation, excited discussion and unselfconscious interaction between visitors was of a type seldom, if ever, experienced in galleries and museums, and was further evidence that the tent setting maximised the sense of ‘ownership’ over the experience of viewing contemporary art.” – Irene Brown, extract from The Gallery of Wonder on Tour, 2021, Arts&Heritage Anniversary Publication

Four years after their experience at the Gallery of Wonder, Arts&Heritage contacted the venues involved, funders and supporters of the project, to ask them how the tent had impacted their approach to, and involvement of contemporary art. Feedback demonstrated that the tent had had a lasting impact:

“Between Newcastle and Edinburgh there is so little art that you’ve got to really want to see it – this brought the art to the people. We would love to do more like this.” – Mike Greener, Spittal Seaside Festival

“It’s expanded the range of events that we offer – we have had a large marquee for local artists’ in 2017 and 2018. We would like to have something again for 2020.” – Judy Willis, Northumberland County Show

“The Gallery of Wonder build on our confidence in programming future contemporary art projects – now our events have expanded beyond just Woodhorn Museum, more venue-based opportunities like this would be welcome.” – Liz Ritson, Woodhorn Miners’ Picnic

“For Arts&Heritage, the Gallery of Wonder had a profound impact on how we view placing contemporary work in non-gallery situations and the delivery of such projects in isolated, rural locations.” – Judith King, Arts&Heritage

“The project stands as a rare exemplar of effective and high quality arts engagement in rural communities.” – Nicholas Baumfield, Arts Council England

“We entered into dialogue with the communities regarding issues of creating and exhibiting art and the definitions of what may be considered ‘contemporary’. This developed our knowledge and has driven us forward to consider further projects with similar audiences.” – Judith King, Arts&Heritage

“It will have influenced how those committees plan their shows and what they are comfortable planning for their audiences in the future. Given the self-evidently traditional nature of the shows and their communities, making even incremental change is significant.” – Nicholas Baumfield, Arts Council England

“People who don’t normally engage with arts/cultural projects [were] intrigued, perhaps even inspired and supported to looks at the arts in a broader, more informed way.” – Wendy Scott, Northumberland County Council

“What made this project special / relevant was the element of research that made it site specific. Art needs to be rooted in authentic meaning.” – Wendy Scott, Northumberland County Council


Log in

Sign up

Sign up to access the Knowledge Base.

Sign up to Resource Hub