What a difference a day makes…
As Storm Doris descended on the UK, it affected many tourist attractions within Nottingham, altering the visitor experience. Continuing my exploration of a new city I visited two new sites, Nottingham Castle and Wollaton Hall, and what a difference 24 hours makes.
Nottingham Castle was my first destination and it was a bit wet and windy, as we chatted to a staff member measuring the wind speed outside the Castle’s entrance. The first gallery we discovered was Every Object Tells a Story, featuring decorative arts pieces, whether practical and/or aesthetic, showcasing a myriad of cultures, times and disciplines. It discussed the multiple meanings, process development and importance of different objects, allowing the audience to engage with and identify pieces that were also relevant to them.
This was expanded further by the People’s Choice project, a local community of volunteers who meet monthly to contribute to the object choices within the exhibition space. This is a key example of the transfer of power and knowledge from curator to participant and ownership of the collection, especially if it has a local connection. Visitors also get to contribute by writing a response to the objects on display, making me consider what I would choose to put on display in a museum and why.
The Threads exhibition highlighted the connections across time and place of key items of fashion and materials that we all use, drawing on their similarities and differences, as well as inspirations, especially in connection to Nottingham’s lace heritage.
Nottingham Castle felt like a Russian doll of museums, housing the Museum of the Mercian Regiment documenting local soldiers and their contributions during international combat. There were several examples of military uniforms and also the opportunity to lift the rucksacks of soldiers from the First and Second World War, as well as current soldiers, with the difference in weight proving hugely significant. The resources and equipment modern day soldiers now have to carry to undertake their role and defend themselves has changed dramatically over the last 100 years.
It became apparent the weather was getting worse, as we were informed that no more visitors were being let onto the site and that we were experiencing a “lock in”. With only a handful of other people in the building, I felt like a VIP wandering the galleries and receiving priority on participatory activities. This didn’t last long, as less than an hour later we unfortunately had to leave due to safety concerns, posing further problems for the site as they were hosting a launch event for British Triathlon, showcasing the diversity of Museum usage.
As I am now a resident of Nottingham, I was able to transfer my entrance ticket to an annual pass, so I can go back and visit the Castle again to discover new areas and to explore the caves beneath the city.
Next day, new site, and this time it was Wollaton Hall.
If it wasn’t for fallen tree branches littering the park and its paths, you wouldn’t have thought there had been a bad storm less than 24 hours previously as the sun was shining, the wind was calm and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. This Elizabethan prodigy house was designed by architect Robert Smythson and built between 1580-1588, taking inspiration from multiple cultures. It would later influence other buildings, including Hardwick Hall. The hall sits high on the hillside, providing beautiful views of the city and on one side of the building the outside façade is elaborate, with the opposite side plain, so you knew your status in society as you approached the hall.
The first room we visited was the Regency Salon, decorated as a 1920s vintage tearoom, accompanied by authentic music played on a vinyl record player. The typeface used to present the room matched the same time period and transported you back to this era. The space is available to hire for weddings and was used in the filming of Batman: Dark Knight Rises.
In Cassandra’s Room were beautiful, intricate 3D paper designs littering the large dining room table, communicating the story of Cassandra Willoughby who became mistress of the hall in 1686, along with additional material hidden within the drawers of the table. There were plenty of opportunities for audience participation, including creating your own family portrait, whether this was hand drawn or physically trying on clothing from this time period, which I duly obliged and posted photographs on to social media.
We attended the Prospect Room tour of the Hall and received behind the scene access to the site. The Prospect Room is the highest room in the Hall and accessed via a spiral staircase. There previously had been two spiral staircases to the room but the elaborate wall and ceiling paints at one end of the house resulted in one staircase being blocked up. The room itself was never utilised, built as a decorational feature of the hall to communicate the stature of its owners and their importance in the area. You receive a panoramic view of the city from this room, but also from the Hall roof where this tour led us and we could see the grounds of the hall, which includes a Deer Park.
We were informed of Wollaton Hall’s contribution and role during the Second World War, housing the 508th US Parachute Infantry Regiment in its grounds, for which there is a memorial statue, and also providing space for German POWs, whose lodgings were built by Italian POWs. The Hall hosts a 1940s weekend during the summer to commemorate the Second World War and the site is regularly visited by relations of those who lived in the grounds during this conflict.
Similarly to Nottingham Castle, Wollaton Hall has a museum within itself, housing the Museum of Natural History, installed in 1926 following the purchase of the Hall by Nottingham City Council in 1924. It raises the ongoing debate surrounding taxidermy, whether it is animal cruelty, a necessary scientific and conservation process or an outdated practice? There is a full size giraffe on display, along with George the Gorilla, who has his own twitter account! (@george_gorilla).
Wollaton Hall has utilised many objects in situ to communicate additional information about each room and story of the site. Messages are presented on cushions, placed for visitors’ comfort, as well as on the window blinds used to protect the objects in the natural history galleries, providing a dual purpose for these practical conservation tools, that blend unobtrusively into the space.
I have since revisited Wollaton Hall and undertaken the Tudor Kitchen tour. Until this tour I wasn’t aware of the caves underneath the Hall and that the site has a natural spring channelled to it and a reservoir to store the water, so pure and clear. It felt like a private tour as there was only myself, and fellow intern Siân on the tour, and we had the undivided attention of the guide. I learnt a lot from the tour, not only about the house (the yellow paint discovered in the kitchen was made with pigs urine and lime) but also origins of phrases, both local and national, including bed and board, where staff would pay the chef to sleep in the kitchen, turning over the board that would be used to prepare food on for staff to sleep on.
I would highly recommend visiting both sites, as well as attending the tours at Wollaton Hall, as they are exceedingly informative. If you would like more information about each site, please check out their individual websites:
- Nottingham Castle: http://www.nottinghamcastle.org.uk/
- Wollaton Hall: http://www.wollatonhall.org.uk/
By Anne-Marie Rooney, Resilience Syndicate Intern at Mansfield Museum