Nottingham Castle’s gates have reopened after a major redevelopment, which will establish the historic location as a world-class heritage destination. The project aims to be a catalyst for Nottingham’s regeneration, creating a stronger visitor economy for the city.
The all-new visitor experience is a journey that reinterprets the historic site through the prism of both its world-famous legend of Robin Hood and its very real history of rebellion. The grounds and caves opened on 21 June 2021. They offer an all-new visitor experience that is the culmination of nearly a decade of work.
In the transformation by museum and exhibition designers Casson Mann, the key attraction is an immersive Robin Hood experience. This starts in a new ground-level extension and encompasses the castle grounds as well as rooms within the historic Ducal Palace. This stands on the site of the original castle, which was itself destroyed in 1651 on the orders of Parliamentarian John Hutchinson.
Further new exhibitions explore Nottingham’s history of revolts and rebellion and its role in the rise of democracy. The site’s history and archaeological features are celebrated and united in a compelling visitor experience.
Blooloop spoke with Cal Warren, Nottingham Castle HLF Programme Manager, Sara Blair Manning, CEO of Nottingham Castle Trust, Richard Hamblin, Project Director for the Nottingham Castle Project, and Jon Williams, lead designer and director at Casson Mann, about the process.
Telling the narrative of Robin Hood
“It was an enormous project,” Cal Warren says. “I’ve been working on it for eight years, and we have travelled some journey in that time. There was the original idea where Robin Hood would be front and centre in the project. One of our key funders wanted to major on looking at the historic content of Robin Hood.
“Over that time, we’ve evolved a project that tells the narrative of Robin Hood in an engaging and charming way. But it’s not necessarily the story of Robin Hood that everyone knows and understands in the 21st century.”
The project walks a fine balance between historical fact and legend. It is the legend that draws people, but it is a legend with its origins in a rich history:
“In the museum prior to closing for this project, we were always very conscious that visitors would arrive on-site not only expecting to see a medieval castle, but also something that was very much around Robin Hood.
“In terms of an audience experience, that may have been disappointing when they reached the museum, which has some remarkable collections of Roman antiquities, fine art, and our own collection of machine-made lace.
“There are some outstanding collections alongside medieval craft. But they will not meet the expectation of people that have come thinking that they’re going to get Robin Hood. They come expecting something sweet, and then they end up with something that’s savoury.”
The process involved moving people from one expectation to another, she explains:
“There was a lot of thinking in terms of changing people’s ideas and meeting some of those expectations. One of those was the landscaping of the area of the site itself.”
“There are seven features of the mediaeval castle that remain. We revealed and showcased them, and knocked back the more municipal approaches that had been applied to the site over time. We removed pathways, we took away rockeries and tried to reveal the mediaeval.
“Internally, in terms of the interpretation, we did take the approach of Robin Hood. We looked at the balance, which was the historic folklore context of how Robin Hood had been manifest over centuries.”
A high level of engagement
The project had its inception in 2012.
“The thing about Nottingham is that everyone has an opinion about the castle. I used to tell people what I did, and they would invariably say, ‘I’ll tell you what you should do with the castle…’ On one level, it’s remarkable, because that heightened level of ownership about the site reflects a high level of engagement. Equally, there is a high number of people with perspectives that might not be possible on a historic site.”
Nottingham Castle is a scheduled ancient monument:
“It’s on the same level as Stonehenge; limited in terms of what we are able to achieve. But equally, we need to celebrate what we do have, not what we don’t. The reason we don’t still have the mediaeval castle itself is because it was too important. It had to be destroyed because it was so strategically important. So some of that narrative is really compelling, in terms of visitors coming to the site.”
Regenerating Nottingham Castle
Returning to the project’s inception, she says:
“It was clear after many years that it was looking tired. Typically, museums tend only to refresh one gallery at a time. Equally, with constrained budgets, the site itself was starting to feel dated. There was a very eclectic interpretation of those collections that we hold on-site. It really needed a wholesale review.
“There was a certain element of looking at the asset of Nottingham Castle, addressing the issue of not meeting visitors’ expectations, but, equally, using the narrative of Robin Hood. Visitors are going to come. It’s not a matter of ‘build it and they will come’; they come, and we haven’t built it, so there is a requirement to meet some of that expectation. You don’t want people just to come once; you want them to come many times.”
There were, then, multiple factors at play even prior to the 2012 submission:
“The factors concerned were grabbing hold of the narrative of Robin Hood, using the site as an economic driver for the city, and, equally, starting to major on the collections that we have got; to celebrate those and to celebrate the site.”
The Festival of Caves
One of the emerging narratives, she says, was the caves:
“They were included in the original bid, but later emerged as a complete USP. The caves are remarkable, all manmade. At the start, we thought we had over 400 caves under Nottingham, across the city, in the sandstone. By the end, we were near a thousand caves. They’d been started to be investigated and recategorized; there was a lot of increased awareness and interest. A city archaeologist was particularly keen on the caves.
“We developed, as part of the project, a Festival of Caves annual event. This is where, over one weekend, we would open caves that the public couldn’t generally have access to. Ones that are underneath banks, or are used as storerooms in shops.”
“Some of the caves under Nottingham Castle have some of the greatest narratives of treachery and murderous rebellion in their uses. Then you go from the sublime to the ridiculous: some of them were used for storing sweets – the confectioner used them. And then there were all the uses in between, nefarious or otherwise.
“When stone was expensive to quarry, it was infinitely easier to cut with hand tools into the sandstone. You would have been easily able to have created a dwelling without a significant amount of effort.”
Guided cave tours
The cave festival was an unexpected success:
“We knew people would be interested. But then one of the last activities we did was open up the catacombs, which are under Rock Cemetery in the city. It was just remarkable. I can remember saying to the guide that had organized it, ‘I think you might need to put on a few more tours.’
“That was echoed multiple times across the city.”
People engaged with the cave tours in droves:
“We had a Cosmic Ray Cave Cinema, showing everything that seemed appropriate. All films that people would have easily have access to on TV or streaming, but they had the experience of watching Pan’s Labyrinth in a cave.”
Nottingham Castle puts the visitor at the heart of the experience
Sara Blair-Manning, CEO of Nottingham Castle Trust, offering her perspective on the project, says:
“It’s different for the operator, obviously, as opposed to the capital project team. Cal has been so involved for so many years. Meanwhile the charitable trust – we’re the operator for the next 30 years – has been involved for about 6 years in total. I’ve been involved in some way or another with that either as a trustee or, now, as the chief exec.
“From an operator’s point of view, putting the visitor at the heart of the experience is key; that combination of the thematic approach, blending Robin Hood with that wider thousand-year history of rebellion and protest and activism, as well as the medieval elements of the site.”
There are also the museum’s collections:
“They are a gift in terms of an operator’s remit. Because you’ve got so many things you can hang so many different programming elements, activities, events, and also marketing on.
“That very strong ownership that people feel about their castle is a good starting point in terms of creating a strong visitor connection with the new-look castle. It is also a support network, of people wanting to volunteer, visit, or support the castle in other ways.”
Learning more about the city’s heritage
The collection is multifaceted.
“The machine-made lace collection is outstanding,” Warren says.
Initially, lace textiles were outside her personal areas of interest. The more she learned out about the technological achievements involved in creating machine-made lace, the more fascinated she became:
“It was a remarkable set of coincidences, technological developments, and knowledge within the clock working industry originally, that was then applied to textile machines and reinvented to create a machine that could twist and move a thread across many threads to create beautiful, intricate lacework. It left me absolutely astonished.”
One of the key collections is of mediaeval Nottingham alabasters:
“They were mostly destroyed as part of the dissolution of the monasteries. As a consequence, we have 26 artefacts that were originally displayed where the design intent had been to make it look like they were hidden. Whereas we’ve taken them out of that display. We show them theatrically in the best lighting, in front of a very large lightbox showing stained glass window photography.”
“The other collection is a salt glaze collection. These two collections form our early craft gallery. Salt glaze is, essentially, a piece of industrial espionage from a German manufacturer of salt glaze. It was brought to Nottingham, and reinterpreted to become the IKEA ware of the time; mass-produced utility stoneware, which is just beautiful. It has the most remarkable lustre.
“So we have both the lace and the early craft, then we finish on a flourish with the founding collections that we have in the city, and with our fine art collection.”
There is an impressive amount of information for specialist groups. Plus there is also an accessible level of entry in terms of the offer for people who just want a day out:
“Some people just want to see the best 10 items in the fine art collection or to learn something about Robin Hood. We’re just waiting, waiting for COVID to disappear into the distance, and then we can get going with it.”
Nottingham Castle and the impact of COVID
Warren tackles the impact of COVID in the project, saying:
“There was some ambiguity in terms of the directive from central government on construction. In some respects, that part of the program concerning base build was relatively unaffected. There were times when our capacity and delivery dropped down to about 60%. But we continued to deliver throughout.”
“Equally, we had a window of opportunity where our exhibition team came through just at the point where the first lockdown was starting to be relaxed. So we maximized that opportunity.”
At that point, she explains, everyone believed that opening was going to be achievable in early 2021:
“We had to work on that basis. Some of the biggest challenges were on-site, doing some of the digital program work around the filmmaking for both the Robin Hood gallery and the Rebellion gallery.
“So there were some challenges. But the digital product was created in studios around the country, and they were able to continue to deliver it relatively well. One of the only aspects that I would have liked to have done more on was testing.”
“But again, with the archery and the quarterstaff games in Robin Hood Adventures, one of the most innovative and technical applications between software and hardware, we were able to get some in-house testing by small focus groups.
“There were times where we were able to do some archery testing in London with [Bafta-winning games developer] Preloaded. We got some six-year-olds that were able to come in as part of the family group. It was genuinely difficult trying to get them off the game.”
Testing the experience
“I would just echo what Cal says; as an operator, we have extensive plans to work with the capital project team to bring in different types of visitor groups and to test out certain areas of the experience, the pinch-points, the stickiness of the interactives, and how people interplay with them, how they relate in terms of groups around them, how they are situating themselves.”
“These are all things that, when you’re doing one gallery at a time in a site that’s currently running, you don’t need to test so extensively. But when you are doing a wholesale replacement of everything, the ideal situation is to understand how people are moving, and what they are responding more effectively to in certain areas.
“People do linger at certain things because for whatever reason you’ve got the alchemy right. That’s been frustrating for both the capital team and the operation team.”
Nottingham Castle’s impact on the area
The project will have a significant economic impact on the local area.
“According to one of the reports that we were looking at in the first instance, we know that over 10 years of operation, there would be an increase on the economic impact of £90 million, in direct and indirect benefit.
“We always saw that Nottingham Castle itself would become an anchor destination. And that we would then springboard people out to the other experiences and heritage offers within the city, and out to the county and then to the rest of the East Midlands.”
“We always had high aspirations. These are based on years of experience of understanding where people came from and why they came to the castle. This was because of the narrative of Robin Hood. Robin Hood was always, clearly our hook. We understand from the international market that Robin Hood is the most recognized brand in the North American market.”
“In terms of other benefits, there are job creation opportunities for the city around DWP and Kickstarter programmes.
“As an operator, we’re looking at assisting individuals who have found real hardship in relation to COVID-19 and getting back into the job market, as well as looking at our volunteer offer. We want to be able to give the experience of working within the heritage sector, or even just getting back to work.”
The rebellious nature of Nottingham
Because of the pandemic, the audience is likely to be predominantly local and regional visitors for the first 9-12 months.
“Alongside the caves, which were an asset that we wanted to develop,” Warren adds, “we have an emerging theme. That is the rebellious nature of Nottingham. It wasn’t part of our collection policy originally. But over the last eight years, we’ve started to develop that collection, and have acquired objects that support that narrative – of Nottingham being a bit chippy, and not supporting the prevailing institutions or powers.”
“That nature that has been personified by Robin Hood has a very long and enduring narrative.”
The legend can, therefore, inform the actual history, and vice versa.
A contemporary slant
Beyond that, Blair-Manning says:
“I also think that there’s a way of taking the majority of the items in the collection and putting a contemporary slant on them.
“There are some hidden histories and untold stories around the collection. Especially within the long gallery, the decorative and fine art collection. Here, we have tried to do a much more representative hang. There are artists of colour, female artists, artists of different sexual orientations, and of disability.”
“We still have a significant amount of work left to do. There are stories we can tell around some of the objects that need fleshing out further to share with audiences. There are aspects of some of the pieces that will be shown eventually. We can tie some of those conversations into the recent Black Lives Matter movement, the new-gen movement, Russell T Davies talking on It’s a Sin, the AIDS crisis.
“There are many things we can bring into the conversations in the way that we share each different item, or through a thematic approach that not only ties in with the thousand years of rebellious history and Robin Hood, but looks forward, and at the contemporary history that’s happening right now.
“It’s really exciting and unusual that there were so many different aspects of the site and collection that we can pull out to enhance some of those stories.”
Interactive experiences at Nottingham Castle
“That contemporary interpretation is key. When we started this project and started looking at rebellion, Me Too hadn’t happened; the Trump regime hadn’t happened. The idea is that we don’t know what the next line in the debate is going to be. The Trust is very well geared up to having that next line in the debate, and establishing how it can be demonstrated or manifest for a collection.”
“In terms of the additional interactive elements in some of the galleries and the way that we are sharing information, it’s not just the Robin Hood gallery that has audiovisual assets, the Longbow and tabletop games, and so on. It runs through the whole of the Rebellion gallery and also into the Craft galleries as well.”
“It’s about understanding where that sweet spot is between how people are learning now; how much more visual we are in terms of learning as a society, and that encouragement to interact and create on the creative gallery.
“You can throw and decorate a pot on a screen within the early craft gallery. People will learn as much around the salt glaze and alabaster from doing the interactive activities as they will from reading some of the text on the gallery.
“So there’s a whole multilayered approach in terms of the way we’re sharing the narrative, the way that we’re sharing learning, and recognising different learning styles, and the way that we are allowing our visitors to be part of the conversation around everything that we are sharing with them.”
A world-class attraction
“We are really positive about the amazing capital project,” she adds:
“We think it is of exceptional quality and has pulled out exactly the right approaches for visitors to enjoy. It has given us the opportunity to extend that dwell time from, prior to the capital project, about one and a half to two hours max on-site to a full day visit, with really good reasons to return in terms of the overlaid programming approach and the number of things that you can do on-site, which can’t be done in a day.”
We think it is of exceptional quality and has pulled out exactly the right approaches for visitors to enjoy
“The approach that the capital team and designers have taken has been one of exceptional quality, and one of really understanding what a variety of different visitor types wants to get from a visit to Nottingham Castle.”
Bringing the Nottingham Castle vision to life
Richard Hamblin is Project Director for the Nottingham Castle Project. He joined the team in 2015 to help oversee the transition from development to reality.
“Originally I was a trustee at the Castle Trust. I switched sides to take on the project management role. This is about being involved in project work in a city that has a lasting legacy.
“Traditionally I’ve worked in commercial finance roles, which were very much about making money. This is my third community-based type of role thinking about the city and its development and how you bring it to life rather than just worry about making money.
“The appeal of this project is that both Robin Hood and the castle are incredibly well known. But it was always seen as something that Nottingham city didn’t make the best use of. The castle and site were tired. So there was a real opportunity to make a step-change, rather than an incremental one.
“Once the funding fell into place through the various sources that were available, there were no roadblocks.”
Something for everyone
Due to COVID, the marketing focus has shifted from international to local and regional audiences:
“Within a 90 minute drive-time of Nottingham, there is an audience of 9 million-plus. This will keep us going for many years.”
The castle’s reimagined offering is on multiple levels:
“There will be some visitors to whom everything appeals. But we have a spread to try and make sure we attract as many visitors as possible. There is an adventure playground for the 12 and under; there is the craft gallery and lace. This is a little bit more of a specialism, but there’s quite a high interest in it.”
“There is a great deal of interest in learning about Nottingham’s history. I’ve lived in Nottingham for 40 years, and you do forget the stories with time. There will be a lot of people in Nottinghamshire who won’t have appreciated the story of the castle or the events that took place there. So I’m expecting a very positive response.
“People will want to understand the history of the city. A local historian recently remarked that people would travel the world to see some of the historical items we have on display. Things that, previously, the museum did not display particularly well or in a modern way.
“That’s one of the things that Casson Mann have done – beautifying the galleries and bringing them up to the state of the art, in terms of displaying these items optimally.”
Supporting storytelling at Nottingham Castle
Jon Williams is director of interpretive design practice at Casson Mann. Speaking about his role, he says:
“We’ve been working on the project since about the middle of May 2015. We have been the lead consultant on the permanent gallery, although, obviously, the project is much bigger than that, with the renovation of the building, a new visitor centre on the grounds, and so on. It’s been a long six years of development.
“In terms of the creative process, our job was to create the physical environment for the visitor experience. We’re there to support storytelling.
“The creative process at the beginning is really intensive, working with the content teams at the museum, trying to tease out the aspects of their collections that they want to display, the stories they want to tell, and how best to make them more interesting for their visitors.
“That’s a fairly standard thing for us. What makes this project unique is that some of the galleries are very collection-heavy, and with others, like the Robin Hood gallery, there are no collections, and no evidence.”
In terms of challenges, he says:
“There were two things that we came up against when we started, which confirmed something sone Nottingham friends of mine had told me. They always talked about how disappointed they were with the castle. Because when you arrive there, first of all, there isn’t a castle, and secondly, there is no Robin Hood.
“You’re dealing with that disappointment right from the beginning. At the start, the whole team felt that we should tackle both those issues head-on.”
“I got the sense that this project had been long in the making and that there was a weight of expectation on the whole team. What we brought to the process was fresh eyes and then lots of ignorance, I guess.
“We just said, ‘OK, so what’s this, what can we do? In a way, the fact we don’t know anything when we start is a strength that we bring to projects. We’re a good advocate for the visitors because most of us turn up at these sorts of experiences without a lot of knowledge; they just have expectations.
“We’re like that when we start. So we ask a lot of questions of the client team because they assume that people know what they know. We ask difficult questions. For instance, we ask whether the visitors are really going to be interested in what they’re interested in. That can be quite interesting. We have a lot of experience now in doing this. But it’s a difficult line to tread because we are challenging people’s experience and expectations.”
Opening up stories
“The worst thing you can do is create a gallery by curators for curators,” says Williams. What we try and do is find ways that we can open up objects and stories to visitors. Without sacrificing putting wonderful objects on display.
“That’s a skill we’ve developed by specializing in this for the last 25 years. We like to think we’re quite good at it. But this has been a real test because of that range of gallery types, from ones that required the content to be developed, like the Robin Hood gallery, to galleries that needed objects to be displayed.”
“In terms of the process, the key milestone in this particular project and many like it is it getting through the lottery funding process.”
For the first year the work was in developing concepts which the Heritage Lottery Fund then scrutinized:
“They have to be very robust and defendable. That’s a lot of hard work. The HLF process is very good. Because they do ask even more difficult questions about the sustainability of the business plan and future maintenance and all those things that the client has to worry about.
“That was the major hurdle. We completed the design in about October 2018. Then it went out to tender and went through the rather difficult fabrication and installation stage, but on the whole, it was a really enjoyable process.”
A more active experience at Nottingham Castle
Commenting on the move from a passive to a more active, exploratory audience experience, he says:
“I think the whole boom in museums as part of the lottery fund demanded everyone should move away from a passive approach.
“We were involved in a lot of early projects at the Science Museum and at the Imperial War Museum which even challenged us, in terms of ensuring that these things are not passive and, perhaps more importantly, in giving visitors an emotional experience.
“We did the Churchill Museum for the Imperial War Museum quite a long time ago. After the event, we did some visitor evaluations. The emotional response some people had was incredible; some good, some bad, obviously. Churchill can be a divisive figure, but the level of emotional response was something that none of us was expecting.
“I think part of that was because it gave visitors an opportunity to find out about the man themselves; it gave them the leeway to explore.
“With the Nottingham Castle project, we’ve set up this journey. You enter the tunnel almost into the basement of the castle to visit the Robin Hood galleries. Obviously, Robin Hood is this legend of rebellion and fighting for justice. This leads nicely to some real-life rebellious events in Nottingham. Then, when you move into the more refined Ducal palace, you’ve got a series of galleries that explore creativity and industry.”
Creativity and rebellion
Williams sees creativity as the flip side of rebellion:
“There’s a nice journey there. It goes from fighting for justice to pushing boundaries and becomes about a more refined society. It’s not written down and it’s not explained in any way. But I think perceptive visitors may get that there is a journey here.
“And that is something we spoke about right at the beginning of the process. How this journey from the city up to this citadel in Nottingham, and then through the building up to the refined museum at the top is actually the vision for the experience. It really does underpin this idea that visitors need to explore by themselves. Rather than the museum telling them which way to go, and what to do, and in what order. “
“The way a museum presents things has to allow room for a visitor to think for themselves; to consider what they might think about an object or a display. Then there are the more obvious things where you have interactives that allow you to get two-way feedback. There are plenty of digital games that are about finding out information by playing a role and that’s quite important.”
Future plans for Nottingham Castle
There are budgets in the business plan for a three-year, five-year, and 10-year, refresh:
“I know there’s an ambition to change and refresh the hang. In particular in the Long Gallery, which is the big painting gallery in the museum. The council’s activity plan through the development of this project has been incredible; the outreach involving the local community groups and stakeholders has been really impressive.
“We haven’t had involvement in that. But the critical thing about these projects is that, yes, we might create something that looks great when it opens on day one, but it has to live as a live, evolving place that is constantly changing, and where there are things going on and plenty of activity that underpins that.
“Without that side of it, the best design just becomes something that people get bored with and don’t want to come back to. So I think they’re really on the ball with that.
“It’s been a real privilege to work on it.”
Images of Nottingham Castle, galleries & experiences courtesy of BECK/David Copeman, unless otherwise stated