Nottingham Castle is reopening to visitors after a six-year restoration and redesign effort led in part by design studio Casson Mann.
Once a medieval fortress, Nottingham Castle was essentially raised to the ground in the early 1800s by rioters. It was rebuilt some decades later to house an art gallery and museum, but little of the original structure remains.
“A world-class heritage site”
“Rebuilding” the structure into a “world class heritage site” has long been on the cards – Casson Mann originally won the pitch for the work in 2014. Work began in 2015 and since then, the team has led the concept, design direction and design management of the project, while architecture firm Purcell has led the building work.
Studio director and project lead Jon Williams explains Casson Mann developed six galleries across the site for the project. These include a range of “media-based galleries and object-rich galleries” he says, as well as two interactive gallery experiences.
Additionally, the team has developed an outdoor interpretation for the castle site, which seeks to depict views of the castle as they would have been experienced when it was still standing.
“It was brave to focus on a theme like Robin Hood”
One of the main aims of the project was to connect the design with the legend of Robin Hood. Williams explains the stories of the benevolent outlaw are “synonymous” with the local area.
Williams says the aim of the interactive experiences was “not to compete with Hollywood”. It is intentionally still an educational experience, he says, even though it treads the line between entertainment and learning.
“We’ve all seen the Robin Hood films, and we didn’t think it was a good idea to try and replicate them in a museum setting,” he says. And being a museum, he explains it was an interesting challenge to consolidate the setting with stories that may or may not be true.
The team focused on the stories surrounding Robin Hood – even if the narratives are not true, the tradition of telling these tales is important to the site.
This has informed one of the interactive experiences, which sees visitors enclosed in a forest clearing and surrounded by seven projection screens. Three on-screen characters converse between themselves, thereby exploring the legend of the outlaw and mimicking the tradition of communal storytelling.
This storytelling element is supported by two interactive games for kids and adults alike, which further immerse visitors in the Robin Hood legend. This part of the project was delivered in collaboration with AV and digital partners Squint Opera, Preloaded, Jam Creative Studio, Bottletop, Spiral Productions and Sideburn Panda.
Following this, another interactive gallery sits exploring the “real-life rebels” from the local area which have made history. The experience poses the question of if there is something about the Nottingham spirit that seeks to fight injustice, Williams says.
“We couldn’t recreate the castle itself, and nor would we want to”
Beyond the indoor galleries, the team has introduced “an intentionally lo-fi graphic solution” for the outdoor area of the castle. As mentioned, the majority of the original castle is no longer standing.
“We had to address the elephant in the room – there is no castle,” says Williams. Casson Mann’s environmental graphics solution uses around 20 two-metre-tall steel signs, which recreate key views of the castle in different points of the site.
“We couldn’t recreate the castle itself, and nor would we want to,” he says. However, these signs have been made as accurate as possible with the help of a local games designer. To improve their own skills, the designer had been working on an archaeologically-sound digital 3D version of the castle – working with an historian and archaeologist, the map was used to inform the signs.
This “simple” device, as Williams puts it, offers visitors “curated views” of castle elements like Richard’s Tower, the Upper Bailey and the Royal Apartments.
Other elements of the project were more traditional. Alongside the interactive spaces, the team has developed other galleries which highlight other local aspects of Nottingham’s culture, such as its contributions to the lace industry.
The overall aim of the interactive galleries, outdoor interpretation and other galleries, Williams says, is to position the castle as a “world-class heritage site”.