Norwich study day 2023: Royal Palace Reborn and The Forum

A sunny Norwich was the site of this year’s SEMFed summer study day and AGM, which included visits to Norwich Castle Museum and Norwich Forum.

We met under the imposing edifice of Norwich Castle Keep, which for some time now has had a bright yellow crane as a companion.

The crane is the most striking visual indicator that change is afoot at Norwich Castle Museum. in the shape of Royal Palace Reborn, a £15m project which is transforming the internal spaces of the castle’s Keep.

We were welcomed by Project Manager (and SEMFed member!) Hannah Jackson, who led us through a maze of corridors that run through the castle mound until we found ourselves in Shire Hall.

There we were treated to a preview of the exciting things to come when the Keep reopens in 2024. Tim Pestell, Curator of Archaeology at Norwich Castle Museum, and Andrew Ferrara, Project Curator for Royal Palace Reborn, talked us through the interpretive strategies that are being applied in the new spaces and galleries that are being created.

Despite its enormous size the Keep is just a small part of the medieval castle which once occupied this part of the city. Excavations in the 1980s to build a shopping centre nearby revealed some of the remains of the wider castle site and showed that 98 Anglo-Saxon houses had been demolished to build it.

The Castle was a Norman royal project, built as Norwich was growing to become one of the most important cities in medieval England. By the 14th century it had fallen out of royal use and become the county gaol – a role the site performed until the 19th century when the Keep was converted into a museum.

Over a century on, the museum team wanted to improve the experience visitors have of the medieval Keep at the heart of the museum site. Evaluation showed that visitors were interested in the Keep, which can be seen from across the city. Before the redevelopment, once you entered the museum it was quite easy to lose your bearings, and difficult to get a full sense of the space and original purpose of the Keep.

The major redevelopment now underway will reinstate the floor levels as they would have been in the Norman Keep and evoke the furnishings and feel of the Great Hall and King’s Chamber. The visual design of the spaces has been led by imagery from contemporary manuscripts and sculptures.

A multi-layered approach is being taken to interpretation in the new spaces, with a spectacular light show which will be projected onto three enormous walls of the reinstated Great Hall space which will tell the story of the origins and development of the castle and medieval Norwich.

More traditional interpretive panels will explain the use of the rooms and highlight features such as graffiti scratched into the stonework. The spaces will also include large embroidered banners which are being made by the museum’s needlework group, using traditional materials and techniques. The biggest project they are working on is a Bayeux tapestry-style piece which will be 18 metres long. A touch-screen will allow visitors to see English translations of the Latin text on the banner.

The Keep will also include a new Gallery of Medieval Life which is being created in partnership with the British Museum, with about 60 items going to Norwich Castle on long-term loan. This will offer context for the Great Hall and King’s Chamber spaces and offer a variety of tactile and digital interactives.

The project is also altering the visitor journey, providing separate entrances for visitors, school groups, and wedding parties. The ground floor will include a new learning space and dedicated early years space. New lifts and staircases will make the whole space more accessible, including the roof.

After Tim and Andrew’s talk Hannah led us back to the Keep and got us suited and booted for a tour of the construction site, along with colleagues Jim and Lucie. Suitably attired in steel toe-capped boots, hard hats, high-vis jackets and gloves we were treated to a tour of the spaces being created inside and alongside The Keep.

SEMFed members and our hosts at Norwich Castle Museum

In the afternoon we made the short trip through the city centre to Norwich Forum, which is home to a host of organisations and services including Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library and Norfolk Heritage Centre.

The Forum, Norwich

Here we met Rachel Ridealgh, Community Librarian for Local Studies, and Rosalind Hewett, Learning and Engagement Officer for the three Norfolk Museums Service museums in Norwich. Together they talked us through a project they had worked on together as part of the activity surrounding the Keep redevelopment.

Kintsugi Bookbinding for wellbeing was a set of four creative sessions inspired by the conversation work being undertaken on some of the manuscripts which will feature in the new Keep galleries. Conservator Victoria Stevens ran the sessions, which included an introduction to traditional bookbinding techniques and the chance to apply them creatively to old, damaged books. The sessions were targeted at people aged between 18 and 40, since this is a group who are underrepresented in audiences and both the Heritage Centre and museums.

The sessions proved to be an excellent way for people to engage with ancient manuscripts which may be very difficult to read by approaching them as material objects, considering the materials they were made from and how they had been constructed.

Rachel then kindly gave us an introduction to the local studies collections she looks after at Norfolk Heritage Centre, which includes published books, maps, newspapers, photographs, and more, with about 340,000 in the on-site storeroom.

The collection includes about 2,000 books from the Norwich City Library collection, which has roots going back to 1608, and was the first non-church library outside of London.

Many of the items in the collection today survived the devastating fire at Norwich Central Library in 1994 (some are still a bit black around the edges from the scorching experience). About 100,000 books were destroyed or damaged in the fire.

The loss of the library building did, however, pave the way for The Forum which stands on the same site, and has become a hub of city life.

A big thank you to everyone who met with us and shared their work, it was fascinating to get a glimpse into the huge project that is Royal Palace Reborn, and a look at one of the smaller projects that has been a part of the wider activity surrounding it. I will certainly be heading back when the Keep reopens, and look forward to seeing the transformed spaces, and the view from the roof!