Friday, 30 May 2014

A new lease of life at Conisbrough Castle

Having loaned some items from our collections to a new exhibition, a colleague and I were delighted to be invited to take the short trip across from Lincoln to Doncaster to attend the official opening of the newly re-interpreted Conisbrough Castle this afternoon.

Consibrough Castle is an English Heritage property, and one of those sites that dominates its surroundings both physically and culturally.  I had been to the site before, but about ten years ago, so had forgotten most of the detail about the site and its history.

The new visitor centre (where the obligatory speeches and nibbles were hosted) is very neat and tidy, but most importantly home to the new museum displays telling the story of the site.  The displays are lovely, with a strong visual theme and some great playful use of colour and custom drawn cartoons.  Even the ceramics displays were lively, with mounts displaying them at angles, and even with fake water coming out!  Overall, its a bright and informative display that I'm certain will be very engaging to visitors.  I was most impressed with how the story of the castle had been clearly laid out, with careful removal of much of the fog and confusion that can hamper historic building interpretation.  I'm sure that visitors will appreciate being able to cut to the heart of the story and will take away a clear picture of personalities, the groundbreaking architecture, and the castle's wider historic context.  I also liked the way the building had been used to best effect, such as through interpretation on the inside of the window blinds - a very clever touch!

One highlight of the display is the large cutaway model of the keep, showing the internal floor layout.  As useful as that would be on its own, an additional treat is the video projection cleverly integrated into it, showing little characters carrying out daily tasks inside the keep, as you can see in the images below.

The event continued with a fascinating tour around the site, providing more of the castle's history and a look at the new interpretation inside the keep itself.  When seen close up, the masonry of the keep is awe-inspiring, and few castle keeps can boast such neatly constructed masonry - the walls look as if they were made yesterday.  It was fascinating to learn that the keep was an architectural oddity in its day, and a structure built to be a talking point and a statement of ambition by the owners.  The huge walls of the keep contain four floors, though the basement is something of an unknown entity, accessed via a hole in the floor and containing a well.

Each of the upper three floors contains a large room, around which the thickness of the walls is palpable, and various side rooms and garderobes exist depending on the status of the original inhabitants, and finely carved fireplaces and basins exist on each floor.

A highlight of the new interpretation is the projections on the walls of each floor, featuring an illustrated character from the castle talking about their life.  These are excellently executed and enjoyable features, and even the little hour glass images between 'performances' don't jar with the atmosphere of the rooms.

Finally, the cartoons encountered in the museum display follow through into the site graphics, and continue to provide a lighthearted touch to the interpretation.

And what was the best way to cap of a very enjoyable and educational afternoon?  Why, a very generous and tasty free gift of course!  Sometimes my job is just so difficult...

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