Colchester Castle Museum, Essex

This redevelopment does justice to its atmospheric and historically important location, writes Frazer Swift
Frazer Swift
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Colchester Castle dominates the town’s Victorian Castle Park and is the largest keep the Normans ever built. The imposing Grade I-listed structure dates from 1076, stands on the foundations of the Roman Temple of Claudius and was the first stone castle to be built in England by William the Conqueror.

It formed the blueprint for the Tower of London’s White Tower and is one of Britain’s most important heritage sites. Colchester Castle Museum has a lot to live up to.

The museum’s origins date back to the mid-1930s, with the roofing over of the keep. Today it houses Designated archaeological collections of international significance and has recently benefited from a £4.2m redevelopment.

The displays sit within a huge steel framework that fills the cavernous interior of the keep and are on two levels, telling the story of the castle and charting the development of Colchester and its people from the iron age to the English civil war.

Visitors enter the museum by passing through the original main entrance to the castle, past the Great Stairs (the largest spiral staircase in an English Norman castle) and the castle well.

You are left in no doubt that the castle building is the museum’s star exhibit. Distinctive graphic panels, featuring an attention-grabbing image, layered text and a “take a closer look” interactive element that focuses on particular features, are dotted around the museum and pick out specific parts of the building.

However, I noticed that few visitors seemed to be looking at the fabric of the castle building, despite the museum’s best efforts. To someone who enjoys the power of ruined castles to spark the imagination, this seemed a shame.

Atmospheric

The castle building provides a constant backdrop to the stories told in the museum and creates a sense of historical atmosphere and theatre. Most memorably, a son et lumière projection transforms the east wall of the keep every hour, filling the whole space with images and sound, revealing the history of the site and the lost internal structures of the castle, and stopping visitors in their tracks for 10 minutes or so.

The displays begin with a plan of the ground floor, and a map-centred introduction to Colchester during the different historical periods to be explored, each of which is given a symbol and colour to help visitors construct and make sense of their route around the museum.

Despite this, I found the thematic ground-floor Saxon, Norman, medieval and post-medieval displays tricky to navigate due to their sheer richness. The upper level, which has a more linear layout around a central void and covers the iron age, Roman invasion, Roman heyday and Roman decline, is more straightforward to follow.

The overall design, quality of finish and mix of interpretive approaches are impressive, and great efforts have been made to create an accessible and engaging museum.

A wide range of media is used, including film, soundscapes, reconstructions, touch objects, mechanical and digital interactives, to provide a multisensory experience that caters for different learning styles and visitor motivations.

Clear text and labels


There is a clear text hierarchy, with illuminated section panels, a theme caption for each display case, and commendably brief numbered object captions. Extended pick-up text is provided for people who want more detail.

The museum’s guidebook and audioguide were not available when I visited – these will be welcomed by those looking for more information about the collections and people who need interpretation in languages other than English.

Maximising physical and sensory access was clearly a priority for the development project and the museum offers two lifts, accessible lavatories, tactile/Braille floorplans, transcriptions of audio and numerous touch objects with Braille labels.

Families are obviously a key audience, which is reflected in the highly interactive nature of the museum, but this is skilfully balanced with beautifully presented displays of objects capable of satisfying the most discerning subject specialist.

From iron-age grave goods and Roman sculptures, ceramics and glass, to medieval church art and 17th-century weapons and armour, the breadth and quality of the collection is remarkable and befits the importance of Colchester’s heritage, including its status as the first Roman capital of Britain.

In addition to the son et lumière, AV exhibits are used extensively. These include one that explains the development of the castle using computer-generated 3D imagery; an oral history-based exhibit exploring different people’s perspectives on Britain’s oldest recorded town; two large projections about the Roman occupation of the town; and atmospheric audio conversations in the cells of Colchester Gaol (the castle was used as a prison for more than 600 years).

Interactives

Interactive exhibits are integrated cleverly throughout in various forms, including simple flaps and jigsaws, digital quizzes, role-play areas, including a recreation of a section of a roundhouse, and opportunities to create a mosaic, excavate a Roman grave, build a Norman arch and steer a chariot around Colchester’s Roman Circus.

Given the museum’s focus on families, I felt that perhaps more could be done to cater for families with under-fives.

Visitors are also able to borrow, for a £1 fee, a tablet pre-loaded with an app that provides additional content at points around the museum, including historic photographs and 360° re-creations of rooms in the castle. These were being well used on the day of my visit, especially by families, and it was good to see that they were encouraging discussion and collaboration.

The museum’s narrative lacks a punchy, memorable conclusion. The area connecting the civil war section and the shop seemed cramped and its graphic timeline showing the ups and downs of Colchester through the ages seemed a weak final message.
But this should not detract from the qualities of this museum.

I have no doubt that it will be loved by its local community and do justice to the significance of its collections and setting.

Project data

  • Cost £4.2m
  • Main funders Heritage Lottery Fund £3.267m; Colchester Borough Council; European Regional Development Fund (Interreg IVA programme, Norman Connections project), Arts Council England; Friends of Colchester Museums; Essex Heritage Trust; Friends of Colchester Roman Wall
  • Exhibition design Redman Design
  • Fit-out Beck
  • Son et lumière The Projection Studio
  • AV Sysco
  • App Peel Heritage


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