Video: Norwich Castle turns to its Norman history in bid to become British icon

Emma Reeve, museum trainee in archaeology, holding one of the alabaster pieces that will be on display. Picture: Steve Adams Emma Reeve, museum trainee in archaeology, holding one of the alabaster pieces that will be on display. Picture: Steve Adams

Wednesday, December 4, 2013
10:11 AM

A new £300,000 project to celebrate its Norman history is just the starting point for an ambitious plan to put Norwich Castle right up there with the nation’s greatest iconic buildings.

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A reconstruction of the once richly-decorated interior of the castle. Picture: Steve AdamsA reconstruction of the once richly-decorated interior of the castle. Picture: Steve Adams

Almost 950 years after William the Conqueror’s victorious army swept into Norwich to build a castle, the Normans are returning in the shape of stunning new displays including some of the pick of the British Museum’s collections.

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Castle, Palace, Prison, Museum - Icon

1066 - Duke William crushes the English army at Hastings, kills Harold II and seizes the throne.

Around 1067 - The Normans demolish at least 98 Anglo-Saxon homes in Norwich to make way for castle earthworks and a wooden fort.

By 1094 - Work begins on a stone keep by William’s son, also called William.

1121 - The stone keep is completed by this date at the latest, as Henry I is known to have stayed there for Christmas.

From 1300s - The castle becomes the county gaol.

1792-93 - Sir John Soane designs new buildings both inside and around the keep.

1822-27 - William Wilkins demolishes Soane’s buildings and builds a bigger gaol.

1883 - County gaol moved to Mousehold, and work starts on converting the castle to a museum.

1894 - The castle opens as a museum.

2000-01 The castle is significantly refurbished, with substantial funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

2013 - New Norman displays open, alongside the launch of a campaign to make the building a national icon.

And this is only part of the story, because chief curator John Davies and his team have their eyes on nothing less than making Norwich Castle one of the best-known buildings in Britain, with a profile to match the likes of Durham Cathedral, York Minster and Dover Castle.

“This building is the real heart of Norwich,” Dr Davies said. “We passionately believe in the importance of the castle in helping local pride and bringing tourism to the region.”

The new displays are the fruits of a £300,000 project, Norman Connections, co-funded by the European Union and bringing together historic Norman sites

such as Norwich, Colchester and Hastings with their counterparts in Normandy.

The English and French experts have got on famously – rather better than their warring ancestors – and representatives from project partners are joining in the celebrations.

As Dr Davies explained, we share a common Norman heritage. “We have a wonderful sequence of castles that fit together – you can really see the architectural similarities. When I visited Falaise it was like deja vu, as it was built very soon after this [Norwich] castle – it’s like when you see Castle Rising after you’ve visited Norwich. You can see the connection.”

John and his team have been drawing on the likes of Dover Castle for inspiration in helping to bring Norwich’s Norman heritage alive for a new generation. “I like the way they do the scene-setting and the re-creation of the story,”

he explained. “It’s something the French have been doing very well too.

“We have a wonderful building here, but visitors have lacked a ‘castle experience’ up to now or a sense of its original architecture.”

That’s something he’s determined to put right.

Visitors will be able to experience something of the glory of the castle from its incarnation as a royal palace in the early 12th century. Emma Reeve, museum trainee in archaeology, said: “We are re-creating the main archway through projections on the arch and special curtaining. We want it to seem more regal.

“In the chapel area we’re re-created some stained glass to give a feel of what life was like in these missing spaces too.

“This was one of the most lavishly decorated castles in Britain when it was built.” The castle has been working closely with UEA experts to help in the re-creations.

And Dr Tim Pestell, senior curator of archaeology, said they were ‘hundreds’ of new objects going on display, including the latest local finds by metal detectorists. “We have long-term loans from the British Museum too,” he added. These include reliquary caskets (where the bones and other relics of saints were kept), a beautiful 13th-century silver dove, and stunning Limoges enamel.

“These are items that have only recently been on display at the British Museum. This is front-rank stuff,” he said. “I think anyone coming to visit the keep is going to see massive changes.”

The layout of the castle hasn’t always helped visitors, as Tim is the first to admit. “Often people have not gone on to the first floor because they ‘don’t think there’s much there’ – but that’s the way into the keep,” he said. All that should change, thanks to the new displays.

Behind the scenes, the six years of the project have brought English and French experts together for a major conference and symposium, and have built a close working relationship which is helping to put Norwich on the European map.

The castle is also marking the five-year project Collecting Cultures. This Heritage Lottery-funded intiative, led by project officer Angela Riley, has helped the castle acquire and display new artifacts, and also work closely with the likes of local schools.

Both schemes are just the start of what John sees as an exciting new future for the castle. After its beginnings as a wooden castle and roles as a palace, county gaol and museum, he is keen to take the building to a new, national, level.

And that will bring visitors, extra jobs and revenue for the city and county – and help instil a love of our heritage in the next generation.

“One of the really important things is that we really, really need people’s reactions – and their support,” he said.

“Norman Connections is not an end – it’s just a taster of what’s to come. But we need your help to take us there.”

After more than 900 years as a Norwich icon, it’s time for the castle to become a national one too.

1 comment

  • They have some way to go to undo the damage done by Trevelyan. Norwich Castle Museum has been turned into a cross between a kiddies theme park and a exhibition of the curators art, rather than a museum of artefacts intelligently displayed for sensible people to enjoy. Give museum visitors of all ages credit for the ability to look and think without the dressing up of a few exhibits that we have been familiar with for decades ( ie the mummified cat) in puffed out displays. Show us archaeologists' finds with clear explanations rather than sticking them in room with subjective politically correct interpretations. Let us view the museum as a building as well as the exhibits without the distraction of hands on silliness of dressing up and colouring in for children who would be just as engaged with the place if they were given the chance.

    Report this comment

    Daisy Roots

    Wednesday, December 4, 2013

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