In August 2016 Norton Priory reopened its doors to the public having undergone a complete transformation. With some 900 years of history on the site, it is the most excavated monastic site in Europe and was in need of a complete exhibition transformation. Mather & Co helped to design the new museum that was built, bringing it to life through skeletal reconstructions and interactive exhibits, whilst also aiding in the Heritage Lottery Funding process. Here we revisit the museum to talk to its director, Frank Hargrave, to see how things are progressing almost twelve month’s on.
Q: How is the museum doing since re-opening its doors in August 2016?
A: The project has been highly successful and we’re on track to welcome around 60,000 visitors in our first year of opening. We set ourselves the target of 55,000 and we look certain to convincingly beat it. Of course prior to the new museum our annual visitor numbers were 30-35,000 per year, so we’ve almost doubled those.
On top of that our evaluation report highlights that visitor enjoyment of the new Norton Priory offer is very high too. The overall satisfaction from our visitor survey rates at 88%, and 85% of visitors describe themselves as ‘very likely’ to recommend a visit to friends and family. So all in all it’s been a very successful first year.
Q: What types of audience coming through the doors and how this has changed from before? What has been the reaction?
Our audience is still very much families – that hasn’t changed, although we have seen an increase in the over 60’s age group. Generally though, I would say it’s the same audience but greater depth. People are visiting from further afield – and although it’s still very much a regional attraction rather than a national one, people are travelling from slightly further afield than before – certainly within a 45 minute drive. Reaction has been universally positive – the new facilities better display our collections and the site generally, so it’s had a great impact on all of our visitors.
Q: Have you been able to get more archaeological and other items on display with the new open storage solution?
Yes – absolutely. We’ve up to four times the number of objects on display as previously and we can rotate the human remains we have here so that more are seen. Importantly the new cases that were installed meet the standard for conservation and security, which means that we can accept national loans for the first time too. We’ve currently got a letter to Thomas Cromwell about the dissolution of the monasteries on loan from the British Library. There was no way that we could have done this before the redesign and installation of new, secure displays.
Q: Has the transformation led to more research projects/scientific projects on the finds at Norton Priory?
We’re currently going through a project to analyse six of our 142 skeletons here at Norton Priory. With help from the Wellcome Trust we are researching Paget’s Disease which is an ailment that still affects around 800,000 people in the UK today. We’re hoping any results may be a useful contribution to modern treatment as well as providing us with some insight and detail of the people that have lived here over the centuries.
For a museum of our size we were punching above our weight in terms of research anyway, but we’ve had around £120,000 in total from the Wellcome Foundation and AHRC so it’s a substantial amount and it’s allowed us to display our research in a more effective way. That is important as going forward as the universities value it as part of their ‘public impact’ assessment, and we can deliver it on their behalf.
Q: Talking of funding, how did Mather & Co support your Heritage Lottery Fund bid submission?
Mather & Co’s visualisation was very good. The team put together an interpretation guide and we sent that to the HLF, for stage 2 of the bid. They provided clear ideas represented as 3d images, sketches and an outline of the plan of what the content of the displays would look like and contain. They also provided us with any extras or answers to questions the HLF asked us.
Q: What was it like working with Mather & Co?
I really like the fact that they listen to the client – a lot of design companies believe they know better, but Mather & Co allows the input from the client. The team listened and interpreted what we wanted. They provided a quality lead, value for money consultancy and design and we weren’t disappointed when it came to working with them.