Retelling History at St Albans Cathedral

As experts in museum, visitor attraction and exhibition design, we’re equally at home transforming listed buildings and modern spaces, but renovating historical sites comes with its own unique challenges.

Over the years, we have worked on countless projects housed in historical buildings, finding innovative ways to bring them up-to-date and make them accessible without compromising the integrity of the space. Working in Grade I and II listed buildings is particularly challenging, as there are limitations – for example, in Grade I buildings, nothing can be fixed to the walls or floors.

St Albans Cathedral

Many people think that only the façade of a building is listed, but in fact, the whole structure is, as well as its interior features, so any internal changes need listed building consent. It means that we have to plan ahead very carefully – sometimes, this means altering our initial ideas for the space to work out a way around the restrictions.

One element that we can’t always plan for is the condition of the building that we’re working in. Old buildings tend to be constructed using different materials than we use today, but may have been patched up with modern materials, so this must be taken into consideration during restoration, to avoid causing any damage.

Being sympathetic to the look of the building is also key. Although the fit-outs tend to be modern and interactive, we need to make sure that it still fits with the overall style of the interior – we’re retelling history, so we want it to flow, not look jarring. Plus, not all of the attractions have artefacts to put on display – the focus of the attraction will be the building itself, so we need to showcase it to make it as engaging as possible.

We have extensive experience working on listed buildings and cathedrals, such as York Minster, Liverpool Anglican Cathedral and Cathedral Church of St. Marie, and we recently completed a project at St Albans Cathedral. Despite its significance in British history, the story of St Alban – Britain’s first saint – isn’t widely known, so it was keen to establish itself as a culturally and historically important tourist destination.

To support its aims of raising its profile both nationally and internationally, it was able to secure funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, as well as funding from over 1,000 donors. The funding has been used to make significant structural improvements, including a new welcome centre, an education centre for children, an adult study centre and an exhibition area, with the aim of boosting visitor numbers and positioning itself as a must-see attraction.

We have refreshed the visitor journey by installing interpretive areas and stopping points that educate and engage visitors, and introduced a new exhibition that showcases the rich history of St Albans Cathedral in a compelling way. It also offers improved disability access throughout the building, making it more accessible to a wider range of people.

We have also introduced a treasury exhibition, featuring a chronological journey through the history of the cathedral in a striking oak exhibition space. Display cases showcasing liturgical costumes and other religious artefacts, and two interactive touchscreens, are also featured in the exhibition.

Turning a historical building into an attraction is no mean feat, but we have an extensive track record of successful restoration projects – take a look at some of our work.