The story of Britain’s first Saint, Alban, was relatively unknown and despite its role in history, St Albans Cathedral didn’t have the profile it merited. In 2014 plans were made to address this and improve visitors’ welcome by securing funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NHLF) and over 1000 donors. The money, which was secured in 2016 would help to make significant structural, interpretive and programming improvements including a new welcome centre, an exhibition area, a compelling new presentation of the story of Alban, a centre for school children and adult study and an extensive programme for visitor attractions.
Mather & Co was engaged by St Albans to communicate the story of Britain’s First Saint and the role the Cathedral has played in the nation’s history in a more compelling way in order to educate and entertain visitors to the cathedral. This would help to engage new audiences, in particular locals, day-trippers, special educational needs (SEND) visitors and younger audiences (18-35-year olds). Exhibitions should be placed around the cathedral and outside to bring it to life for visitors.
Mather & CO’s challenge
Mather & Co helped St Albans Cathedral to secure its second round NHLF funding. It was then possible to get to work on bringing to life the stories by completing the interpretive design throughout the cathedral that was sympathetic to the Grade 1 listed building and that of the new visitor centre. Having worked on projects in other cathedral’s, the team already knew the challenges of working in a listed building.
“There was so much history and materials that the team had to try and focus it down to the core themes and then go about communicating them – what materials were available to use but the stories were interpreted beautifully,” explains The Revd Dr Kevin Walton, Canon Chancellor, St Albans Cathedral.
Mather & Co’s work included installing a beautiful graphic timeline installation in the new Welcome Centre taking visitors on a trip from the Romans to the present day. Across the cathedral designers created an interpretative trail with stopping points and mobile units for discovery of the history of the building – providing visitors with insights into historical points of interest. The Treasury Exhibition was also designed as a chronological journey through the history of the cathedral on a striking oak timber designed exhibition space. Two touchscreens take visitors through ‘A Year in the Life of the Cathedral’ and ‘St. Alban’, whilst display cases show liturgical costumes and other religious artefacts relating to its use and history – with a dressing up activity associated with it. This also means younger visitors can dress up and take selfies to use on social media, widening the target audience.
Last, but by no means least, the medieval fresco wall paintings in the main nave of the cathedral which had been severely damaged in the Reformation in the 16th Century were recreate and illuminated by new lighting in the cathedral to bring them back to life for current visitors.
The project results
St Albans Cathedral was re-opened on St Albans Day, 22nd June 2019 to the public with lots of activities taking place including the annual Alban Pilgrimage and a new Roman Festival.
Since opening, Visit Britain has undertaken a ‘secret shopper’ assessment of the new exhibitions and has been overwhelmingly complementary.
Visitors have been seen to be emotional at the sight of the fresco wall paintings that were lost for centuries but recreated and lit for visitors to enjoy once again.
New audiences have been reached via use of new engaging attractions including AV technology and the ability to dress up and take selfies to post on social media.
“The project came in on time and on budget and although we had some building delays, Mather & Co worked in partnership with us around any issues. We had a lot of things to bring together in terms of content and also the design and sign-off procedures, but deadlines were met on both sides which ultimately meant the working relationship was very positive. Mather & Co responded well to the challenges.”