This was not going to be a traditional heritage museum project, but a ‘factory of ideas’ designed to communicate the story of the site’s incredible 200-year history to new audiences, who may have never connected with heritage before.
At the height of production, more than
men, women, and children worked 15-hour shifts under the flaxmill roof.
Historic England took ownership of the site in 2007 and the restoration of the full site started. Our role on the project was to create an exhibition, external interpretation and site tour. Within the exhibition space, we wanted to surprise visitors. The look of the Mill exhibition is anything but what visitors would expect, with eye-catching neon themes and multi-sensory activities to digital interactives for all ages.
The Main Mill at Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings is known as the first iron-framed building in the world and is recognised internationally for its rich heritage. The iron frame is still visible within the exhibition space and our design needed to not only work around the historic features, but celebrate it as part of the story.
The exhibition is exploratory but split into five general themes: 'Town and Transformation’, which focuses on the development of the site and how it has influenced, transformed and helped develop the town of Shrewsbury over time; 'Engineering and Build', which focuses on how Charles Bage designed this ‘fireproof textile mill’ through experimentation and innovation; ‘People and Process’, which tells of the men, women and children at the flax mill who suffered the harsh working conditions of this early industrial factory, and the experiences and memories of the maltsters and their families after the later conversion into a maltings; 'Adaptation and Change’ explaining how the site has changed to fit with the various uses; and ‘Legacy and Impact’ which details the final transformation and future legacy of the site for local people, businesses and visitors alike.
Digital interactivity helps us to bring ‘long disappeared’ history to life or fill in the blanks where the complex site has changed over time. A large 3D mill model allows visitors to pick a timeframe and virtually breaking down the walls, giving visitors a real insight into what went on inside at that time.
Visitors can immerse themselves in a floor projection that explains the story of the Maltings, alongside audio exhibits that give visitors a chance to hear from former Maltings workers and their families, or those involved in the restoration project in their own words.
One of the obstacles that we encountered in the design stage was to showcase the heritage that the mill holds but also show it through a contemporary lens. Visitors are invited to think about the more challenging histories in the interpretation and even vote on particular questions about the site’s connection to Empire, working conditions, climate change, technology, pay, and labour.
Two cats named Flax and Barley are there throughout the exhibition to guide children and families through the exhibition and around the site, posing questions and pointing out interesting facts out along the way.