Interpreting the National Trust’s Lavenham Guildhall: Our Village Through Time

The “Our Village Through Time” project brief was fundamentally, to transform the visitor experience at the Lavenham Guildhall and provide it with a new legacy to be proud of, reflecting the community, the building’s past, present and its future as a hub of activity

For more than 500 years the prestigious Tudor structures at Lavenham Guildhall in Suffolk have been witness to many historic events and performed a variety of roles and functions which the National Trust wanted to celebrate. At various points in its history the building has been a meeting hall, prison, workhouse, school and pub. Through detailed and sensitive restoration of the original architecture and a holistic re-design of the museum spaces the interpretive design team at Bright 3D were able to bring the Guildhall into a new chapter of its ongoing legacy.

“With any historic, ornate and delicate buildings there are many practical encounters to overcome,” says Lucy Galloway, Senior 3D Designer at Bright. “Lavenham Guildhall topped the table, having to meet sensitive conservation requirements with every fixing detail needing to be reviewed in consultation with building restoration experts.”

Physical restraints aside Bright 3D had to be aware of community sensitivities linked to previous and very traditional artefacts on display. As an external design company the best approach to tackle any criticism is (with client approval) face on, community consultation is key with a centre stage like Lavenham Guildhall.

“People make places and we needed the locals to be on side in order to promote to the national and global visitor. Workshops, feedback display boards and discussions with the local community were factored in at every stage of the design process.”

The team took in a plethora of skills including interpretive planning, workshop facilitating, copy-writing, space planning, story planning, curating, interior designing, exhibition designing, building conservation assessment, project managing, graphic designing, art working, audio visual specifying and installing, sound recording and editing and bespoke joinery.

“We sold the notion of a sensory experience from the outset and every space had to deliver on this. All interpretive elements were informed by real stories from the building, whether it was light touch subliminal candle soot above the mantel piece or centre stage drama from the  resident mummified cat.”

A range of scene setting physical interactives help the visitor literally stand in the shoes of the workhouse residents by placing their legs in stocks or attempt the extreme hard work of oakum picking. Suitably sensitive use of digital media helps create an element of ‘magic’ for the visitor, projectors built into old crates and an old wireless playing original wartime broadcasting transformed a traditional museum space into an interactive and engaging local photographer’s office.

“For The National Trust, the brave step of selectively choosing appropriate artefacts linked to the story has allowed the visitor experience to be transformed positively and paved the way for a new legacy to unfold,” says Jane Gosling, Guildhall Manager at Lavenham Guildall. “The full renovation of the building and interiors of the Lavenham Guildhall has provided it with a clean slate and methods for stories to keep unfolding as the project evolves with time. This refreshing uplift has fundamentally provided context to the site and a platform for the people stories of the past to come to light.”

The key elements of good design are engagement, imagination and sense of place and to step away from lengthy text panels. That was an objective set by the National Trust from the outset as an exhibition ‘is not an encyclopaedia dictating lines and lines of information’.

“From our first steps inside the Guildhall we were in awe of the original architecture with intricate detailing and the levels of natural acoustics dispersed throughout the spaces,” says Bright 3D’s Galloway. “We took this as the foundation from which to work from and provided an overall sensory engaging experience that responded to the building and placed interpretation sensitively within the spaces.”

People are interested in people and the key mechanism for delivering our themes, stories and messages was through real life characters that have inhabited or passed through the doors in different time periods. These Guildhall ‘hosts’ guide visitors from room to room chronologically revealing all the functions the building has undergone.

“A vital component within a museum that is at the centre of a community is to provide enough ongoing interest locally. We dedicated the concluding space on the visitor journey to the Lavenham people of today. It offers a flexible platform for temporary exhibitions that the community can curate in collaboration with The National Trust or by themselves.”

All in all Bright 3D are confident the project has regained interest in Lavenham Guildhall, as well as provided engagement, ownership and pride.