Sorry for not posting recently, but been busy with work and I’ve been ill too. So this is coming a little after the visit but I just had to write about my visit to Peterborough Cathedral!
Firstly, the cathedral itself is absolutely beautiful and the staff were so friendly. You walk through the big entrance gate and are greeted with a triptych of arches which is the cathedral itself. We decided to go into the visitor centre first which is a small building just before the cathedral entrance. I was visiting because of a Katherine of Aragon exhibition they had on. But I was so surprised to stumble upon this gem of an exhibition.
The permanent exhibition details about Peterborough cathedral and begins with a timeline of events with original documents and objects embedded within. I love this. Firstly, one can get, at a quick glance, the history of the site including key points, but secondly, the use of objects is done so well here. Instead of putting the objects in a case, telling and date and having visitors try and see where this fits into a grand narrative, the reverse is done. By having the objects physically within this timeline, I feel that it gives the objects a lot more significance and makes the story that the exhibition wants to tell more impactful. This is because the objects are given context. They are shown to relate to other events but, with the case of the Henry VIII charter for example, it shows that these objects are part of these events. Sometimes, when you have timelines, objects can feel a bit disjointed. You have objects that explain one aspect but then how do they relate to others in the next case? But what they have done at Peterborough is very subtle and yet extremely effective in not only incorporating and blending objects seamlessly into exhibition design, but also in making these objects more impactful because of the way they are used in the story telling.
In the middle of the room is a digital table which is still having an impact on me! Not only does it have the capacity to have four separate users on the table at the same time (making the table and the information more accessible), but the design of the actual experience is simple yet extremely good. You could click on different categories such as things to see and do, the history etc. The history was shown on an arching timeline which you could scroll through and click on the various images or events that popped up (and there was a lot of history to cover). What was brilliant about this was that when you clicked on an event, say the execution of Mary Queen of Scots, it brought up a screen which gave you a screen with basic information on. At the bottom of the screen you could click ‘dig deeper?’ which, when clicked brought up a new box which had more complex information for those with more of an interest in the subject. Furthermore, you could touch the photos and images that they had provided and zoom in and out. This interactive has so many positives. Firstly, I love how they have layered the information so that the visitor can chose how much or how little they engage within a topic. This choice is so refreshing as sometimes, being a history graduate, I feel that the information is not enough and I would like to know a little bit more. However, I know that for some, too much information can feel like a bombardment and they just want quick snippets of information that gives them a rough history. Secondly, I was impressed with the design. It was simple and easy to use, allowing for better accessibility and the ability to again engage at a level of your choosing with the images and archives was something so refreshing and yet something which I would love to implement within my own exhibitions. This digital table is a perfect example of how archives could be exhibited and how digital archives used within the museum setting (see my blog post about opening up archives: https://cvdhistoryandmuseums.wordpress.com/2017/02/13/opening-up-archives/). Thirdly, the multi-user ability of the table itself meant that people could engage with the material that they wanted to and would not have to wait behind someone or skip the interactive completely. This table is a masterclass in interactivity and visitor engagement. If I had to make one adjustment to make it better it would be sound. Now I know, small space, sound can get overwhelming. But I think if headphones could be plugged it, the addition of sound to this interactive could have interesting benefits. A visitors could click on sound files scattered along the historical timeline which have the choir singing a song from that particular period. Not only are you promoting the wonderful choir, but you are immersing the visitor in how the cathedral might have sounded during that period and the kind of emotional responses that follow as a result (e.g. contemplation and prayer). But apart from the addition of sound, I think that it is a fantastic interactive.
Moving around the rest of the exhibition, they covered every angle I could have thought of from history, to architecture, to prayer, religion and medieval friary life. Some may say that this may be too far ranging but I argue that this is all necessary and it was all extremely well done. By having such an array of topics, it helps give the visitor better context for their visit about the cathedral, its history and the role that it plays within its local community.
Also, a little figure of a grave digger was at the bottom of some of the panels again encouraging people to dig deeper with Old Scarlett. This person was a grave digger in the 16th century who buried both Katherine of Aragon and Mary Queen of Scots and he lived to 98 years old. Not only is this a lovely little fact that has stayed with me, but the recurring motif of digging deeper is one that a visitor can familiarise themselves with. He was in the visitor centre but also on some of the panels within the cathedral itself and again by having a consistency within this is good for settling visitors and making them feel able to access information at their leisure.
Going inside the cathedral, I was impressed to see that they were putting up all new panels along the wall. I think this is needed not only for an update, but to keep the information as up-to-date as it can be and to also adjust the writing style. Not all the new panels were up, but those that were clear and gave a good level of information about a variety of topics. If I had to pick a weak point of the cathedral in how it displays information it would have to be one of the little asides where they have cabinets with pewter, seals, books etc. It is not totally obvious why these are on display and some of the signs and labels are quite old and on paper. I feel that that area is in need of a rethink. They have the Ramsey Psalter housed within this area but it gets lost with the other artefacts and cases that are there and the chances of having a really close look are sadly slim because of how narrow that area is and the fact that there is not digitisation or chance to ‘dig deeper’ bar a panel explaining it. This is a shame as it is such a beautiful book. I think that the first thing that needs to be done is to de-clutter that area. Perhaps ask visitors what they want to see and the curators why are these on display? Why are they important? By asking these questions, it could help to see if any items can be taken off display. Secondly, I would advise to put the Psalter within a new case and place it on its own (perhaps in a different part of the cathedral) so that people can get a better view of it and also learn more about it. I think that the seals do need a re-display. I was wondering whether something could be done with regards to showing both sides of the seals, explain their provenance and the people who owned them but also make the panels and labels more permanent. Again its a lovely collection and so it would be lovely to show them off and engage people with them. Lastly, that area has a little box in the wall which contains an incendiary bomb from World War 2. If it had not been for a volunteer pointing it out to another visitor, I would not have noticed it. Curators could put up a panel about the cathedral in the war and explain these stories. It was such an interesting story that led to a really unusual fact (that about the slanted roof), that is a quirky little fact that people are bound to find interesting. I think this sums up nicely the issue in that area, it’s just too cluttered that stories are getting lost.But these issues, as shown, can be easily fixed and it looks like at this moment, they are redeveloping the cathedral in preparation for its 900th anniversary. So there is a possibility that this area is on the radar for a re-imagining.
Lastly, and for what is a superbly simple fix, they have mirrors along the nave of the cathedral so that people can look up and see the beautiful ceiling (a ceiling which only has two other companions in Europe!). ‘I do love a good ceiling’ as I always say but I’m always craning my neck to see and appreciate them. I often wish to just lie on the floor and look up. But this is such a lovely idea and allows visitors to look up and appreciate it (something which many unfortunately do not do). I shall definitely be putting this into practice when I work in heritage sites!
But in all the cathedral was an absolutely beautiful place and I was so impressed by the level of information and the stories that they told. I would definitely recommend a visit!
Thank you for reading!