Re-imagining The Workhouse

Peeling wallpaper in the old workhouse infirmary

Times are changing at Southwell Workhouse as a year of experimentation gets underway involving visitors in re-imagining the site. Through creative arts and innovative technology visitors are being encouraged to explore The Workhouse in new ways. By contributing their memories, views and ideas they will help shape the building's future role.

Moving from memory to action

Many visitors are struck by the powerful story of how the Victorian institution tackled issues of social welfare, education and health care for those most in need. The ‘Re-imagining’ project will explore how The Workhouse’s story can be brought up to date and help us reflect on contemporary society.

Striking the right note

Central to this year’s development phase is the appointment of a ‘creative fellow’, music artist Chris T-T, who is working with visitors to develop a new approach to exploring the institution’s history. The Ballad for Southwell has drawn on visitor and volunteer reflections, inspiring Chris T-T to produce a collection of sound pieces which will be premiered on Heritage Open Day on Saturday 10 September.

Illustration of creative artist Chris T-T inspired by Ballad for Southwell project
Illustration of musician on background of workhouse building and paupers

A Ballad for Southwell has been created, and is co-ordinated in partnership with curatorial collective CommonAs. The project is supported using public funding by the National Lottery through Arts Council England.

A snap shot in time

A further strand of the creative experimentation involves photography as part of the 'Workhouse Through A Lens’ initiative, facilitated by photographic collective, HumanCamera. Visitors are encouraged to explore, interpret and take a close look at the building and record their perspectives visually. By sharing their photos visitors can create individual stories to stimulate debate.

Old sink and window ledge in Firbeck infirmary taken as part of 'Workhouse Through A Lens'
Butterfly on window ledge with sink to one side in Firbeck infirmary

Digital discovery

History came to life at The Workhouse during the summer, when on selected days, visitors had the opportunity to explore the building in a new way. As part of the 'Wander The Workhouse' initiative visitors selected a particular Workhouse character and followed their life in the institution through audio, video and music. Each character's experiences were different and sometimes yielded surprising outcomes but all were based on archive research and oral histories. There was even an opportunity to have a go on the 'jukebox' harmonium in the Committee room.

Artcode and character card for Wander The Workhouse
Artcode and character card for Wander The Workhouse

The innovative technology which lies behind this visitor experience is the result of a partnership with Nottingham University's Horizon Digital Economies team and is another way in which The Workhouse is testing new approaches to telling the site's history.

Voices of Need

Bringing together those who have experienced The Workhouse site, or Greet House as it was known in more recent times, the 'Voices of Need: Stories of Welfare' initiative aims to produce a body of work that reflects the site's recent history. Working with creative partners Global Wordsmiths a series of writing workshops involving volunteers, staff and those connected to local welfare provision, aims to capture individual stories which will eventually come together in a book to be publsihed later in the year.

Share your memories, create your own visual record, capture your thoughts - it’s your history, how will you play your part?