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The Comedy of Errors

Nottingham Castle Trust CEO Sara Blair-Manning Discusses the Venue’s Redevelopment and Reopening

9 July 21 interview: George White
photos: Curtis Powell

Since joining the Nottingham Castle Trust back in September 2019, Sara Blair-Manning has managed to successfully lead a mammoth £30 million project through the pretty sizeable challenge of a global pandemic. We chat to the Chief Executive about the Castle’s extensive redevelopment, her role within the Trust and the activities she’s most excited for people to check out.

A photo of Sara Blair-Manning

How would you describe your job at the Nottingham Castle Trust? What are your main responsibilities?
My day-to-day role as CEO is to make sure everybody has everything they need to be able to do their jobs. I also lead on strategic direction, making sure the budgets are right and the visitor experience is right. I have quite a bit to do with the creative side as well, helping to guide everything you find here - from things like medieval reenactments through to the exhibitions.

The Castle’s redevelopment began way back in 2018. Were there any particularly difficult challenges to navigate during that process?
This was a massive project, really, both in terms of the capital but also the operational side. COVID has meant things have been even more demanding. To deliver a £30 million project on time and on budget is challenging in normal circumstances, but when you have a pandemic to deal with - something none of us have had to overcome before - it was definitely difficult. Some of the supply chains were delayed, we had to reprogramme things, and we were only able to recruit and train our staff online between four and six weeks before opening - so that was really condensed down in terms of timescale. But there have been some positives. Because the majority of people started at the same time, there’s been a really good community feeling here and everybody's been very supportive of each other. 

As you mentioned, this has been a major venture for the Castle and for Nottingham. Are you happy with how the project has turned out?
Absolutely. We got there in the end, we stuck to the programme and I think we've delivered a fantastic outcome. We had a thorough evaluation process to make sure we were creating an experience that visitors want. People were quite clear that they’d like to hear about Robin Hood in a more meaningful way, for example, and they wanted to learn about rebellion and protest and activism, both at the Castle and across Nottingham more widely. But we also knew we didn’t want absolutely everything here to be a history lesson or an art lesson. It’s just as important that visitors can come and have a nice walk around the grounds and have a cup of tea. We’ve got things for all different types of people. 

It's been so interesting to have conversations with people in supermarkets or at bus stops and hear what they think about the Castle

You have a strong connection to Nottingham, having studied at Nottingham Trent University before becoming CEO here. How did it feel getting to look after such a monumental project for the city? 
It’s given me great pride. I've always loved Nottingham - it's always felt very welcoming and friendly. The range of activities here is ace too. It was nice to come back to the city where I did my undergrad and really reconnect with it. It's been so interesting to have conversations with people in supermarkets or at bus stops and hear what they think about the Castle and whether or not they're intending to go, and why they might or might not go. It’s a joy to be working in the heart of the city.

The Castle will be running projects like volunteering opportunities and teaching and learning schemes - how important is it to get local people involved at the site?
We want to connect with diverse communities and allow them to feel part of the Castle and to have ownership over it. Ultimately, we're just the guardians of the Castle - it's not ours, it's the people's. We're trying to give as many opportunities for residents in Nottingham to come and visit, and feel a connection to their local history and culture.

The aim is to make Nottingham Castle a globally significant site and to act as an economic driver for the city

The Castle will be running projects like volunteering opportunities and teaching and learning schemes - how important is it to get local people involved at the site?
We want to connect with diverse communities and allow them to feel part of the Castle and to have ownership over it. Ultimately, we're just the guardians of the Castle - it's not ours, it's the people's. We're trying to give as many opportunities for residents in Nottingham to come and visit, and feel a connection to their local history and culture.

What are your hopes and plans for the venue now it has officially reopened? 
The aim is to make Nottingham Castle a globally significant site and to act as an economic driver for the city, encouraging people to come and spend money in shops, bars and restaurants, maybe go to the theatre and stay in local hotels. That's the overarching goal of the project. We already have ideas for more exciting features at the Castle so we can continue working towards that goal. We’ve had great interest in terms of artists and curators, as well as academics. The next range of exhibitions is going to be really diverse and interesting for people to come and see. We've got one happening at the back end of next year which isn't quite confirmed yet, but it will be of international importance - so if everybody can travel by then, we should get lots of visitors and press coverage for that. 

With the redevelopment finally complete, what would you say is your favourite part of the Castle? 
Oh, that’s like choosing your favourite child - you just can’t do it. There are lots of different areas that I like across the whole site. I love the fact that there's lots of green space and people can get a breath of fresh air. The fact we’re one of the green lungs of the city is really nice. But then when you go inside the museum, you have the alabaster and salt glaze gallery which is just beautiful, as is the art gallery. But then the Rebellion Gallery is just so rich and full of amazing stories too. And, of course, having a go on the longbows at Robin Hood Adventures is just great fun. There are elements across all of the Castle that I think are really nice - it’s impossible to choose just one.

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