Ushaw wins Historic Houses Collections Award 2023

Ushaw Historic House, Chapels & Gardens has been announced as the winner of the 2023 Historic Houses Collections Award, sponsored by Dreweatts.

The award was introduced last year to honour the creators, owners, curators, researchers, and conservators who preserve, augment, restore and interpret the beautiful and significant objects on show inside historic houses up and down the country, enabling the public to understand and enjoy them and the stories that they tell. The inaugural winner in 2022 was Caerhays Castle.

Ushaw, a former Catholic seminary in County Durham, has been operated by a charitable trust as a heritage attraction since 2014. The college’s collection of fine art, religious and secular objects, and books reflects both its two centuries as an educational foundation on this site, and more ancient antecedents. The present complex was created by scholars from the English College at Douai, fleeing the consequences of the French Revolution; while that foundation was itself a product of exile, designed to train Englishmen as Catholic priests during the ban on the public practice of their faith in post-Reformation England.

In summer 2022, Ushaw launched an outdoor digital trail app. Free to download and use, the app contains animation, text, video, sound and elements of augmented reality. The aim of the Ushaw Trail was to introduce visitors to their heritage and collection objects in a unique and engaging fashion.

The impetus for the Trail took place during the Covid-19 pandemic. In common with other heritage sites, Ushaw’s buildings were closed. At this time, they constructed a suite of display boards in their grounds where they began to show reproductions of collection items within thematic displays. In addition to this initiative and in order to introduce new and existing visitors to more of the collections in a novel and innovative way, the team began working on the digital app.

The app takes users on a treasure hunt through Ushaw’s gardens. This narrative device is rooted in reality and relates to the house’s history. During the French Revolution, students at Ushaw’s predecessor college at Douai in northern France hid the institution’s collection of early eighteenth century silver in order to safeguard it from the revolutionary forces. In the mid-nineteenth century, with permission from Napoleon III, Ushaw students returned to the, by then derelict, site of the college at Douai in order to recover the silver and bring it to England.

The augmented reality elements of the trail, triggered at ten specific locations, include the appearance of a mid-seventeenth century atlas through the library window. The atlas swoops down to the user and provides a helpful hint to the next location. Other items highlighted include an orrery from 1794, the fifteenth century Westminster Vestment, and a 1732 bronze sundial spinning in mid-air before pointing the way to Trail’s final location. Here, the Douai Silver erupts from the ground in a spectacular finale to the Trail’s quest.

Andrew Heard, Visitor Programmes Manager at Ushaw, said:

“We are delighted to have won the Historic Houses 2023 Collections Award for our outdoor digital art trail. The trail was designed to introduce Ushaw’s history and collections to new audiences and encourage visitors to our gardens and outdoor spaces to discover more about what is inside our buildings. We find it particularly gratifying that the efforts we are making to introduce people to Ushaw and the treasures it contains have been recognised in this way.”

Managing Director of Dreweatts, Jonathan Pratt, said:

“Now in its second year, Dreweatts are proud, once again, to be supporting Historic Houses and to be playing a part in recognising the importance of historic collections in our collective history. The judges were hugely impressed with this year’s winner, Ushaw, in particular, with the quality and innovation of their digital resources, interpretation and community outreach – as well as the sheer variety, inherent interest, and beauty of the collection.”

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