Having been Visitor Services Trainee at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse for over three months now, I have spent many days in our museum shop processing tickets and museum passes whether it’s an event day, ‘A Day With A Difference’ or an ordinary day. This also entails greeting visitors and informing them about the layout of the site. Not forgetting serving visitors wanting to pay for items selected from our vast array of gifts and workhouse paraphernalia, ranging from postcards to furry toy animals!
However on the quiet days, which are usually either rainy days or the day before an event, I usually have a spare minute to wonder what our museum shop was originally used for. It has always had the name of Porter’s Lodge. When Gressenhall was a Victorian workhouse, people would ring the bell or the knocker on the porter’s gate in order to gain admittance to the workhouse. The porter was always on duty to admit inmates or visitors to the site. I feel that nowadays, the Visitor Services Assistants in the shop are faced with a similar duty to that of the Porter those many years ago. All visitors, whether they are here for the day, simply using the café or meeting with a member of staff, enter the site via the Visitor Services Assistants in the shop. Here, we’re the first point of call for anyone entering the site. We greet people, process their tickets and allow their admission, as the porter did in Victorian times.
Once inmates had been admitted to the site, they were escorted to the Receiving or ‘Itch’ Ward where their clothes were removed and they were given a bath, a medical examination, and some workhouse clothes. Nowadays, we similarly give visitors their tickets and provide them with information regarding facilities and the layout of the site so they can have an efficient and enjoyable experience. Then and now, Porters Lodge has been a place where people have been admitted and sent on their way to discover the site and embark on the adventures that Gressenhall has in store for them. It has always been a passage through which newcomers have passed in order to discover the unknown and gain a new experience.
I often consider what people’s thoughts were as they walked up to the wooden gates of the workhouse in Victorian times, and I’m sure that this is something that many visitors and members of staff have thought about. How did people feel once they’d knocked on the porter’s gate and were waiting for a response? Once they’d been admitted, what were their first impressions? Although these people were experiencing these thoughts and feelings centuries ago at a time when Gressenhall was strikingly different from how it is today, their experience is not as faraway from our current visitors’ experience as you might think. Today, what are visitor’s thoughts as they walk up the path to the shop? What impression do we give visitors as they walk into the shop and see us sitting behind the tills? What hopes do they have about the day they are about to experience at Gressenhall, similarly to people hoping for a better experience when they knocked at the porter’s gate long ago? Porter’s Lodge was and still is a place of first impressions. It is a place where people begin a new experience and begin to embark on a journey to new discoveries.
So this little building on the right hand side of the courtyard named Porters Lodge Gift Shop is not a building to be taken for granted. It is and always has been a place where newcomers have entered the site and gained first impressions of Gressenhall, hoping for a good experience. We know that throughout history, not all newcomers to Gressenhall did receive the beneficial experience they were hoping for when they first arrived at Porters Lodge. Some may have felt privileged to be receiving shelter, food and work, but others had a more unfortunate experience in store for them. But at least nowadays we know that we can meet visitors’ expectations of an enjoyable and memorable experience at Gressenhall.
Visitor Services Trainee