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Made Feature - The National Justice Museum

The National Justice Museum

The National Justice Museum, located in Nottingham’s Lace Market district, has established a reputation as a national leader in legal education, and is a popular year-round visitor attraction. Intriguing displays, immersive experiences, and costumed characters help bring history to life, and offer an insight into the impact of legal systems on society in the UK and beyond. Made went to find out more…
 |  Made  |  Galleries & Museums

Formerly known as the Galleries of Justice Museum, the site covers a former Victorian courtroom, prison, and police station. Dating back to the 14th century for its courtrooms and at least 1449 for it gaol, the currently Grade II* listed building, known as the Shire Hall, is perfectly placed to home and display centuries of legal proceedings and law enforcement in a fascinating museum collective.


The building originated during the Norman era, around 1375, when it was used as a court of law, and was even home to local sheriffs. It became a prison in 1449, also used for public executions, with the last one taking place here in 1864. Over time the building suffered a number of structural changes and incidents, with the courtroom floor collapsing in 1724, and a rebuild of the hall between 1769 and 1772. Further improvements were made in the 19th century including to the courtrooms, but a fire caused serious damage in 1876. By 1905 a police station had been built next to the building, and the city’s civil and criminal courts continued to operate here until as recently as 1986 when the Nottingham Crown Court moved elsewhere. It was at this point that the decision was made to repurpose the site and the Galleries of Justice Museum opened in 1995 following a £3.35 million restoration effort. It is now successfully managed by the National Justice Museum Trust who have continued to invest in and secure funding for the site and for its associated events and education resources ever since.

As we wander around the museum, we realise the extent of objects available to view, many displayed alongside interactive or immersive tools, to enrich each experience and broaden our understanding. We were excited to see the original dock from the Bow Street Magistrates Court, whilst the infamous hanging rope used in executions gave us a true sense of the chilling reality of bygone punishment. As we made our way through each floor and into each immersive zone, we were able to see step by step how our justice system emerged and has evolved to modern day. We were able to walk through the Georgian gaols and medieval lower cells, spending time inside each one to reflect on how prisoners may have felt here. We also took a stroll around the exercise yard. We also couldn’t resist having a mug shot with our own convict number. Actually, we were given a convict number on a wristband when we first went into the museum, and at varying points in the museum you will find information on your own convict persona through time. It’s a nice touch that heightens your immersion into the legal narrative.

We weren’t sure what to expect when we first booked our visit, but the immersive focus throughout the museum refreshingly entertains whilst covering some sensitive topics, and truly transported into a world of courtroom drama, crime, and punishment. The museum team have successfully married the sensitivity of some of the historical facts and facets of our legal system through time, often quite dark and harrowing, with a thought provoking and fair delivery. Their reflective spaces are particularly great for giving you chance to think about what you have read, heard or seen and give you chance to pause mindfully before moving on to the next space – we particularly loved their ‘keys’ inspired room, where you could stop and sketch gaol keys and think about what they would mean to you if you were incarcerated in the prison there.

Another aspect of the museum that really brings depth and animation is in the form of costumed characters – from gaolers to prisoners - who stroll about the museum, popping up just when you need them, and their realistic performances really light up each room. They are each ready to share their stories. The matron in the women’s prison certainly had us behaving! You can also take part in a historical trial re-enactment and even experience one of Georgian England’s favourite entertainment, a public execution, although we opted out of that one!

The museum is great for all ages, despite the reality of punishment in the past, and it’s certainly an attraction for all the family, in addition to its notoriety in the education sector, with schoolchildren visiting daily from all across the UK. Visitors can experience both how justice is served through the eyes of judges and jurors and from the other perspective as a defendant or sentenced criminal. The narrative throughout is to reveal the way in which law and justice have evolved socially, politically and culturally, in a no bars (no pun intended) way that does not shy away from our (at times) galling past.

We also walked through the contemporary exhibition zone, with the museum offering a year-round calendar of exhibitions, which explore modern themes of social justice, inspired by objects from the museum collection. This space is free to enter and is located next to the gift shop and café. The café, incidentally, is friendly, welcoming and worth a stop.
Alongside its role as a museum, the National Justice Museum Trust oversees the management of the City of Caves attraction as well, which covers the largest public section of Nottingham’s cave network and is only a few minutes’ walk from the museum, with combined entry tickets on offer. Made has visited the caves previously (you may remember our article) and we recommend discovering the network of caves under the city.

Another interesting part of the work that the museum team do includes the joined-up operation, focused on the education programme across locations including London and the North West of England, through year round exhibitions, workshops and performances. This cements its position as not only a national leader in legal education but as committed to helping those of all ages in all areas of society to understand the legal system and how this affects their lives. It’s great to know that whilst we are lucky to have this facility in Nottingham it is accessible to all across the UK.

Which leads us on the museum’s multi award-winning learning programme which was set up when the museum first opened. This has gone from strength to strength with the team appointed learning providers for London’s Royal Courts of Justice since 2011 and introducing learning workshops in courtrooms across the North West since 2014. Effectively, this means that more children and students can access resources and learning on our legal system though this collaborative, dynamic framework. They have also in recent years expanded to offer the National Justice Museum On Tour programme, bringing their workshops to real courtrooms across the UK, perfect for schools who wish to make the story of law accessible to their students in authentic spaces that recount intriguing real-life events. Teachers can find out more on the museum website.

The team have also created an award-winning series of anti-knife crime prevention workshops aimed at young people from key stage 2 upwards. By teaming up with the Ben Kinsella Trust which delivers these hugely important workshops in Islington the National Justice Museum can reach young audiences across the city, particularly those who are unlikely to have considered carrying a knife and promote learning to encourage positive behaviours and attitudes against carrying knives. With incidents across the city on the rise, this work is proving vital to help counteract the dangers and challenges faced across society in the current climate. More details on the Choices and Consequences workshops are available on the museum website.

During our visit, we also caught up with the museum’s Head of Marketing and Communications, Katie Greenwood, to find out what’s taking place this summer and to find out from the team what they really think makes the museum so special. Although we starting to get an idea from our own fascinating time here!

“What you will find here’, explains Katie, “is much more than a nod to our legal history but a really hands-on, authentic, at times raw, account of how society has been affected by the legal system, and how this has evolved. What we are doing is acknowledging and honouring the misery, suffering and fear that people were exposed to, and cherishing landmark moments that have made us a much fairer society. And we are ensuring our narrative is accurate but handled sensitively and in as light hearted a way as we can so you will experience plenty of dark humour.

“We also think it’s really important to make the legal system accessible to all. In doing so we all have a better understanding of how this may affect us so that the first time we come up against it is not when we are affected by crime, or are called up for jury service, or even commit an offence. Our year-round programmes are designed to bring awareness and celebrate learning.”

We asked Katie about exhibitions and events and how these are curated alongside the museum’s displays. “Ah, we are quite proud of these,” Katie smiles. “Our creative team are constantly looking at ways that will show off the many objects here whilst demonstrating different perspectives and narratives across society. We recently held an exhibition called Ingenuity, looking at ways those living in prison could be creative, such as making a violin out of matchsticks, crafting playing cards from paper scraps, or painting intricate scenes on prepaid phone cards. This proved really popular, and gave people a real insight into the creativity and inventiveness of people living in prison.”

“It’s also important to note the links between mental health, mindfulness, and creativity, and many of our events and workshops explore these themes and we look at ways to take a globally relevant and contemporary approach. You will see this in our latest exhibition, ‘Juvenile In Justice’, which is an exploration of the lives of young people living in prison, both here in the UK and in the USA, presenting some stark contrasts and similarities. It runs until November. Our free to enter Project Lab also has regularly changing displays from artists, academics and community groups, focusing on different aspects of social justice.

“We are particularly excited about our brand-new escape room experience; ‘Guilty?!’ It will be running on select dates from April through to September and you can book online. This is honestly our most ingenious experience yet and will give participants just what they would expect from an escape room activity but the chance to clear or admit their guilt across multiple places in the museum. It’s fantastic fun, selling fast, and can be booked on our website.

“For those who prefer a more serious evening then our Crime Club runs regularly on selected evenings”, Katie adds. “More info on our website, but it is a great way to delve into specific historic cases of Nottinghamshire men and women. Our head historic interpreter does an amazing job in this talk and you get to hear about real stories and look at real evidence.”

The National Justice Museum really does do justice (sorry!) to delving through our legal system’s history and exploring the individuals who have played a role or been affected by it over time. It’s a fascinating day out for all the family and we came away with a new found appreciate for the processes that today keep us safe and promote a cohesive, happier, thriving society.


Details on events, exhibitions, workshops and learning resources can be found at:

The museum is open daily from 10am until 5pm, last admission at 4pm. Tickets can be purchased online or in person.

 All imagery courtesy of the National Justice Museum.