Hi - I’m Alan Denyer, the new curator & Creative Director at the ‘PVC’ - and I’ve created this new webpage to introduce you to some of the changes we’re planning at what was previously the ‘Priory Visitor Centre’ space, in the centre of Coventry.
You’ll see ‘the CET’ referred to from time to time - my background is telecoms and product marketing, and since 2010 I’ve run a successful property restoration business (AWD RESTORATIONS) - however, I’m also giving time to assist with various initiatives to make Coventry a better place. The CET was the first.. a curated pop-up museum/art gallery/venue/tour experience located in the old printworks HQ of the Coventry Evening Telegraph newspaper - it ran from May’17 for 12 months and attracted 25,000 visitors. More recently I’ve put time into the make-over of a disused basement and garden space at Holyhead Studios, 16 Lower Holyhead Rd, Coventry (for use by local people for events/workshops) - and I’m also campaigning for cultural use of the historic 1976 ‘elephant’ sports and leisure building on Fairfax St (presently under threat of closure).
Originally conceived as a showpiece ‘heritage’ visitor attraction to commemorate the Millennium, the centre (operated by Coventry City Council) closed in 2014 - but then re-opened (as a CIC) in 2016 as part of an initiative by a local social entrepreneur Carole Donelly. Visitor numbers aren’t great tho - and the centre needs a re-think to maximise it’s potential - so here, we’re setting out a few ideas that will form the basis of a re-boot, scheduled for mid- spring ‘19.
The primary offer is still the story/ruins of st marys priory cathedral (1043-1537) - however we’re consciously re-branding so as to present as a mixed-use ‘arts, plus heritage’ venue, giving scope for arts themed use, including music events, during both daytime and evening. Updating and re-positioning, to appeal to a much larger new audience - mixed age, mixed cultural background.
Dialling down the ‘tired heritage, museum’y - only appealing to older white people’ perception is really important - which is why we’re using the ‘PVC’ branding (a shortform abbreviation already in use by people referring to the building).
There’s also a need to de-clutter inside, and we’re planning on moving the cafe/meet & greet reception point upstairs, dramatically increasing the perceived (and usable) space in what we’re we’re now terming the ‘lower gallery’ - the main area downstairs.
The new layout will be set up so as to encourage dwell time - eg. comfy chairs set out in quirkily dressed spaces - with interesting things to look at, (and not just static displays) - like looped video screenings and/or slideshows.
The lower gallery has to also work as a multi purpose venue space - able to host a variety of events, primarily in the evenings. We intend to achieve this by setting up the rectangular high ceiling’d area at the bottom of the stairs with a dramatic wall mounted film projection surface, faced by attractive sofas, and physically screened off from the remainder of the lower gallery (where the majority of the history displays will be located).
Central to the new-look visitor experience, is a carefully curated (but low-key, so as to not come across as too contrived) ‘self guided tour route’ - with quirky signposting giving the customer enough basic information to explore the attraction on their own. The tour route mechanism also allows us to manage the visitors experience, creating a series of ‘wow’ moments along the way, with stronger theme-ing of the elements to increase audience emotional engagement (eg. ‘waterfall pool’, ‘poison garden’, ‘tower cellars’).
Top of the priority list for us is the establishment of a low-fenced perimeter around the site (as shown above) that encloses a larger area - so that both the undercroft and priory gardens are accessible (only) via the Visitor Centre (new proposed opening hours; mon-sat, 12 til 4). The existing upper level door, facing directly the flow of passing-foot traffic, is planned to be re-purposed as the main Visitor Centre entrance/exit - with the existing sliding door across the cloister garden, and present main entrance glass doors, both kept locked. These measures address two big issues affecting the site; 1/ critical mass: due to the undercrofts being physically isolated from the main site, its never been practical to open them to the public other than via pre-booked attended tours (not what visitors want) - so there’s never really been enough on site to sustain a quality visit, 2/ security: anti-social behaviour in the priory gardens (due to un-restricted 24 hr access points on ground and elevated levels - see areas marked red on map) means most folks just see this as a slightly scary, un-inviting space.
The absolute necessity is to increase visitor numbers - so we’ll be upping our game not just in terms of whats on offer, but also the marketing. We’ll definitely be keeping with the free admission policy, however, there will be a prominent ‘suggested donation’ policy (£3 per person) very similar to the approach that worked so well at The CET Building.
The initial visitor focus will be on attracting more people from Coventry - where anecdotal evidence suggests that, even 16 years after opening, many folks don’t actually know about the location, or Visitor Centre. We’ll also strengthen our links with others so as to increase our visibility in regards of visitors to the city - as we have a key strategic position that, if we get things right, should also encourage visitors to venture further out to other venues such as the Transport Museum.
As with the CET, there will be a policy of giving free space to anyone doing anything interesting - that’s basically anything (visual arts, performance, instructional workshops, music, heritage show & tell etc) we think the visiting public will enjoy. Priority for free space to be given to uses where there’s no admission charge. It’ll also be preferable for free uses to have a Coventry theme or link (though this isn’t exclusive).
Larger uses that take more time to facilitate (eg. an art show lasting 2 weeks, or an ‘outside of our normal public opening hours’ evening event) or are less interesting to the public (eg. a wedding or corporate use), or wish to make an admission charge (eg. a band, or gig), to be charged a hire fee. Again, audience development is the priority - we’re conscious that many folks in Coventry (if they even consider it at all) don’t think galleries, museums or theatres are for them - so we’re focusing on new ideas to get people out into the city centre and into our venue to try new things - based on the formula that worked so well at the CET.
We also recognise that similar venues sell alcohol at events to cover their operating costs, and we’ll be working to come up with something like this - initially based around temporary events notices, with the upstairs cafe/kitchen facility doubling as a bar.
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the priory visitor centre in coventry. we’re looking to re-launch it as the ‘pvc’ - with new facilities including a cafe, self guide tour route and venue space to host events - but there’s nothing plastic’y about this beautiful spot hidden behind a city centre supermarket. Infamous Lady Godiva is rumoured to be buried below the ruins, along with her husband Leofric, in the abbey they founded in 1043. The visitor centre itself lets you explore the remains of the huge 425ft 12th century benedictine priory-cathedral and undercrofts, built on the same site - and destroyed by henry viii in 1539.
pvc - (it’s) a little bit of history, in a whole city of culture
NOTES: the priory visitor centre opened in 2001 following excavations of the site - as featured on TV’s ‘time team’. Council funding cuts forced closure in 2014, however, it is now run as a community enterprise by a small partnership of local townspeople who want to make Coventry a more interesting place to live in, and visit.