Harpenden Air Raid Shelters

Harpenden Air Raid Shelters, St Albans, Hertfordshire

Interpreting the WWII community air raid shelters in the town

“An opportunity to create two engaging and exciting interpretation panels.

Mike Foster
(Partner – The Maltings Heritage Interpretation)

In 1939, at the outbreak of World War II, Harpenden Urban District Council commissioned four underground community air raid shelters for the protection of those people caught away from home when the sirens sounded. After the war ended it was deemed too costly to remove the shelters so they were sealed, hidden from view, their roofs just one metre below ground. Following an archaeological survey in 2007 the Council were presented with three options going forward: To maintain in their current state (which carried a number of public safety issues), to permanently infill the shelters, or to open them to visitors together with appropriate interpretation. Latterly, it was decided that two of the shelters – Bowers Parade and Leyton Green – should be permanently infilled. However, the Urban District Council decided to interpret the two sites for posterity and so looked to commission two interpretation panels, one for each site. The panels would include archive imagery together with new cutaway illustrations of each of the shelters and a location map. Much of the text and imagery would be common to each panel, but with small changes appropriate to each shelter at the two locations. The council appointed interpretive consultant and creative writer Carol Parr to develop the text, and she in turn commissioned ourselves to create the graphics.

Panels are a common tool for interpretation, but their merits are often debated amongst interpretive professionals. Whilst undoubtedly a useful and durable way to interpret a given site or subject, all too often they are overlooked by the public. In basic terms, they tend to suffer from being viewed as boring – text heavy and not enticing enough to warrant dwell time. In consideration of budgets for interpretive panels, the greater proportion is often allocated to the structure of the panel lectern rather than the text and graphics! This is invariably a mistake – a simple, black powder coated lectern is inexpensive, unobtrusive, timeless, very durable and will blend into any urban/suburban landscape. Conversely, the text and graphics are of huge importance if you want the public to engage with the story the panel tells. The Harpenden Air Raid Shelters project presented an ideal opportunity for us to create something special that would engage, interest and entertain the passing public.

Following an initial briefing and consultation with Carol Parr, we decided to take our inspiration from graphics contemporary to the WWII period. Carol wanted to write the text in the ‘language’ of public information posters of the time rather than using a more conventional interpretive approach. We collated reference of appropriate design styles and also assessed client-supplied reference for creating the illustrations of the two shelters. We researched technical illustration styles of the time together with WWII posters, books and magazines as possible sources of inspiration for palette, typography and graphic style cues. On sight of Carol’s final, approved text we came up with the concept of the ‘Shouting ARP’ to add context to her title. Next step was to create the basic layout of the panel, as shown right. This was submitted to the client for approval, together with an outline description of our intended stylistic approach. They were delighted with the concept and it was approved without amendment. We then began the illustrations of the two shelters, submitting black line vector drawings for technical assessment prior to completing the artworks. When all illustrative content was finished and approved we created the final graphics, including the map artwork and retouching of supplied archive images. We even replicated the appearance of mid 20th Century letterpress print production to add yet another layer of authenticity. Low resolution PDFs were emailed to client for final sign off, and following approval print-ready files were then despatched to the council’s chosen sign manufacturer.

At Maltings Heritage we firmly believe that any project, large or small, should warrant the same creative input and attention to detail. The Harpenden Air Raid Shelters panels were a wonderful commission and we were thrilled to have the opportunity to create something which will be a well-visited interpretive asset for many years to come. If interpretation panels are deemed an appropriate solution in any given commission, then we would always advise that priority is given to content over structure.

Harpenden Air Raid Shelters, St Albans, Hertfordshire
Harpenden Air Raid Shelters, St Albans, Hertfordshire
Harpenden Air Raid Shelters, St Albans, Hertfordshire
Harpenden Air Raid Shelters, St Albans, Hertfordshire
Harpenden Air Raid Shelters, St Albans, Hertfordshire
Harpenden Air Raid Shelters, St Albans, Hertfordshire