Art installation in the landscape at Housesteads evoking a cape crossed with a signpost

Art Project: Signpost cape at Housesteads

In 2016 and 2017 nine museums and archaeological sites took part in Hadrian's Cavalry art project. The lead artist Karen MacDougall kept a diary during these months. These are her memories of developing the challenging art in the landscape installation at Housesteads Roman fort.

Project: Signpost cape - Housesteads

"Housesteads is the midpoint of Hadrian's Wall. From here you look east to Segedunum and west towards Carlisle. The site was owned by the National Trust, managed by English Heritage and is also a scheduled monument so was a big challenge!

I needed to design an artwork which could survive outside on an exposed hillside from April to September. I spotted a wall enclosing an old well head beside the path between the museum and the fort's entrance. The circle's diameter was about 5 metres, the walls about 1m high at the lowest point. I was given permission as long as the artwork didn't go into the ground,  disturb the archaeology or stick up over the wall top.

Weaving a concept

I conceived the concept of a signpost / cape. The cape would feature the number of days ride from Housesteads to Roman settlements, researched by curator Frances MacIntosh from Roman texts. The structure would resemble those on wooden Roman lookout towers. As well as being sculptural, it would degrade, like the fall of Rome.

Although wool is a good material, I decided a laminated panel with a mesh core of hessian would be stronger. I tried sample panels to make sure they did not shrink. I then ordered what seemed like several sheep's worth of soft grey batts and scarlet merino wool fibres. Several metres of heavyweight white needlepunch would be cut up into Roman letters and numerals.

A wool sandwich

At Housesteads I worked with adult volunteers who were Wall champions, National Trust or English Heritage members along with the cheerful curator and her husband. We had some very physical days creating the fabric and felting the placenames and the riding distance from Housteads into it.

The volunteers needlefelted the wool sandwich to the hessian before rubbing and rolling it. The basic hazel and willow structure was tied together with biodegradable jute string. To weigh the structure down I stitched hessian ‘saddlebags’ filled with river pebbles from a DIY store.

Wind and weeds

On 6 April 2017 we spent five hours battling the wind as we fine-tuned the tension structure. It was sprung in place in a double curve, with each end carefully wired in place into the wall in one location through gaps in the stones. We attached saddlebags to hold it down then tied on the cape to look as if it had been blown on there.

Over the summer the museum team sent me two photos a week so I could monitor it. We only weeded it once. By the end, the saddlebags and jute string had biodegraded as planned. Other pluses were the stonework on the wellhead was repaired. English Heritage are now considering the site for other art installations - a lasting legacy.

Provoking debate

Of all the artworks I created for this project this was the most public, with an estimated 90,000 visitors seeing it. On our monthly checks I saw how visitors engaged with the work.

It spoke to people from other countries as they worked out why it was there. Parents explained it in other languages to their children, some people were puzzled - why do this in the landscape? The thing I loved was how it made people speculate about the Roman Cavalry."

- By artist Karen MacDougall

More art projects

Take a look at the full list at Diary of a Hadrian's Cavalry Artist.

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