Witness is a site-specific installation, opened this summer, which adds thought provoking art to the extraordinary visitor experience at the National Justice Museum.

This visionary work by British artist Susie MacMurray invites you to pause and reflect on the many moving stories of those who passed through the historic museum site, once home to the city’s Shire Hall and County Gaol.

Witness asks you to contemplate the fragility of life and the strength and courage it takes to bear witness in dark and tragic times.

The making of Witness

Six rope pillars line up to look upon a rope noose hanging from the gallows at one end of the museum’s Georgian prison exercise yard. The pillars can be seen as extras in the crowd, or relatives of those about to be hung,

Susie MacMurray created the pillars in situ using a large frame and a process which is like the traditional craft of French knitting. Made from tough marine rope, each of the pillars is seven feet tall. They are intended to weather and transform in their act of bearing witness over the years.

Witness film

Symbolism and significance

Both the rope and the strenuous repetitive way the pillars were made links to the painstaking process of picking tar from old rope – known as ‘picking oakum’, a common form of penal labour in Victorian times.

The knitting together of the rope and the way each pillar will sag and fray exposed to the elements, recognises how lives, families and communities are strongly woven together, yet can also be unravelled by circumstance.

The choice of material and its association with particular people and place is integral to Susie MacMurray’s work

Originally intended to open marking the Museum’s 25th anniversary in 2020, the installation took on a new significance following the global pandemic. Each pillar is socially distanced, and represents a witness reflecting on the long period of constraint during two lockdowns, and the resilience required to live through such adversity.

Witness encourages visitors to delve into the amazing history of our site, echoing down the centuries to our recent past and lives changing over lockdown.

Victoria, National Justice Museum CEO

Susie MacMurray

Susie is an internationally recognised British artist whose works have graced beloved national properties including the Great Hall in Winchester, Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire, Compton Verney in Warwickshire, and Tatton Park in Cheshire.

She has a reputation for poetic site-specific works which typically reference the history of the space and bring together different strands of that history to raise questions about the relationship between place and people.