“It is a little-known fact that the Romans invented bouncy castles,” a father tells his young, dubious daughter as they spot in the distance what could be a wildly colourful inflatable house in the remains of a fort on Hadrian’s Wall.
When the family have made their 15-minute way up from the car park to the fort, they will realise the structure is neither bouncy, nor a castle.
Instead, English Heritage, in its first major contemporary art commission for a new creative programme, has asked the artist Morag Myerscough to “rebuild” the north gate of Housesteads Roman fort in Northumberland in her own, wild way.
Inside the temporary scaffold structure – about 16 metres by 9 metres – visitors will have the same life-enhancing views that Roman guards looked out on nearly 2,000 years ago, minus the Picts.
On the outside it is a riot of colourful wooden placards bearing words, phrases and pictures inspired by Hadrian’s Wall and suggested by community groups.
A structure that seems so big, colourful and visible will not be to everyone’s taste, but that’s fine, said Myerscough. “It’s not whether people like something, or they don’t like something … if they start talking about it then that is very exciting. It’s about being surprised by something.”
Some of the phrases on the work are abstract, others literal. Many have a poetry about them. They include “rain with sharp teeth”, “threat of chaos”, “the stars sent us the spirit skies”, “wild wind whistles”, “floodgates of love” and “just get on with life”.
Myerscough first went to the English Heritage Hadrian’s Wall sites at Chesters and Birdoswald before deciding Housesteads was the place for an intervention.
She said: “When I walked round there was this really profound moment when I stood in the middle and looked out and realised this had to be the place … I also knew I needed to make a work everybody could be involved in and they could have their voices on it.”
The installation is the first major commission for the new creative programme for English Heritage sites led by the curator Penny Sexton, who has been in post 14 months. She said: “Art allows you to push the boundaries, to ask trickier questions, to think outside the box … to think more creatively about our history.”
So much colour in grey ruins might seem jarring, but there were so many resonances, said Sexton, whether that was the patterns the Romans used, or the words they scratched into the wall or the colours they loved.
Sexton said: “I didn’t know about the Roman use of colour, that they used really bright, contrasting colours. There have been so many things in this project to make you think this was meant to be.”
Titled The Future Belongs to What Was As Much As What Is, the installation is part of year-long celebrations marking Hadrian’s Wall’s 1,900th anniversary. The work stands in the exact spot that the north gatehouse at Housesteads once stood.
Kate Mavor, English Heritage’s chief executive, said the charity wanted to mark the anniversary in a meaningful way by connecting the people of 2022 to those of 122.
Mavor said: “We hope that placing such a bold, contemporary art installation in this ancient landscape will not only capture people’s imagination but also challenge their ideas of what the wall was for. Not just a means to keep people out, but a frontier that people could – and did – cross.”
Housesteads is the most complete example of a Roman fort in Britain with, according to guides, the best preserved toilets. The installation will be open to the public from 30 July to 30 October, after which the structure will be removed and the wooden placards offered to those involved in painting them.