Ship burial from Sutton Hoo redisplayed
The Sutton Hoo ship burial and the dark ages artefacts found there have fascinated many of us from first sight. The full face helmet alone is an amazing object in its own right. The other treasures create an impression of wealth not normally associated with the popular idea of the Anglo-Saxons in the dark ages.
The recent redisplay of the Sutton Hoo discoveries at the British Museum shows the objects familiar to frequent visitors in a new setting and with new interpretation. What I liked most about the redisplay was the context given to the finds. The display case is long and tall with the outline of a ship in white. The photo shows this is faint but helps remind visitors that the objects come from a ship grave. This is underlined by the simple labels showing whereabouts in the ship the objects were found.
Recreated objects and interpretation
A big change in this display is the number of modern recreations of objects displayed alongside the originals. I liked this approach because it helps the non-specialist understand what the original looked like and can help see how it was used. For example the modern versions of the cauldron and chain make it clear the size of the object and it’s use. Not least the length of the chain shows it was hung from a high support. I also liked the way the modern versions were clearly marked to avoid confusion.
Inevitably the modern helmet attracted most attention while I was in the gallery. Having it displayed by the original allows a compare and contrast the two. Plus it shows how much the Anglo-Saxons liked to create an impression with polished metal objects.
The reconstructed helmet has more detailed interpretation than I expected. It highlights the pagan horned dancing figures similar to other pagan depictions. It also points out the similarity to Roman cavalry tombstones that show a Roman (or auxiliary) riding down a barbarian.
The shield was a reconstruction to provide a display for the original shield fittings and this is essentially unchanged. It has a modern and an original sword below it. Seeing the modern sword in pristine condition helps the visitor imagine the impact visually and physically of this finely made weapons.
Sutton Hoo and the Anglo-Saxons
What does this splendid display tell us about the Anglo-Saxons and their world? It makes clear the wealth that an individual could command. From gold metalwork and red garnet fittings on the pouch cover to the workmanship of the helmet’s decorated panel and ridge it shows the love of bling and display. Identifying where objects come from gives an insight into the wider world of the time. Clear links between East Anglia and East Sweden are seen along with silver plate from the Mediterranean (more dark ages bling!).
The discovery is significant enough to feature in the name of Room 41 at the British Museum. Room 41 is now the Sutton Hoo and Europe, AD 300-1100 gallery.
A day out at the National Maritime Museum Cornwall
My longstanding interest in the Vikings whether historical or in miniature meant the Vikings exhibition at the NMMC in Falmouth was a must see! Because of the distance it meant little time to see the rest of the museum although we found time for the cafe funnily enough. Walking through the museum I did like the Viking inspired decoration of the learning area.
The Vikings in Cornwall
Most people think of the raids on the North East coast, York and Alfred burning the cakes when Vikings are mentioned. However, they really got around and that included Devon and Cornwall. The Great Army burnt down Exmouth in Devon where I live and some residents think they should do so again! In Cornwall there is evidence of settlement and trading which the exhibition included. The combination of interpretation, reconstruction and objects really brought this out clearly I thought.
Vikings – raiders or traders?
This argument has a long history and I’ve encountered it since university days in the late 1970s. Coincidently this same argument applies to the Homeric world of the Iliad and Odyssey which I studied in the context of ancient banditry but that’s one for another blog.
I liked the way the exhibition clearly brought out both sides of Viking life. The combination of the large clear interpretation panels and related objects was excellent. Being able to handle objects was good too. My mother was amazed at the weight of a mail shirt and said being able to touch it really helped imagine it in use.
Including weapons and slave fetters illustrated the dark side of Viking life. Backed up with DNA research showing how many Icelanders are descended from Irish women taken as slaves. The Irish connection was well documented in the exhibition too.
Trading ship Walrus
My favourite part of the exhibition was the recreated Viking trader the Walrus. Visitors are allowed on this boat which was both fun and informative. Moving about on the deckspace really made both of us appreciate the skill and courage needed for sailing shallow draft ships on the high seas.
Speaking with a well informed volunteer about how the ship was made at the NMMC and finding out more about some of the recreated objects was really interesting. I didn’t know that the Vikings used hazel as barrel hoops which makes perfect sense in terms of time and resources. After all splitting hazel is quicker and cheaper than making iron hoops.
How the Vikings made things was a really strong theme in the exhibition. From nails for ships to rigging from intestines there was enough information to appreciate how preindustrial societies relied on skills, crafts, time and effort. I also learnt that saws were not used but a broad headed axe provided a means of splitting wood into planks.
No, not some form of dark undead from the Sagas but women and children. Another strength of the exhibition was including women and children in the interpretation and the objects on display. A lovely object was a child’s toy boat and imaging it being played with really brought the past closer. Having a reconstructed trader’s booth with a female mannequin was a nice bit of trading interpretation. The clothes worn were plainer than often shown which seems sensible as the cost of fine clothes with tablet stitch decoration would make plainer working clothes more practical.
As you leave the exhibition
I enjoyed the display of modern items inspired by the Vikings. Everything from films to comics, toys to the Rover badge. A good assortment of souvenirs were in the shop although I didn’t buy anything. Most of the items were very reasonably priced as well which is always good to see.
Three men and a Viking boat
By odd coincidence a week after visiting the exhibition I was at Legionary, the Exeter Games Show, talking to a friend and a trader about Viking ships.
Familiar museum with a new look
I’ve visited the Imperial War Museum (IWM) more times than I can remember. It was a favourite day out with my father in the 1960s and 70s. So a new improved version was a must see. Overall I really liked the new look and interpretation. Not least because some of the old favourites are still there – including the flying bombs of the sort that fell at the end of my mother’s street in the Second World War!
What’s changed at the IWM then?
A general feeling of more space with more coherency combined with a diversity of objects. For example the Cold War display has an artist’s response to the threat of nuclear destruction.
I liked the way there’s a map of each display with interpretation backed up with individual labels. The introduction sets the scene and the map orientates you.Talking of the labels they are stuck on cases which makes their connection with the object clear. From what I saw some are beginning to suffer wear from visitors testing how well stuck they are. I also felt some of them lacked contrast making reading harder.
Having uncles who served in Bomber Command I enjoyed seeing the Lancaster cockpit on display. It seemed huge but had to fit most of the crew in. The current secret service exhibition is fascinating in its own right and the coding and decryption section rang a bell with another uncle’s postwar service.I also visited the Holocaust Gallery. Seeing it for a second time I spent more time absorbing the exhibits than being stunned by the enormity of what it depicted. The inclusion of all groups attacked by the Nazis shows just how many people were affected by these political and ethnic policies. The section with a diagram showing how all branches of the government were part of the annihilation was particularly chilling.
On a personal note I found the items and film from the liberation of Belsen interesting. This was because my father was amongst the troops rushed there to try and resolve the chaos left when the Nazis abandoned the camp.
The First World War Exhibition
Ok, I’ll admit it: I was dreading another recreation of a mid war trench. Much to my relief this exhibition is impressively inclusive. Both in terms of covering all the war chronologically and in looking at all fronts. This included the home front and I found lots of interesting objects and interpretation. I definitely left feeling I learnt something!
The variety of uniforms was impressive as it included all periods and most fronts. Even some Balkan States uniforms are there. The early war German did look a bit like he had Ugg boots instead of natural leather marching boots! What I really liked was the mannequins for the uniforms are fairly abstract black shapes. This gave an anonymity to the uniform displays which made me think of all the unknown soldiers.
A busman’s holiday
Naturally being a museo myself I had to look at things from a work point of view. I found all the staff really friendly and knowledgeable and happy to talk about the redisplay. I also was interested in how the IWM has brought print on demand into their shops. Again the staff were pleasant and helpful when I asked about this.
Was it all brilliant then?
Well, it was pretty much ten out of ten. I think seeing familiar objects alongside recent acquisitions was one of the strengths. That continuity made me feel long time visitors were valued by the redevelopment team.
The thoughtful attention to detail is a nice touch. For example using odd spaces in the upper main hall to display odd objects. This was a bit like museum Easter eggs!
Yes, I did try the cafe which is fine and the staff are friendly.