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.
Roman Baths revisited
Despite the redevelopment at the Roman Baths having completed some time ago I only went there last week. Having gone there several times over the years, perhaps most memorably one Autumn evening when there were few people about, I was keen to see what had changed.
Braced with a large lunch my friend and I queued to get in enjoying the costumed people passing by. It turned out the people in Regency Costume were involved in a successful record attempt in the Assembly Rooms as part of the Jane Austen Festival.
Looking across the main bath
The visitor challenge
The Roman Baths are really popular which means visitors need to keep moving so as not to jam up the limited space. I thought the way this was managed from admissions to interpretation worked well. Admissions were done in batches to break up the crowd and the very busy desk staff were really welcoming.
I liked the way objects were displayed with enough interpretation to inform but not so much to keep you reading for ages. Rather than itemising each item objects were often in groups with a general description for each group. This kept dwell time down while still being informative. It meant less text and more space for the objects too. I also liked the way this kept more of a thematic feel to the object displays.
An example of the object cases with interpretation panel
Naturally being a digital museums chap I was interested to see how digital was used. Again the need to keep visitors moving was borne in mind so the usual touch screens were replaced with projectors and video players.
The video fly throughs and reconstructions are very cleanly and crisply done which gives them a feeling of immediacy. Having them populated gave a sense of scale to the reconstructed buildings and helped show the diversity of people using and working in and around the baths. I really liked these.
One of the videos in situ
I found the use of projectors well balanced and thoughtful. The gaps in projection meant you could view the remains as just that. A good example is the temple pediment where a projected image shows what it might have looked like when complete, and when the projection is off you clearly see the surviving fragments.
Pediment without projection
Pediment with projection
Projectors are also used to populate areas of the baths with Romans. I really enjoyed this for two reasons. One is it helped get across the place was busy and many different types of people used the baths. The second is the quality of light made the projected people have a faint ghostly feel to them which gave me a poignant peeping into the past feeling.
Echoes of Roman bathers
I admit I didn’t try the audio tour as I find they aggravate my hearing problems. However, I know a friend who has tried them and gave them the thumbs up!
One thing that makes this audio tour stand out is it isn’t one size fits all. There’s the standard tour, a kids tour and some commentary by Bill Bryson at selected spots. Plus a BSL guide and enhanced audio tour for people with visual problems. To make the hat trick you can even download the tour.
A final point on the audio tours is the way stops are handled. The different tours are colour coded and included on the same sign as other interpretation. I do like this economy of signage as you can probably tell!
Tour stops on a sign
Overall visit experience
Both of us really enjoyed the visit and recommend it if you’re in Bath. Whilst you can’t take the waters at the Roman Baths any more there is a package deal including the new spa in Bath.
More photos over my Flickr page
Two ancient monuments; two interpretative approaches
Stonehenge has featured in my life since childhood when you stopped by the road and had a walk around the stones. Over the years the stones have become more remote – many friends had vehicles wrecked in 1985 prior to the fences going up. So a visit to the latest visitor centre was a must do. Followed by a more traditional visit to Woodhenge.
Stonehenge visitor centre
The new visitor centre took me by surprise. I thought it was a winter cattle shed from a distance so it definitely fits into the landscape in my view!
After parking and heading to pick up tickets I had to agree with my friend’s view that it was like a London attraction. New and shiny, queues, lots of people milling about on organised tours and strict visiting times for seeing the monument.
I was looking forward to seeing the recreated Neolithic huts but sadly they were not finished. My friend had cut the willow used in the hut roofs and that made a good ice breaker. We had a chat with three of the team working on the huts, including some comments only cynical heritage professionals could make which I won’t repeat here!
The huts are different types drawing on the rich archaeology roundabout Stonehenge. One thing learnt was that the floor should be rammed last of all and left for a couple of weeks to set. Otherwise final building work will tear it up.
We started with the exhibition and I immediately warmed to it. You enter a oval room with opposed entrances and a film playing on each wall. The film tells the story of Stonehenge simply and engagingly, and most importantly briefly. Despite the brevity many people only paused, glanced and moved on. Whether seating would increase dwell time I’m not sure. This very short time spent by visitors turned into a feature of the day.
I really enjoyed the main exhibition and felt it had a good mix of modern and traditional approaches. Another longer film with short detailed sequences covered the modern. There was plenty to see in the way of finds in the cases alongside reconstructed items. I found the captions nice and clear and liked the way other museums were signposted.
Being a hopeless bibliophile I loved the small room containing manuscripts of works about Stonehenge. Having seen so many of these works referred to over the years it was great seeing the manuscripts themselves. Having them in a simple room with a curved door was a good decision too I thought.
To Stonehenge by land train
I really disliked the time allocated trip by land train. It made me feel just another commercial unit to be managed through the visit process, and the diesel from the vehicles can’t do much for English Heritage’s carbon footprint!
On arrival the walk round the stones behind a barrier with “no entry” signs had a surreal quality. While preserving the monument you are too far away to engage the imagination as you don’t appreciate the size and physical mass of the stones. Again people were not pausing but seeming to treat it as an item waiting to to tick off on their culture list.
I really enjoyed trying to take photos of the jackdaws who were enjoying having the stones to themselves. They were also walking up to the barrier and inspecting visitors in the curious way jackdaws do! The corvid theme continued meeting a very tame crow at the land train stop. We walked back to the visitor centre and it was much more atmospheric than the land train, despite a very cold shower!
The visitor centre gift shop was next and even the tat was quite expensive. I got some chocs for colleagues and a tea towel for myself. The cafe prices convinced us to try a friendly pub in nearby Amesbury.
Back to the past at Woodhenge
Our first impression of Woodhenge was the calm after the storm. As many dog walkers as visitors with full access to the site. We also had a wander around Durrington Walls opposite.
The interpretation was old school, with the posts marked by concrete bollards and coloured tops relating to a metal plaque. What we liked was you could make your own experience as opposed to feeling processed through a visitor experience factory like at Stonehenge.This was partly reaction but we both when young had enjoyed exploring ancient monuments and using our reading about the past to bring them to life ourselves.
Joining it all up
One feature of the new face of this landscape I thought was really well done was the uniform interpretation boards. The same style is used and the same graphics making it very easy to place yourself in relation to other features. The style carries through to the map on the Stonehenge leaflet.
Overall while I thought the exhibition and recreated huts were well done I was less struck by the sausage factory approach to visiting Stonehenge itself. Perhaps I belong with the 18th Century romantics in the exhibition!