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