The shipwreck in the shopping centre: Plimmers Ark, Wellington

In the Old Bank shopping arcade in Wellington, New Zealand, under the stairs and next to the gym, the wreck of the Inconstant sits. In this post, I’ll tell you how a ship came to be wrecked in the middle of the CBD, and then discuss why this is an interesting case for curators. There’s a strong argument for integrated curated spaces, location-based museums and the exhibition in every day life. However, there’s also a case for something being so well integrated that it’s invisible.

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Traitor!

Confess yourself a traitor and a renegade! And so go to meet your doom. Traitor! (Brigstocke Sheppard, 1889: 413, in M. Lewis)

During an excavation of the Cistercian Monastery of Hulton Abbey, Staffordshire, in the 1970s, the disarticulated remains of a mature adult male were uncovered, revealing some very unusual peri-mortem cut marks. The man is thought to be Sir Hugh Despenser the Younger, a man so dastardly it may not be possible to catalogue his crimes and his punishments in just one post. Radiocarbon analysis puts the remains within the fourteenth century, and osteological analysis suggests the man was older than 34 years at the time of his death, which has led archaeologists to believe he is, in fact, Sir Hugh.

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What if the past is gross?

Our most informative and fascinating sources for the past don’t always look great or display well in a museum setting. In this post I want to talk about a way of looking at the past that I find really fascinating, and is the subject of academic papers, but doesn’t really get much of a look in when it comes to exhibition design. In this post I want to talk about the archaeological information gained from parasites, the font of information that is the coprolite, and other gross things.

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A note on object agency

My first ever post for this blog, way back in August 2014, was about object agency. I wrote that object agency is about the reflected agency that a person gives to a thing. As a lens through which to view archaeological finds, it allows us to reflect on the meaning that an object had to a person or group in the past. I have always looked at it as being a concept we could apply to the past, but in the last week I have been thinking that it is actually part of our lives and that it drives the things we do.

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Enlighten: an outdoor exhibition of lights and the arts

In Canberra, Australia, we have just finished experiencing one of the most wonderful festivals celebrating lights and the arts. Held outside and predominantly in the Parliamentary Triangle (the area between Parliament House and the lake, housing many of the national cultural institutions), the Enlighten festival runs over two weekends and is an initiative of the ACT Government.

The circle of lights on the Federation Mall
The circle of lights on the Federation Mall

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The ANU Classics Museum

The Classics Museum at the Australian National University in Canberra holds a wealth of artefacts and antiquities from the Greek and Roman worlds. The collection spans a period between 1500 BC and 500 AD – a period in which significant changes occurred throughout the world, great cities were built and then sacked, empires were made, and works of literature and art were created that still inspire us today.

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A dated monument to the future

The Canberra Deep Space Communication Complex is a deep space tracking station located in what is, to the naked eye, a sheep paddock near Canberra. When I was little, I would go to the Tidbinbilla Tracking Station (it’s formal name is above) to see the huge white dish and go into the visitor centre. When I was 10, I thought it was a fun museum but a bit dated and not all that engaging.

The big dish at Tidbinbilla Tracking Station
The big dish at Tidbinbilla Tracking Station

At (nearly) 30, it’s the same. I mean, it’s actually the same. What I can’t ever seem to get over is the fact that the subject matter of the visitor centre is so futuristic, yet the display is so old-fashioned. We’re talking small glass cases you look down on with various space-y bits and bobs with printed paper labels, in some cases stickey-taped on, and panels with dates for space exploration. A projector screen playing some unknown film and an LED ticker with a countdown are the most modern things in this museum. What I’m ultimately saying is, Tidbinbilla Tracking Station – CALL ME! We’ll make it a bit more engaging and modern and get across the sense of excitement that should be generated by space travel.

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Article review: ‘An Ivory Knife Handle from the High Street, Perth, Scotland’

This week I’m reviewing a really fascinating and influential article that actually came out in 2001, but which, I think, is so useful that I wanted to give it a bit of attention. Many of you may already be familiar with this article as it’s quite often cited – while the knife handle may not be relevant to your work, the use of one object to explore a period and lifestyle is carried out so neatly that it gets cited in a variety of sources. For the other museum enthusiasts out there, it makes me think about how much cannot be communicated to an audience for one object. No one will spend this long looking at one object or reading about it, even though a similar approach could be taken for pretty much any object out there.

The article’s full details are:

HALL, M. A. 2001. An Ivory Knife Handle from the High Street, Perth, Scotland: Consuming Ritual in a Medieval Burgh. Medieval Archaeology, 45, 169-188.

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A different type of house-museum

The cottage
The cottage

Near to where I grew up, in the middle of Canberra, Australia, is a small farmer’s cottage called Mugga Mugga. It was built in 1838, and is one the region’s oldest dwellings. Most people in Canberra drive past it without seeing it, set back from the road, with little more than a chimney visible as you drive past. It’s now a house-museum visited by school groups and a few visitors, and one of the few low-status dwellings you can visit and see filled with objects authentic to the house.

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Awesome women, Roman category

There is a story to be told of some amazing women from Ancient Rome who worked as medicae, or formal female healers. In this post, I’ll highlight some truly inspiring women who worked in a healing capacity and were well-respected by their families and communities. I love talking about these women and surprising people with the knowledge that women were doctors 2,000 years ago. I wanted to write a post about this topic because it would be amazing to see it covered in a museum looking to update their ‘Roman women’ section from hairstyles and childbirth.

In this post, I’ll give a bit of background about the Roman medical system, give some context for female healers, and introduce some by name.

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The (re)constructed event

In the period room, objects aren’t displayed in isolation as they are in museum displays which favour the aesthetic nature of material culture. Instead, they’re placed into a likeness of their original surroundings. By doing this, the role of the object is reinforced, and its biography and agency explored. I wrote about the period room in an earlier post, and put forward this quotation from Shanks and Tilley (who are not fans of this type of thing at all):

The period room is not a replica but a simulacrum, an exact copy of an original which never existed. The past is transformed into its own image. (Shanks and Tilley 1992: 79)

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Food, historical food

Joachim Beuckelaer, Fish Market, 1568, oil on canvas
Joachim Beuckelaer, Fish Market, 1568, oil on canvas, via Wikimedia Commons

A few weeks ago, I wrote about museums which engage the senses by playing with our sense of smell and made particular mention of Jorvik Viking Centre in York. This week, I want to go further than smell and talk about taste. If smell can be such a useful way to communicate (and in my earlier post, I found that it was), I wonder if taste could be used to help museum visitors, youth groups and schools better understand the ‘experience’ of the past.

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Communicating archaeology to children through books

Last week, I wrote about the significance of unexpected learning, and drew upon my archaeocake ‘Death (and burial) by chocolate’, which was my entry for the Heritage Jam. Kindler and Darras summed it up best:

…learning is sometimes most effective when it is unexpected and informal’ (Kindler and Darras 1997: 125)

I want to continue on with the theme of communication of archaeology to young audiences by looking at the way books treat complex past peoples. Now, I tend to specialise in the way that the Viking Age is treated in popular culture and so a lot of my posts draw on Viking-themed case studies. The Viking Age is an excellent resource for this type of study – it’s generally known by popular audiences, attitudes have changed a lot over the last few decades, and it’s really popular at the moment. Witness my Viking rubber duckie, from the British Museum: Eirik Bloodbeak (I also have a Roman one, whom I call Quackus)

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Communicating archaeology through cake

In July this year I entered the Heritage Jam, a project which hopes to draw out people around the world interested in communicating heritage through imagery. The event was held physically at the University of York’s Centre for Digital Heritage, although entries were welcome remotely. The theme to explore this year was ‘burials archaeology’. The Heritage Jam hoped to create (or perhaps uncover) a network of people who were enthusiastic about this method of communication:

The goal of The Heritage Jam is to bring people together to design and create forward-thinking pieces of heritage visualisation. (Heritage Jam website)

My cake, ‘Death (and burial) by chocolate‘ has been receiving some attention online lately, for example, it was recently the cover image on DigVenture’s list of archaeological cakes. It was also used by someone who contacted me via Twitter in a lecture to future teachers as a way to teach stratigraphy. Seeing as it’s been quite a popular work of mine, I thought I’d explain in a blog post why I made a cake, why it’s not just a cake, and why communicating complex concepts to children is an important thing to do with our time.

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Review: The Rocks Discovery Museum, The Rocks, Sydney

The Rocks Discovery Museum
The Rocks Discovery Museum

Narrow, uneven and roughly hewn lane ways lead through the warm sandstone buildings of The Rocks, the historic area of Sydney now leading up to the Sydney Harbour Bridge and sitting alongside Circular Quay. Throughout its history, The Rocks has been many things. The traditional owners of the land were the Gadigal, who were part of the Darug language group. European contact very rapidly changed the area and The Rocks as we know it was founded shortly after settlement in 1788, becoming the formation we know today by 1810. Named for the gorgeous warm sandstone found in the area, The Rocks is known to have been a slum dominated by a gang called the Rocks Push. The area was considered an eyesore and an embarrassment and in the late 1960s plans for complete demolition were drawn up. A local residents group, the Rocks Residents Group, fought the plans and today the area is a commercial and tourist destination drawing on the unique character of early Australia.

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Museums which engage the senses

The museums I remember from my early childhood are the ones that best engaged my senses. My early childhood was spent in South Australia, and the museums I clearly remember visiting were the South Australian Maritime Museum and the South Australian Museum. Both museums were visited during school excursions and both gave me a lifelong love of museums – all types of museums.

A focus on multi-sensory experience has emerged to be a pathway for museums to communicate the past:

New developments in museum practice are disrupting conventional notions of the museum as a silent and still site of purely visual display. (Concordia Sensoria Research Team, Concordia University, Montreal)

An interest in providing interactivity has led to a re-evaluation of the senses, and some really exciting innovations. Museums are moving away from being the temple of the ‘aesthetic artefact’ and a place for the community, which is a big part of new museology (See: Dean 2003: 30).

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The dead don’t bury themselves

Grave goods are often used in exhibitions to tell a story, but whose story do they tell?

They don’t tell the story of the individual with whom they are buried. That person didn’t choose them, didn’t place them, didn’t curate them. The story they tell is of the broader society, their rites and rituals, and their beliefs.

Mike Parker Pearson, the English archaeologist and former director of the Stonehenge Riverside Project, summed it up:

…the dead don’t bury themselves, but are treated and disposed of by the living. (Pearson, M. P. 2003: 3)

What you are seeing when you open up a grave is a series of relationships. You see evidence of the relationship between the individual buried and their community, between their community and their beliefs, between their community and us. You may see evidence of trade relationships, linking communities across the globe together. You may see evidence of a community in the  midst of social or religious change (See: Bones Don’t Lie blog post). See also the British History podcast which talks about this.

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Power and placement–Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture

My second post for this blog (Religious syncretism in Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture) was about religious syncretism as seen in Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture. I said then that this is one of my favourite topics, and I will say it again. They are such fabulous monuments that I felt the need to come back to them and explore what I think is their most remarkable feature: their continued presence in their original landscape. In this post I want to talk about the significance of landscape and the difficulties faced by museums in recreating or re-establishing the cultural context once the object has been selected for museum display.

Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculptures have a wide geographic distribution in the areas of England which saw Scandinavian settlement, indicating that they were a broad cultural phenomenon. There are more than fifty surviving monuments displaying both Norse and Christian iconography. I explored some examples in the earlier post that had Christ and Viðarr depicted on the Gosforth Cross, but now that I’ve introduced the iconography, what about the placement? Did placement matter? Why put these enormous monuments in the landscape?

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How does conservation affect display? Part Two

Last week I wrote about the effects of conservation on display by looking at the revamped Mary Rose museum. Large, vulnerable objects like wooden ships, once excavated, have specific and changing requirements. The Mary Rose is very much a work in progress, and next year the final drying phase is expected to begin. The ships below have finished their stabilisation and intensive conservation period and their display requirements, although more stable, include a stronger focus on the visitor experience.

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The period room and the (re)constructed past

Many museums use the ‘period room’ in order to communicate the use of material culture. In the period room, the material culture is placed into a likeness of their original context as a way to reinforce their role in daily life. This has been an engaging way to communicate low-status lives, with reconstructions of kitchens, farm houses and ‘ordinary’ people’s houses dotted around the museums of the world. In institutions like the British Museum, the objects are elevated to the level of art: their usefulness is not relevant, their context is not relevant, and their relationship with reality is certainly not relevant.

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Telling a changing story

The word ‘story’ keeps coming up in my research into museum display and archaeology. The ‘story to be told’ is the really exciting part of the process. I’ve found, through interviews with curators in various museums, that although the collection of a museum may not change, the story will. Telling a changing story is one of the most interesting challenges for museum professionals, and drawing on new technology, new research and theories, and also new finds, can greatly assist with revealing what that story is.

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#TowerPoppies

The view from the gallery

I’ve recently started volunteering with the very special #TowerPoppies project at the Tower of London. The impact this work has had, is having and will continue to have, on the public is undeniable (some recent news articles here and here). It is equally moving in person and viewed remotely, and is a truly modern work which engages the public, who are encouraged to use social media to share the experience of viewing.

The installation has been very popular with tourists, who are encouraged to tweet, instagram, and share their pictures with the #TowerPoppies

Though not in a museum, the public art installation Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red is a curated work. It is dynamic: it evolves over time, viewed by the public. It is engaging: eminently photogenic, the public are encouraged to photograph, video, and share the experience of viewing. It even has its own hashtag: #TowerPoppies. Volunteers are encouraged to take photographs during their time in the moat and share them online, possibly even inspiring others to give up an afternoon or morning to help out (volunteering link below).

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The ‘Presentation Frame’

Museum presentations are three-dimensional windows into the world of ideas. But while observers successfully perceive and contemplate the factual tidbits that are placed in focus by the ‘window’, they frequently fail to notice the presentation frame itself. (Asma 2003: xii)

The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. A maze of glass cases, each one stuffed with material culture.
The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford. A maze of glass cases, each one stuffed with material culture.

I’m currently at the business end of writing my MA dissertation at the University of Reading, with a couple of weeks to go, some coffee on the brew, and a highlighter at the ready. My work has left me sitting at the intersection of archaeology and museum studies, with one thumb pointed outwards, hoping to hitch a ride with anyone who is doing something similar. It is hard out there for a museum archaeologist.

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Religious syncretism in Anglo-Scandinavian stone sculpture

In my last post, I wrote about object agency and object biography. Having introduced the concept that the meaning attached to objects can be as important as their function, what I really want to do now is take that concept a bit further and explore the way that the relationship between object and viewer was manipulated in the past, and used to project a message to the community. To do this, I’m going to use a case study of the Gosforth Cross, an Anglo-Scandinavian standing stone sculpture situated in Cumbria, UK.

Cumbria, UK. Home of the Gosforth Cross. Photo credit: Google Maps
Cumbria, UK. Home of the Gosforth Cross. Photo credit: Google Maps

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Object Agency and Object Biography

Archaeological theory… No! Don’t leave! It’s interesting, I promise.

Theory puts some people right off. It’s bewildering, it’s lengthy, it’s often quite dense and sometimes at the end of a long day, you think, ‘sometimes things are just things’. Terms like post-processualism, object agency and object biography are thrown around quite a bit, but what do they actually mean?

This post, the first post for this blog, will focus on object agency and object biography.
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