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.

I’ve focussed on the way the Viking Age is presented in museums at the moment. Vikings are hot stuff just now. This year they seem to be everywhere – on the ‘so hot right now’ HBO Vikings series, children’s films like How to train your dragon II, books, documentaries, and of course, the British Museum’s Vikings: Life and Legend blockbuster exhibition. The popularity of Vikings is cyclical and comes round every 30 years, and luckily enough for me, 2014 is the year of the Viking. In the thirty years since the last surge in popularity (which saw Jorvik Viking Centre in York start up), post-modern theory has come to be accepted in archaeology and museology, however, its effects have been questioned. My dissertation seeks to tease out evidence of archaeological and museological theory in museum display, and I’ve done this through five museum case studies. In reference to Asma, quoted above, people look through the window of the museum and see the objects, but is anyone looking at the frame?

In order to gather my data, I visited Viking museums in the UK and Scandinavia. I also visited many other types of museum to see what museums of other periods are doing. Standing in the three-dimensional space of the exhibition, people pushing past to see the artefacts, children crying, photos being taken on iPhones (in some museums), it is really, really hard to know where to start. Unfortunately, searching for post-processualism in a museum is not as easy as looking through the museum map leaflet. I’ve needed to keep a practical definition of post-processualism in my mind at all times. Ian Hodder’s (2012: 7) work has kindly helped me with this, by his provision of the following main tenets:

  • agency,
  • materiality,
  • symmetry,
  • phenomenology
  • post-colonial Indigenous
  • social, and
  • representation

And obviously, how these fit together and relate to other theoretical schools and constructs. Roberta Gilchrist has distilled it further, into: ‘social identity, gender, supernatural belief, sensory perception and spatial experience’ (Gilchrist 2009: 397-398). Stephanie Moser explains the difficulties in this field of endeavour:

‘Too often, academics make the mistake of thinking that displays are simply designed for popular consumption and that they are somehow irrelevant to the ‘real business’ of learning about a subject. Worse still is the notion that the evaluation of museum displays and how they communicate ideas is a common sense exercise not requiring any specific theoretical or methodological skills.’ (Moser 2001: 3-4)

In this post, I really just want to introduce the place I’m coming from so that when I really get into museum case studies and reviews, the frameworks I’m using can be found here. The museums I visited for my dissertation were selected for their varied approach to display: the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, the exhibition Vikings: Life and Legend at the British Museum, the Vikingeskibsmuseet in Roskilde, the Nationalmuseet in Copenhagen, and Birka the Viking Island near Stockholm. The ‘presentation frame’ was a lot easier to see in some than in others. Seeing beyond the content in front of you is quite a difficult thing to do, but one museum, the Vikingeskibsmuseet in Roskilde, put their presentation frame up front. Upon arrival, you are greeted with a stark, 1960s, brutalist building – totally at odds with the curves of the ships inside (an entirely planned juxtaposition, see: (Damgård-Sørensen and Djupdræt 2003: 2). Inside the gallery space, a wall of windows greets the visitor and creates a striking effect of the Viking ships silhouetted against the shoreline beyond the glass. Their guidebook, although a bit old and dated now, tells the visitor their philosophy: ‘Visitors to the museum are not led back in time—on the contrary, the building ushers cultural history into the present.’ (Damgård-Sørensen and Djupdræt 2003: 2)

One of the Roskilde Skuldelev ships, with Roskilde fjord behind

Other museums can be so overly stimulating that it’s all you can do not to get swept along with their narrative and, sometimes, their joy. As a visitor, I would be looking for different things, but as a student of museum display, that distance is so important. I absolutely love the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, and I think it’s probably my favourite in the world, but I was quite glad I didn’t need to use it as a case study. I find it such a bewildering whirlwind of colours, cultures, materials, functions and textures that it can be a dizzying experience to wander through it. Which is, of course, why I love it. Obviously it represents a long-outdated approach to museum display, but, like picking up an old history book, it’s so important to see where we’ve come from as a society. And one funny side effect of an old-fashioned display is that it becomes a museum exhibit itself. For example, the First World War dioramas at the Australian War Memorial. They were installed so long ago that they have become a draw for visitors themselves, rather than a way for people to learn about battles.

It may be that sometimes the presentation frame is actually a bit of an antique.

The diorama of the Somme in winter, at the Australian War Memorial. Photo credit: Australian War Memorial
The diorama of the Somme in winter, at the Australian War Memorial. Photo credit: Australian War Memorial



Next week: Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red

Works cited

ASMA, S. T. 2003. Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads: The Culture and Evolution of Natural History Museums, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

DAMGÅRD-SØRENSEN, T. & DJUPDRÆT, M. B. 2003. The Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Viking Ship Museum.

GILCHRIST, R. 2009. Medieval Archaeology and Theory: A disciplinary leap of faith. In: GILCHRIST, R. & REYNOLDS, A. (eds.) Reflections: 50 Years of Medieval Archaeology. Leeds: Maney Publishing.

HODDER, I. 2012. Archaeological Theory Today, Cambridge, Polity Press.

MOSER, S. 2003. Representing archaeological knowledge in museums: Exhibiting human origins and strategies for change. Public Archaeology, 3, 3-20.


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