Displaying prehistory - Museums Association

Displaying prehistory

Exciting scientific advances are enabling museums to engage visitors with the prehistoric past as never before
Archaeology Stonehenge
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Detail from the Nebra Sky Disc, thought to be the oldest map of the stars ever discovered Halle State Museum of Prehistory

They are some of the most fascinating yet enigmatic structures in all of Britain’s archaeological past – the standing stones, passage tombs and henges built during the neolithic and bronze ages. Long subject to conjecture, recent developments in science are bringing our knowledge of the era closer than ever before.

With no records, faces or names, it can be a challenge for museum audiences to connect with the human story of the prehistoric past – but new developments are transforming public understanding of the period, showing that it was a time of complex society, trade and revolutionary technological progress, albeit seen through a veil of ritual and spiritualism that is difficult for modern minds to imagine.

The British Museum’s latest blockbuster exhibition, The World of Stonehenge (on until 17 July), is the first time many of the UK’s prehistoric artefacts – largely dispersed across regional collections – have been brought together under one roof. There are a number of significant loans from Europe, most notably the 3,600-year-old Nebra bronze age Sky Disc, discovered in Germany in 2004 and thought to be the oldest map of the stars ever found.

A bronze twin horse-snake hybrid, 1200-1000 BCE, from the British Museum’s Stonehenge exhibition

The exhibition tells stories uncovered by cutting-edge science such as isotope analysis and DNA extraction, which are beginning to reveal the extent of people’s geographical mobility at the time, as well as their family connections.

One such study of the Amesbury Archer, whose remains were found near Stonehenge in 2002, suggested that he grew up in the western Alps; analysis of a companion grave found that it belonged to his great grandson, who was born in what is now Wiltshire. There is emerging evidence of mass cultural gatherings featuring slaughtered animals that were transported from all over the UK.

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Such advancements are “the next revolution after carbon dating”, says Neil Wilkin, curator of the exhibition. “We’ve never had the ability to tell these human stories before. It’s pushing the boundaries of what we can tell.”

The labelling of prehistoric exhibitions, where so much is speculative, can be a source of frustration – saying “it could be this or it could be that” often doesn’t go down well with visitors, says Wilkin.

The Stonehenge exhibition has taken a less literal approach in parts, opting for succinct interpretive text that poses a question or includes an evocative detail to prompt the imagination. One such label tells visitors that a gold pendant “sank into the gloom of a pool dotted with water lilies”.

“We want to give them a detail and let their imagination flood in the rest,” Wilkin says. “Prehistory is very different to display than history. It’s like the difference between abstract art and a figurative painting.”

The British Museum tends to avoid artistic experimentation in its historic displays, but the curatorial team has departed from this norm by commissioning a soundscape by the artist Rose Ferraby. This includes underground and undersea vibrations and can be heard alongside a display of Seahenge, the bronze age wooden monument found on the Norfolk shoreline.

A soundscape by artist Rose Ferraby accompanies the display of Seahenge

The exhibition also features three blocklifts – segments from digs frozen in time and displayed vertically so that they meet visitors eye to eye – a device pioneered by the Halle State Museum of Prehistory in Germany, where the Nebra Sky Disc is usually on show, and inspired by display techniques more usually seen in modern art galleries.

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“It captures that moment of archaeological discovery that so few people get to share,” says Wilkin. “It will be really interesting to see how people respond.”

Another institution hoping to transform the public’s understanding of deep history is Kilmartin Museum in Lochgilphead, Scotland, which is undergoing a £3.2m lottery-funded redevelopment.

An artist impression of the redeveloped Kilmartin Museum © Reiach and Hall Architects 

The museum displays the rich archaeology of Kilmartin Glen, a thriving hub in the prehistoric era, and primarily tells the story of the area’s extraordinary rock art and its positioning within the wider landscape. Neolithic people were drawn to the area because of its astronomical alignment and the new museum building aligns with the most prominent axis in the glen, capturing the movement of the sun.

Research has shown that much of the glen’s rock art illuminates at certain times, and there is new understanding of how quartz, which glows when hammered, was used ritualistically during the period.

An example of early Beaker pottery found in Kilmartin Glen © Kilmartin Museum 

Such complexities can be hard to capture in writing, says the museum’s director Sharon Webb. “It is difficult to convey the richness of the past with the fragments we have left,” she says. “Their world was alive with spirits, their whole lives were imbued with ritual. We understand the world through science, they understood it in a completely different way. How do you convey that to a visitor?”

The redeveloped space will tell as much of the story as possible without words, via audiovisuals, specially created illustrations and soundscapes. A temporary exhibition space will feature an ongoing programme of artistic responses to the collections.

Webb hopes that by combining these elements, the museum will bring “a different understanding of archaeology”.

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