CONFERENCES: Sutton Hoo at the British Museum: New directions for the new display
Sue Brunning (Curator Insular Early Medieval Collections, The British Museum)
I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Sue Brunning talk about the recent work that has been undertaken to improve the Early Medieval and Sutton Hoo collections located in Room 41at the British Museum. Brunning has has been working on this project for four years after the departure of former curator, Sonja Marzinzik.
Room 41 houses three major collections:
- Late Roman and Early Byzantine,
- Continental Early Medieval,
- Insular Early Medieval (Britain and Ireland)
The collection offers complete coverage of the early medieval period from 300-1100 AD, encompassing north, south, east and west. It contains many iconic pieces, such as the Frank’s Casket, and the famous Sutton Hoo Helmet. Room 41 was last fully refurbished in 1985, and then briefly refreshed in 2001. This latest full refurbishment began in 2010 after a generous donation to the museum. To give the room a new look, the curators used a palette from the The Book of Kells as the new colour backdrop to create ‘a light, airy and vibrant space’. One large central case dominates the room as opposed to many separate cases. Visitor research indicated that museum goers were overwhelmed by stuffed cases and didn’t engage with the displays. The curators decided to be more selective of the types of objects to display and cut down on duplicates like the number of brooches. The end result was the displays looked more inviting and engaging. Non-reflective glass was installed which cut down on the glare and reflections that impeded visitors from being able to properly view the objects up close. The use of non-reflective glass has revolutionised the look of the displays. A new lighting design was also used used to assist in showing the details of small, intricate objects.
Sutton Hoo Ship Burial
The Sutton Hoo ship burial was discovered in Suffolk, in 1939. It was believed to be a burial that commemorated a king of Anglo Saxon East Anglia. It is one of the most famous archaeological finds in English history. The British Museum had to find a way to do justice to this national treasure.
What was the thinking behind the new display?
Initially, Sutton Hoo was displayed at the bottom of Room 41 with seven separate showcases containing thematic groupings.
- The King’s weapons
- The Great Hall (contained drinking horns and gaming pieces)
- A food case (contained a cauldron and pottery)
- A silver case
- Images of Power (contained hanging bowls, ceremonial accessories, the famous shoulder clasp, and coins dating between 610-645 AD)
- A replica cauldron case
- A sword-fittings case
Each theme had approximately 160-180 words describing the piece at the back of each panel. While this may not seem like much, for the purposes of current museum display, it’s a lot of text. The old display was contained, very detailed, informative and demanded special attention.
This approach had several drawbacks:
- The Sutton Hoo exhibit was separated from the other collections so visitors didn’t always understand that all these materials came from the same grave.
- The panels were not attracting people to read them; only 3-10% read them because they were overwhelming.
- Due to its isolation from other collections, people did not tend to visit the Sutton Hoo section because it wasn’t located in an area that was visible. When visitors entered Room 41, they had a tendency to turn left thereby completely missing it because it was on the right of the entrance.
While the refurbishment was taking place between October 2011-March 2014, the display was moved to a temporary location in Room 2 and the curators tested out various display ideas and developed new themes.
The 2014 Themes for the Sutton Hoo Exhibit
- The movement of people, objects and ideas
- The legacy of the Roman Empire
- This period was NOT “The Dark Ages”
- A period of great change
- Archaeology as key to understanding the period.
To better align with these new goals, the display was moved to the centre of the gallery, with other sections surrounding it. This arrangement would encourage visitors to get a better understanding of the period. The curators toyed with different display methods, like using flat table cases to allow for unimpeded viewing across the room. Unfortunately, this set up cast shadows and also dismissed the importance of certain objects that needed to be viewed in an upright position to fully appreciate them. They also tried out tank-like cases like those used the temporary display in Room 2, however the they didn’t display smaller items very well. They finally settled on a stand-up case with cut-aways to allow visitors to move in and see smaller objects easily and closely. It’s a large single case displaying the Sutton Hoo objects together to cement the idea that everything in this case was part of one burial. It also lent a majesty to the exhibit that had been lacking. The case dimensions give an accurate representation of the height of the great hall, and the height of the ship to the visitor. In Room 2, they attempted to mark out the full size of the ship on the floor to convey the actual size of the ship but it was slightly too big so instead they represented it on a glass spine to give the sense of a “ghost ship”. Text panels were replaced with shorter 100 word versions detailing the “who, what, where, and when” basics. Videos about the burial were also integrated into the displays and quotations from Beowulf were cleverly used as decor around the cases. In addition to these improvements in the gallery, Brunning also updated the website with new articles, blog posts, and an online exhibition on Google. Tech savvy visitors can access the website on their smartphones within the gallery.
- The Sutton Hoo ship burial
- Mediterranean silver
- The Celtic world (weapons and war gear)
- The Frankish realm
- The Great Hall
- Feasting and Power
- Power and Authority (sceptres, shoulder clasps, and materials that denote some kind of authority)
The gallery is currently under evaluation but visitor and academic feedback has been resoundingly positive. The refurbishment was difficult because politics and cultural periods often dictate how objects are displayed. There was a balance that needed to be maintained between what experts, historians and archaeologists wanted to see and what the general public was willing to digest. This latest rendition happily meets both worlds in the middle without compromising the integrity of the materials.
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