Pitt Rivers Museum at night
Pitt Rivers Museum at night

In 2016 I undertook some market research for the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Need, Make, Use project in advance of a new permanent display of some of the archaeological collection that is otherwise not very obvious in the museum; anthropological items are the majority of items on display. The objective was to gauge the interest and background knowledge of family visitors to the museum about archaeology to inform the design of the redisplay.

The desk-based section of the work involved researching what other museums had done with their archaeological collections. It was really interesting to read about and talk to curators about some of the decisions they had taken about the themes and stories they wished to bring out from the archaeology, and why specific items that had been chosen for display. Grace Todd at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff was very helpful, explaining the thinking behind their Adventures in Archaeology exhibition. It was centred around props from the latest Indiana Jones movie, using this as a basis to explore real archaeological adventurers. Themes they wanted to get across were that early archaeologists were not necessarily trained as such but had other backgrounds, that archaeology can be discovered by anyone today, but conversely that archaeology is a skilled profession. Each case was centred around one ‘wow’ object that caught the eye.

The Museum of London had tried out putting modern objects that performed a similar function to their Roman counterparts on display in the same cases to test whether it would help understanding about life in Roman London. The results were mixed. Some visitors were aggrieved to have modern objects in a Roman display, while many teachers felt it helped their children identify with Roman Londoners. At Manchester Museum the Egyptian gallery starts with a ‘cabinet of curiosities’ style display and has visible storage, both of which could be used to describe the Pitt Rivers display policy, but matched it with digital technologies, touchable objects and 3D projections to make it more accessible for families.

Deciding how to display objects on the family consultation day
Deciding how to display objects on the family consultation day

The second part of the project involved consultation with families and young people. Family visitors at half-term, parent volunteers at a focus group and the museum’s resident Young Archaeologists Club (YAC) were the targets. The feedback was very interesting. Despite the YAC group’s prior interest in archaeology, the jargon that could be used in archaeology displays was little understood. At the National Museums of Wales in Cardiff, this kind of result had been anticipated, but instead of taking out jargon words, they made sure they were explained.

Timelines were tricky without help, and a visual method of orienting the objects in time was requested by all participants. The Pitt Rivers policy of grouping objects by function rather than period or place was questioned on numerous occasions, though conceded by some that it brought up interesting contrasts as long as objects were clearly labelled. The plan for the archaeology displays was instead to group objects by material. When asked to create their own display of objects, families preferred to group by theme e.g. the domestic world, clothing than anything else.

Families were virtually unanimous that images could give context to the objects, either showing how they were made or used, and several suggested embedded video in the cases, something that’s never been done before in the permanent galleries at the Pitt Rivers Museum. A little information for adults to read to help interpret displays for their children was also requested, but just a little.

The Need, Make, Use blog shows the process of choosing pottery for display in the new archaeology cases, and I think they are going to be as packed as always. I look forward to seeing the final displays unveiled.

References

Hicks, D & Stevenson, A. 2013. World Archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum: a characterization. Oxford, Archaeopress.

Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, 2012. Breathing new life into Roman London: Summative evaluation of Our Londinium at the Museum of London. Manchester.

Weeks, J 2013. Ancient Worlds, Manchester Museum. Museums Journal Issue 113/02, p42-45.

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