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Pitt Rivers Museum Archaeological Display

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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Museums and heritage in New Zealand

I’m very lucky to have family in New Zealand and so have managed to visit the beautiful country several times. With me and my husband both working in the heritage business, we tend to sample the museums, archaeological sites and historic houses alongside the natural beauty and Lord of the Rings attractions.

We haven’t seen them all, by any stretch (we’ve never managed to get to the South Island), but we have visited the museums in Auckland, Rotorua and, this time, we managed to see Te Papa in Wellington. Some of the earliest European houses in New Zealand are in the Bay of Islands, which we also explored.

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Inside the natural history gallery at Te Papa

Te Papa in Wellington explores the heritage of the islands, both Maori and European, as well as the natural history of the archipelago. I was very keen to see the museum as it’s well known for its work with the local community. Children’s voices were used to interpret the natural history displays, and there was a great deal of input into the displays by iwi (Maori tribes). We were there during term-time and we saw a kindergarten group come in to find out about native wildlife, and some high school kids were enjoying the house in a simulated earthquake.

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An oven at Te Wairoa that was buried by the eruption of Mount Tarawera

Rotorua Museum also has a fantastic display of Maori history and cultural objects, including a display on their contribution to the First and Second World Wars. The museum is housed in the old Bath House and some of the rooms are preserved from its heyday. As Rotorua is a volcanic area, there are many spas where you can safely take advantage of the hot pools and bubbling mud. Up in the hills south of the city are the remains of a several buried villages, Te Wairoa, for instance, that were destroyed in the eruption of Mount Tarawera in 1886, and there’s an account of this in Rotorua Museum.

Auckland War Memorial Museum sits on the top of an extinct volcano in the Auckland Domain park. It has an amazing collection of not only New Zealand treasures but also of the Pacific islands. Maori culture is represented by wonderful meeting houses and canoes among other things.

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Te Whare or meeting house at Waitangi

Russell Museum in the Bay of Islands is a very cute museum with a scale model of Captain Cook’s ship, as well as social history objects of the earliest European settlement in new Zealand. Despite being very remote now, at one point it was the colonial capital of the islands.

Further up the bay are the Waitangi Treaty Grounds where the treaty between the British Government and the Maori iwi was first signed in 1840. It had already been a meeting place for the Ngapuhi people before Europeans arrived. An early government building exists on site, and a century later a Maori meeting house was also built.

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Stone Store in the foreground and the Mission House at Kerikeri in the background

Some of the oldest European buildings in New Zealand are in the Bay of Islands, including the Mission House, built in 1822, and Stone Store at Kerikeri, which was built to store grain before it was realised that wheat would not grow in New Zealand. They were built across the river from Kororipo pa, a fortified Maori site, which was still in use when the European houses were first built.

Te Waimate Mission House is further inland. I was particularly keen to go there as it was visited by Charles Darwin on his round the world voyage in 1835. He actually spent Christmas there, but didn’t take to New Zealand. On this point I disagree with him entirely.

Making museums more family friendly

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Two of the workshop team at the Science Museum

For the past two years I have had the great privilege to manage the workshop programme for Kids in Museums, sourcing venues who will host us, researching and inviting speakers and developing new themes for the workshops. I ran my last one last week at the Science Museum on Welcoming Families with Autism in museums and galleries. Kids in Museums is now reviewing the workshop programme. Back when the workshops started in 2010 they were the only ones of their kind in the museum sector, and it is testament to their success that many other organisations now run workshops on how to work with families, Early Years audiences and young people.

The highlights of my stint have been the personal stories of what a difference access to the arts and culture have made to people. There was Gloria at the London Transport Museum who had first arrived as a young volunteer and had gone on to be a consultant to other museums about how to welcome young people into culture. There was Sally who had not done well at school but with the help of Arts Award had managed to get into university and was also running the Arts Award Youth Network. Most recently there was Jack, a young man on the autistic spectrum, who spoke with pride about his volunteering at Dorchester Museum to help local youth clubs rediscover their history.

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A young tour guide in periwig at the Wallace Collection

The best bits were always hearing from actual children, young people and parents about what museums can do to be more accessible, more welcoming and more inclusive. The young tour guides at the Wallace Museum were articulate, professional and funny. Kids in Museums has a dedicated group of families that go undercover to judge the shortlisted entrants to the Family Friendly Museum Award and it was great to hear directly from them at the workshops. Vyki Sparkes, who also blogs at Museum Mum, was one of those who came to a couple of our workshops, bringing her youngest along with her at one point. Another parent museum blogger who likes to remain anonymous, Tincture of Museum, spoke very passionately at the recent Welcoming families with autism workshop about the small things that museums can do to help families affected by ASD, like pointing out when a lift might be using time travel sound effects.

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Miaomiao Yu of Bach to Baby at the Foundling Museum

It was always refreshing to introduce some culture into the day, as well, to remind us all why we do the jobs we do. Aisling Fahey, the Young Poet Laureate for London for 2014-15, performed some of her poetry for us at the Learning together workshop at the Barbican, and a Barbican Young Poet named Amina Jama did the same at our Youth Panel workshop at White Cube. Martin Daws, the Young People’s Laureate for Wales got us all involved in performance at our Teen Workshop at Cardiff Story. Miaomiao Yu of Bach to Baby played (Mozart) for us in the Foundling Museum, a very moving experience.

We heard plenty of research, too, with presentations by Abigail Hackett of Sheffield University about her doctoral research into how toddlers experience museums on repeated visits, from Caspar Addyman of Birkbeck’s Baby Laughter project and from Eirwen Hopkins and Iona Towler-Evans of the Choice Project at Swansea University that used the commission model to engage young people at risk of being NEET (not in education, employment or training) with their local heritage.

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Staff and volunteers of Kids in Museums at Cardiff Story

The last, and most important thing to say about the workshops, was what an amazing team of people worked on them. Catherine Townsend and Mikaela Webb both did amazing jobs of liaising with venues and caterers, and pushing the marketing out to new channels. The volunteers who support the workshops, like Jane Allnut, Tempe Nell, Rachel Job, Jack Shoulder, and many, many more all do a fabulous job and go the extra mile to make sure that the days always run smoothly. My heartfelt thanks goes out to them for making my job pretty easy.

 

Late Roman rebellion

In 2006 two metal-detectorists found a hoard of Roman coins near Milton Keynes. Archaeologists were notified and the site was excavated, and it was thought that the coins were probably buried in a pot in a rubbish heap. The coins were not particularly valuable, they were all bronze, but there were 1456 of them. They were reported as treasure the are no in Buckinghamshire County Museum.

What is fascinating about these coins is the story they tell. The coins date to the 4th century AD, mostly around AD 350. There are a couple of coins of Constantine the Great (the emperor who made Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire) but many more from the reign of his sons, Constantine II, Constantius and Constans (Roman emperor’s baby name books weren’t very imaginative).

A century before this the emperor Diocletian reorganised the empire into two zones, the Western and the Eastern Empires. There was an over-emperor or Augustus who generally controlled the Eastern Empire and a junior emperor or Caesar who controlled the Western Empire. When Constantine the Great died, his three sons split the territories between them. They bickered, though, as you’d expect, and it eventually came to blows. In a battle between Constantine II and Constans, the former was killed.

Things stabilised for a while, but then Constans is said to have got very cruel and preferred the company of his barbarian bodyguards that his generals. One of these, a man called Magnentius (who is said to have had a Frankish mother and a British father) decided to make himself Augustus and Caesar and sent someone to dispatch Constans.

Eventually, Magnentius and the one surviving son of Constantine the Great, Constantius, fought. Their armies met in Dalmatia and in Frankia and eventually Magnentius was defeated and he killed himself. Constantius is supposed to have sent a servant called Paulus to Britain to punish anyone who supported Magnentius, and he got the nickname Paulus Catena or Paul the Chain for dragging people through the streets in chains.

The coins in the pot found by the metal-detectorists near Milton Keynes in 2006 were mainly coins of Constantius, Constans and Magnentius. Perhaps the owners of these coins buried them in a panic generated by Paulus Catena’s antics.

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Me at home in my late Roman outfit

Brett Thorn at the Buckinghamshire County Museum asked me to write some teacher’s material to go with the coins as part of a tour of part of the hoard to schools in Milton Keynes. I was also to devise a session where I would go in to the school in costume and let kids handle some coins from the hoard.

 

I did my first one yesterday, and it went really well. We told the very complicated story of the rebellion and burial of the coins in the hall, along with cardboard swords, laurel wreaths, purple robes and paper chains. I involved every single child from two classes in telling the story, which helped bring it to life. Later the kids remembers which friends had been Magnentius, Constans and the others.

The kids loved handling the coins, and already knew that they had to wear gloves to protect the coins from the acidic oils on their hands. I worked with a small group at a time to handle the coins, and took some Roman games to try out for the rest of the class to play while they waited.

Trace fossils

I volunteered for the Oxford University Museum of Natural History yesterday on one of their Dino Days that they do for Year 7s. I wanted to remind myself what secondary school students were like, plus I’m fond of dinosaurs. It was a great day.

I was helping with casting dinosaur footprints and other fossil casts with plaster of paris. One of the conservators had made silicon moulds for the job, and the kids had to follow instructions to mix the plaster and pour it into the moulds. While it hardened, they found out a bit more about trace and true form fossils.

I’m particularly fond of trace fossils, from coprolites (fossilised faeces) to footprints to skin impressions. I wrote a block of work on trace fossils, the study of which is called ichnology, for the Hamilton Trust. While the conditions for fossilisation for both true form and trace fossils are similar, there is so much more potential for greater numbers of trace fossils than true form, since every single dinosaur could have left thousands of footprints or specimens of faeces behind, but only one body.

 

A large coprolite (fossilized feces or dinosaur poop) from South Carolina, USA..jpg
A large coprolite (fossilized feces or dinosaur poop) from South Carolina, USA.” by PoozeumOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Commons.

One of my favourite finds for the block I wrote was a quarry in Bolivia where thousands of dinosaur footprints have been found. Due to the movement of the earth’s crust since the time of the dinosaurs, these now appear to be walking vertically up the wall.

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Dinosaur tracks in Bolivia 1” by Jerry Daykin from Cambridge, United KingdomFlickr. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Commons.

I also like this one where the dinosaur had clearly sat down and then moved away again, found at a farm in Utah.

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Squatting dinosaur tracks at Johnson’s Farm in St George, by Nancy Carruthers, Utah Geological Survey

Early and modern humans have also left tracks (though not in the same strata as dinosaurs as some would have you believe) like the famous ones at Laetoli in Tanzania (probably 3.7 million years old and belonging to Australopithecus afarensis), but also at Happisburgh in the UK (about 800,000 years old and possibly Homo antecessor) and modern humans, Homo sapiens, around 7000 years ago at Monte Hermoso in Argentina. What better way to get children to engage with what these footprints can tell us (height, gait, speed) than by getting them to make dinosaur feet, dip them in paint and run across paper with them, or make their own footprints in wet sand and fill them in with casting material?

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