Elaine Evans Archaeology Gallery, Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, Jan 2019

Taking a bit of sea air never did any harm for the Victorians so even in January it is great to be on a train heading out of London to enjoy some bracing sea views. I am off to visit Brighton Museum’s new archaeology gallery. The new gallery replaces ‘Exploring Brighton’ a local history gallery, and displays many of the regions rich archaeological finds. With public support from the Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society, it is the generous donation from Elaine Evans that has enabled the new gallery which embraces cutting-edge science in an effort to move away from traditional glass cases full of pots and flints.

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Busy press day in the gallery.

“I was leaving a sum to the museum in my will, but decided it would be much better to give it to them now for the new gallery.” – Elaine Evans

“When we got the go-ahead, the sad thing was there was no money available from the council. I’m not wealthy but I wanted to do what I could for a project which will bring so much interest and education to so many people. It’s wonderful that the museum will bring history alive to visitors young and old.” – Elaine Evans

Dr David Rudling, President of the Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society, said: “After years of campaigning for a return of a gallery to display some of the very rich archaeological heritage of the Brighton area, our Society is pleased that this is now planned to happen.”

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The gallery uses scientific research to inform 3D reconstructions. DNA analysis has helped to explain skin, eye and hair colouring.

There are a few traditional flint, bone and pot archaeological finds but interspersed are digital recreations of multiple periods including the Ice Age and Bronze Age. Most striking of all are the 3D facial reconstructions informed by DNA analysis of skeletal remains.

The gallery has been specifically designed to appeal to children as pre-history was added to the curriculum in 2014. Museum staff have worked with teachers and education specialists to create the gallery, their consultations highlighting the need for a teaching space within the gallery, interactive displays and not too much text. Central to the new gallery is a meeting place surrounded by wood and with a campfire feel, it provides an area to sit and rest but also room for teachers to hold a session.

It is the first press preview I have been to where the kids have been invited in too and it is a real delight to watch the pupils of St Luke’s Primary School getting stuck in and testing out all the displays. I particularly enjoy hearing one boy say to his friends “that looks just like my Dad!”

The 3D reconstructions are very realistic and striking, certainly enabling you to literally meet your ancestors. There are plenty of skeletons dotted around and pushing buttons allows you to see highlighted section explaining certain aspects of the skeleton. I find the lights don’t stay on long enough. Particularly in one section where the button is on the far right of the panel but the light is on the far left. It works to show you where to look but if you want to actually use the light to see more clearly you might need an extra pair of hands or very long arms.

I do like the narrative approach and the storytelling that is prominent on the display panels. Many subjects in primary school are taught through literacy exercises and it gets the creative juices going to follow the story of Elva, a 12 year old who lives in Brighton.

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Challenging visitors to think about how we interpret the past.
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There is a replica of the chalk block for you to touch.
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Tactile objects just for the sake of it?
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Video with no explanation of actions.

Some of the tactile elements work better than others, the chance to touch a replica chalk is well thought out, you have to think about the lines and what they mean, you can then vote on how you think it was used. But other elements such as touching a pot to start a video seem a bit pointless. What does a bit of pot feel like? What is it made of? How are the ridges made? There is a video but it has no subtitles to explain what is happening. If you are going to make something tactile make it engage the senses, don’t use it simply as a button replacement.

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Objects as set dressing?

Often the displays, particularly of archaeological finds, feel more like set dressing which is becoming increasingly common in museums. There is nothing to tell me what animal a bone comes from, or that this is actually a mammoth’s tooth.

I never thought I would say this but I would really like a couple of maps. It is fantastic to see the face of Ditchling Road Man but if you don’t come from Brighton I haven’t a clue where that is, it could be a hundred miles away.

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Beautiful object easily overlooked.
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Amber cup. Do we need more detail?

The amber cup is stunning, although you could very easily walk past it in such an uninspiring grey box. Push the button and it lights up, but I don’t know how old it is or where Hove Barrow is, or when it was found.

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Dioramas were popular.

I am not the primary audience for the gallery so I asked Robyn, Lily and Biba what they liked about the gallery. They loved the dioramas as they got a chance to see how we used to live. The loved the facial reconstructions as they could meet their ancestors even though they admitted they were so lifelike they were a little bit scary and they liked the skeletons.

I then pushed them to tell me if there was anything they didn’t like. They thought quite hard and said it was the video round the corner. It wasn’t that they didn’t like it but they didn’t know what language the guy was speaking and it was really annoying as they knew it wasn’t English. When I went round the corner I saw what they meant, it was a guy reciting Beowulf in what I assume was Old English, but there was no explanation of the language he was using.

This really is the heart of the debate, if it had just said ‘Old English’ underneath the video would they have just read it and ignored it? That fact they didn’t understand it, did it make them think about it more, try and work it out and decipher it?

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Curious young visitors want to know why the baby skull is a different colour.

Kids are curious, but by not having much explanation on objects I can’t help feeling that you are selling them short. The girls went on to say they like the skeletons but they wanted to know why the babies skull was a different colour. Yes the kids run around the gallery pushing all the buttons, but they also have a million and one questions about everything they see. It works if it is a facilitated school visit and there are staff on hand to ask, but what if you are visiting with your family and no one is around to ask?

I am in favour of more text and explanation, you don’t have to read it if you don’t want to but at least you have the option. I recently read an article about immersive experiences and what they found was –

  • We assumed that more visual experiences would need less narrative, but the opposite is actually true. Visitors saw information as important regardless of the mode of delivery.1

The Elaine Evans Archaeology Gallery is fun and entertaining, it is great to have a place to sit and stay, lots to push and play with and watch. I think kids will love it but I just can’t help wanting a little bit more, I think our kids can handle it. The last thing I see in the gallery is this little chap below, I haven’t a clue where he was found or really anything about him. In archaeology if you lose the context of exactly where and when something was found it loses all of its importance. I wonder if he was grave goods, was he lost, was he a toy or something more?

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Who is this little chap?

By removing the labels and limiting the text are we making it a more accessible visit or are we just training visitors to look at objects and not worry about the details? I am all for having the text there, then it become my choice to read or not read rather than having the choice taken away.

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The Elaine Evans Archaeology Gallery opened at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery on Saturday 26th January 2019. For more details on opening times and ticket prices please see the website – https://brightonmuseums.org.uk/brighton/

1- Tourist attractions are being transformed by immersive experiences – some lessons from Scotland, 6th February 2019. The Conversation.[accessed 12th February 2019]  https://theconversation.com/tourist-attractions-are-being-transformed-by-immersive-experiences-some-lessons-from-scotland-110860?utm_source=twitter&utm_medium=twitterbutton

2 comments

  1. I just wanted to say, I have been reading your blog for several years now and I VERY much appreciate your take on exhibitions and visitor experience. You have taken readers from the ridiculous to the sublime on your visits, and often points out elements of each in each experience. Thank you for your thoughtful approach and for the phrases in your descriptions that can be poetic (and quite moving)… I wish we could bring you over to the States to consult with us about our historic sites (open to the public), but I try to channel what you might say about various projects we are working on here. Thank you (and keep up the blogging.. I know many people have given up in favor of instagram or other forms, but your blog is a gem.)

    • Dear J.
      Thank you so much for your lovely comment. The last few years blogging have been a delight I have seen so many exhibitions and met so many lovely people. There are many times I feel like stopping but it is people that take the time to comment and say such lovely things that keeps me going. I too would love to get to the States! My budget/family demands wouldn’t quite stretch to that but you never know one day it might happen. Do let me know what you are working on always interested to hear. You can contact me on. Thanks again, Tinc xx info@autisminmuseums.com

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