Although I firmly believe that Derbyshire is the finest county in England, I also believe that inspiration can come from anywhere. A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend a few days in Wiltshire, attending the annual Association of Heritage Interpretation conference and visiting several sites that have recently re-displayed their archaeology collections. This has particular relevance for those of us working on the Collections in the Landscape project at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, and I was keen to discover what these places had done.
My trip began at Salisbury Museum, which opened its new Wessex Gallery last year. Project curator Jane Ellis-Schon showed me around the displays and talked me through how they had been developed with input from visitors and local groups, specialists and contractors. I particularly like the way the gallery works back in time from medieval Old Sarum to the earliest evidence of human occupation in south Wiltshire around 500,000 years ago. The object-rich displays focus both on what the objects can tell us about the people who made them, and on the archaeologists who excavated them (including Pitt-Rivers), and there is a useful trail leaflet showcasing 10 highlights for visitors in a hurry as well as gallery guides and activity cases for children and families.
During the conference we visited Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, which also opened new prehistoric galleries in 2014. Founded by the Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Society in the 1850’s, the museum has the largest collection of Bronze Age gold in Britain – and is now able to put it on display! As well as their spectacular grave goods, I really enjoyed seeing Keiller’s trowel displayed in a case alongside a marmalade jar (the source of the family fortune that funded his archaeological pursuits.) And there were some great things for families – and big kids like me – including hands on activities and a replica Iron Age hut.
We couldn’t leave Wiltshire without going to the iconic site at Stonehenge, now much improved with the removal of the A344 road which used to run immediately next to the monument. The new visitor centre is just a short walk (or shuttle ride) from the monument itself over the archaeologically rich Stonehenge landscape and includes an exhibition space where objects from Stonehenge (loaned from Salisbury and Wiltshire museums) are displayed. Outside a replica stone age village has been constructed and a giant sarsen stone laid on a wooden sledge for groups to try – and fail – to move. It was interesting to visit a site that has to be designed for crowd control – a million visitors a year, half in coach parties, many from overseas and with little prior knowledge.
If you are visiting Wiltshire, I can’t recommend enough that you visit Wiltshire Museum and Salisbury Museum rather than just going to Stonehenge. The best objects from Stonehenge and the surrounding landscape are in the collections from these two independent museums, and by visiting them you will enjoy the bigger picture of the region rather than seeing the monument in isolation.
I came back from Wiltshire with lots of new ideas, and look forward to exploring them further as we begin the Wonders of the Peak gallery redevelopment in the new year. Keep an eye on our website and social media for details of how you can get involved!