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Behind the Scenes at the new Stonehenge Exhibition Centre

Stonehenge

Stonehenge Opens its £27 million Exhibition Centre

copyright Rebecca Rideal
Main road now completely coated in grass

There’s no skirting the issue, Stonehenge is a really big deal for English Heritage. It is a globally known landmark that has lacked a solid tourist friendly exhibition centre for far too long. Their approach to this issue is not only a statement about the site, but a wider statement about how heritage should be ‘sold’ in the modern world. The stakes are incredibly high.

So what is it like? The first thing to note is that the exhibition centre is a mile and a half away from the site of the stones. Driving from London you will pass the stones before getting to the centre. This works really well and removes the temptation to skirt the museum and head straight to the main attraction.

The actual exhibition centre has been thoughtfully constructed. One side is home to the exhibition and the other holds a café and gift shop. The building has been created in a way that allows it to blend into the landscape and, if needed, removed without a trace. It is not to my taste, but I know nothing about architecture.

As you enter the exhibition you step into a 360 degree virtual recreation of Stonehenge where a video montage shows the changing landscape of the site over time. Spanning the duration of Stonehenge’s existence, you see the seasons change and the landscape evolve. Here you can see how Stonehenge is surrounded by barrows and is far from alone in the landscape. The result is quite beautiful.

Inside, there are five exhibition cases, three with artefacts from the period of Stonehenge’s creation, one with Neolithic and one with Bronze Age specimens. Dr Sara Lunt, English Heritage curator, said that the idea was for the cases to ‘focus on the people, not the archaeology of Stonehenge’. Tactile objects and video montages at the bottom of each case reveal interesting facts about daily life. In one you see a video of a potter making a grooved feasting pot in the same way it would have been done thousands of years ago.

Neolithic Man
Neolithic Man

Having siphoned off the very best artefacts from other collections, the specimens on show are impressive. There are animal bones (some already ancient before they were buried), arrowheads (one of the few things to change over time), grooved pieces of pottery (from Orkney) and gold, amber and shale beads. There is also a chalk plaque – thought to be one of the earliest pieces of art discovered on the British Isles – and three sets of human remains. Towards the back of the exhibition hall there is an installation that explores fours opposing theories on the reason for the creation of Stonehenge. It is refreshing to see history debating in this way.

One of the highlights of the exhibition is undoubtedly the skeleton and facial reconstruction of the 5000 year old Neolithic man who was discovered buried in a long barrow. Presented upright in a glass case he has been positioned to represent ‘the life of the Neolithic period, not the death’. The reconstruction has been created by Norwegian scientist Oscar Nilsson (also behind the Mary Rose reconstructions) who used lasers to map the shape of the face from the skull and then silicon and human hair to create the finished piece. His appearance grates against traditional images of Neolithic people. Dr Lunt explained that they made the decision to have a cleaner looking reconstruction instead of a stereotypical bushy haired caveman because the Neolithic people were a sophisticated people who lived by a stream. Why wouldn’t he have been clean?

The highpoint for me is the temporary exhibition on the history of the history of Stonehenge. It is rare to see an exhibition on historiography, but for a site such as Stonehenge it is essential to our understanding. A spectacular array of sources is on show charting the changing theories about who created Stonehenge. You can see medieval documents relating to the theory that it was Merlin. You can discover how James I visited the site and commissioned Inigo Jones to get to the bottom of its origin. Prompted by artefacts discovered at the site, Jones concluded that it had been created by the Romans. There is, of course, documents concerning the Druid theory, and then contemporary research and dating of the site. It is a shame that this isn’t a permanent fixture, but the next temporary exhibition on the origin of aerial archaeology promises to be equally enthralling.

The Shuttle Bus
The Shuttle Bus

After your fill of the exhibition, you can hop onto the shuttle bus that takes visitors directly to the site. If you haven’t been before you should know that while it is possible to walk right around the site, you aren’t allowed near the stones. This has been the case since 1979 and the reasons are understandable enough. The only exception to this occurs during the winter and summer solstice.

There is of course more to come over the coming months and years including plans to reconstruct Neolithic houses. Speaking to the Chief Executive of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, about the educational benefits of the new site, I was told that they have firm plans for outreach programs with local schools and space in the centre for 60 children at a time with two classrooms.

So what does heritage mean in the 21st century? Based on this new exhibition centre, it is immersive, respectful, questioning and familiar. The stakes are very high, but I think English Heritage has done a fine job.

Gates open to the public on the 18th December.

Adults – £14.90

Children – £8.90

 

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Inside the Exhibition Centre

About Rebecca Rideal

Rebecca Rideal
Founder and editor of The History Vault, Rebecca is a historian of seventeenth-century England, a former specialist factual television producer, and the author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

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