Curator of Archaeology, Martha Lawrence gives a sneak peek behind the scenes during the making of our brand new gallery at Weston Park, Beneath Your Feet:
I joined Museums Sheffield in April 2015 knowing that one of my first tasks would be to create a new Archaeology gallery. The task was pretty daunting and there were many challenges but it has been really exciting seeing our ideas come to life in Beneath Your Feet and being able to share more of the Archaeology collections with our visitors.
As the whole of the previous gallery, History Lab, was being dismantled we were able to start with a blank canvas in planning the display. We thought about what people would want to know about the archaeological past of Sheffield and the Peak District, and have tried to link big changes in history to local sites, highlighting our best objects and drawing out the quirky stories behind our collections. We decided to stick to a chronological approach for the main parts - the displays around the walls of the gallery start with Palaeolithic stone handaxes and continue through time to glassmaking crucibles from 1700s, taking in highlights such as the Bronze Age dugout canoe from Tinsley, the Dinnington Iron Age torc and the Beauchief Abbey Medieval tiles along the way.
We took the opportunity to install the Benty Grange Anglo-Saxon helmet (one of only 4 Anglo-Saxon helmets ever found in Britain and a star of our collections) in a new central display case, rather than tucked away in a corner as previously. The increased display space has allowed us to bring out many more objects to better tell the stories of local places like Sheffield Castle, Sheffield Manor and Wigber Low. We are also displaying objects from some places, such as Bolsterstone glassworks and Lapwing Hill Anglo-Saxon bed burial, for the first time.
Several of the cases in the gallery show temporary displays which will change over the next few years. One of these was created in partnership with Friends of Wincobank Hill and contains objects on loan from the group as well our own collections. We have also put together displays about Thomas Bateman, the Victorian antiquarian whose collection forms the core of our archaeology collection, Bronze Age pottery, and a showcase of different objects made of glass, metal, ceramic and stone.
During the creation of the gallery, we had to identify which objects needed some TLC before going on display – sometimes just to clean them a bit and sometimes quite a lot of conservation work. An HLF-funded project like this can give us the opportunity and money to conserve objects that we haven’t been able to display before. My favourite example in this gallery is the Lapwing Hill Anglo-Saxon iron sword that we sent to the conservator in seven pieces in a tupperware box and came back mounted on a perspex stand in its original sword shape.
One aspect of the gallery development work that was particularly interesting to me was creating the films about flintknapping and about the Anglo-Saxon burial site of Wigber Low. We became mini film producers and directors – writing storylines and interview questions, sourcing people to film, deciding on which bits of filmed interview to use to convey our ideas and identifying cutaway footage. Luckily we have a fantastic colleague who takes care of the technical aspects of creating the films but we had to come up with the ideas and make the editorial decisions.
As well as finding out about the past through the objects, we wanted to enable people to have fun and families to play. One corner of the gallery features a replica mini Iron Age roundhouse to sit in, build a toy fire and explore the books. Another has dressing-up costumes for children AND adults who can choose to be a Medieval monk, a Roman soldier, a Saxon peasant or an Iron Age villager.
My overall impression of the work behind creating a brand new gallery is just the many, many daily decisions we had to make as a team - about paint colours, carpet samples, window blind designs, materials for the replica roundhouse and numerous other things. I puzzled for a long time over the proofs for the large-scale map that is at the gallery entrance, trying to decide, for example, at what point the River Derwent runs east of the A6!
Now that the gallery is open, it is lovely to see our work paying off as visitors enjoy the displays and have fun with the interactives.
Image: Top: Curatorial Assistant Lucy Creighton installing objects in our Beneath Your Feet gallery. Image © Museums Sheffield
Bottom: Replica Benty Grange Helmet on display in Beneath Your Feet. Image © Andy Brown
Map of Archaeological finds on display in Beneath Your Feet. Image © Andy Brown
Iron Age roundhouse in Beneath Your Feet. Image © Andy Brown
Jan 26 2017