Illuminating Treasures

"Heroic deeds wrapped in myth, mystery and magic."

In 2009, a metal detector stumbled across The Staffordshire Hoard that turned out to be the largest collection of Anglo Saxon treasure ever found. Although owned by Birmingham City Council, the Bristol Museum is currently displaying the collection in their ‘Warrior Treasures’ exhibition.
Gold collar from the hilt of a single-bladed knife (seax). Photo: Birmingham Museums Trust

Unfortunately, fragments of Anglo-Saxon life is a path well-trodden and something all of us are likely to have seen before. So, the really astonishing part of this display is the curatorial skill with which they have managed to breathe new, exciting life into this subject.

Set in a dark exhibition space, the Bristol Museum utilises touch screens and animation to incorporate modern technology without overshadowing the actual treasures. The exhibition could easily have been a repetitive set of cabinets, overwhelming in the number of tiny golden pieces. Yet the small alcoves allow you to digest the pieces in themes, taking in one cabinet at a time. Golden lettering reads ‘Fit for a King’ or ‘Gift Giving’. Next to each description is a screen with a small animation, placing each piece in its context, such as on a hilt of a sword. 

The layout of the exhibition 

There is also a timeline which places the pieces in the turning point of Anglo Saxon history, between Paganism and Christendom. Surround sound sets the scene with the howls and rustling of a nocturnal forest. The darkness of the room reminds us how the Anglo Saxon craftsman would have forged these treasures in dimly lit spaces with the most basic of tools. In this way, you become immersed in this moment of history. As the curator of antiquities at Birmingham Museum has said, this type of display ensures the “Dark Ages are no longer so dark.”

Touch screens allow you to explore how each artefact would have been used 

The term ‘fun for all the family’ is hilariously over-used in public attractions, but this exhibition really has achieved this.  This is a highly interactive display, and probably has done this most effectively out of recent ones I’ve seen. All museums and galleries are trying to do this now, but there is a fine line between use of technology and replacing historical objects entirely. In this exhibition, touch screens allow you to call up and zoom in on pieces that entice you. Benches in the middle are covered in faux fur, creating an interesting atmosphere when placed in front of photos of wolves. It evokes the environment where everything was utilised, no resource was wasted. It is interesting to understand that this is an island we live on but they were in conditions we are no longer familiar with.

Even the seating is in theme: fake tree stumps and fur 

In a small circular space, hinting at the famous Anglo-Saxon huts, visitors are encouraged to step inside and sit on mock tree stumps: “This is a space to share, a space to gather for the telling of stories, to speak, to listen, to read or… to imagine what came before that is no longer there.” A notice underneath warns that this area may be in use by school groups, and that is something I can very much imagine. What group of school kids wouldn’t want to huddle up in a dark space, surrounded by sounds of woodland creatures, and whisper mystical stories? A digital fire flickers and cracks in the middle. A book on the side tells visitors to write their own stories of mystical warriors. Around the walls reads “a flicker of the past in the flicker of the flame… of voice and harp in harmony sharing fabled stories of those long since gone, of heroic deeds wrapped in myth, mystery and magic.”

Circular seating and a 'log fire' encourage story telling 

We’ve all seen ancient pottery and old armour, but it is unlikely we’ve seen it in an exhibition this effective at conveying the mystical atmosphere of the Dark Ages. It shows us this strange relationship between beautiful craftsmanship and the blood-thirsty conquests of the middle ages.
Ancient artefacts are animated and given new life 

At the end is the classic trope of dress up and a mirror. But I was pleasantly surprised when I tried on my helmet, for a recording inside applauds a warrior who has done well in battle. It seems every detail has been considered: how can we make this a full immersive experience? I genuinely see this as the future of heritage conservation and education. In a world of ever-developing technology, it is no longer efficient to attract children with a plain glass cabinet. Sometimes, you just need to add in the flicker of a flame here and there, a digitalisation of an imagined warrior, and the sounds of wolves.

Embracing my inner (child) warrior... 

Catch it here until the 23rd April 2017: 

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