In June 2023, MAA unveiled its latest exhibition, Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridge Region, which has so far proved popular with visitors and has received positive reviews from publications like Current Archaeology. But what goes into creating a successful exhibition? There are many people working behind the scenes, sometimes for years; from the curatorial team and graphic designers to Front of House staff and publicity. I sat down with Dr Jody Joy, MAA’s Senior Curator in European Archaeology, to uncover just what went into creating one such successful exhibition.
RR: Thank you very much for agreeing to talk to me. Can you tell me something about the theme of the exhibition? Where did the inspiration for it come from?
JJ: Well, the exhibition has been about ten years in the making, which is quite scary! A hundred years ago, this year, a major book was published on the archaeology of the Cambridge region. A guy called Cyril Fox, set out on his bicycle and mapped where things were found from different periods. He wrote this amazing book, which for the first time showed us where people lived in the past, but also how that changed over time. So, I guess the inspiration was that I wanted to mark that centenary, that important book. But I didn’t want it to be just about Fox or the book itself. I wanted it to be an excuse for a celebration of the archaeology of Cambridgeshire.
RR: What were the different stages involved in creating an exhibition like this, and how long did the entire process take?
JJ: That is a very hard question! So, I guess the first thing you need is the idea, which I had about ten years ago. The next step was to research any new archaeological discoveries that had been made, shortlist artefacts to put on display, and look for stories that we wanted to tell. I decided that we couldn’t cover the whole region and all 10,000 years. I wanted to focus on people and places where we could say something new. And I guess, once I decided this, I started seriously thinking: ‘We want this site, and this place’.
After about a year we started thinking about the title, how we might lay out the exhibition, and what’s going to be in each case. Then we started fleshing things out. Do we need to borrow things? If so, then institutions involved probably need to be contacted. Then there’s the stage of designing case layouts; how you want it to look, liaising with the workshop team about object mounts, organising the photography of objects we want to display, and writing labels. Then there’s the final stage, which is installation, which is probably the most stressful stage! It takes about six weeks to a month. And that’s literally putting things in cases.
RR: Speaking about stressful, what were the some of the challenges you faced in curating this exhibition? How did you resolve them?
JJ: I think the biggest challenge was that we already have most of our best objects on archaeology of the Cambridgeshire region on display in the Cambridge Gallery. So, we had to decide how to complement this space and tell new stories. That was the biggest challenge. And then it was finding those stories and those objects and artefacts. How did I resolve them? A lot of it is having conversations with people. Speaking to local archaeology units; what have you found, what’s exciting, what stories can we tell? Also speaking to our Collections Manager, Imogen Gunn, who has an encyclopaedic knowledge of what’s not on display, what’s been on display before, and what should be on display.
RR: If given an opportunity, then is there anything that you would do differently?
JJ: I think you always want more time than you get. Another thing I suppose, would be those dream artefacts and things that you’d like to have included. So, maybe a bit more luck in persuading some local museums to lend us stuff that would have been amazing.
RR: When it comes to this exhibition, what achievements did you celebrate or are particularly proud of?
JJ: I just really like the space. It feels really vibrant. I’m also quite proud of the text. I think it’s quite accessible, and I’m really happy about that. I think my favourite thing is the display of the Trumpington Cross burial – an early medieval burial of a 16-year-old girl buried with a beautiful gold and garnet cross. We commissioned a reconstruction of her face. And I think that has really engaged people, they’ve really taken it on board. So, I was delighted with that too.
RR: Are there any objects in the collections at MAA that you wish you could have included in the exhibition?
JJ: We’ve got this beautiful Anglo Saxon hanging bowl from Hildersham. It has this copper alloy bowl with loops to suspend and it is beautifully decorated. I really wanted to exhibit it because it’s one of my favourite objects that isn’t on display. But I couldn’t work out a reason to include it in the story we’ve got for the exhibition. So, at some point my aim is to get that bowl on display, but I couldn’t do it this time around.
RR: We look forward to it! So, there are a number of fascinating objects in this exhibition, which are on loan from other institutions. Do you have a favourite and why?
JJ: We have this Iron Age sword scabbard, which is about 2,000 years old! It’s bronze and decorated with beautiful curvilinear patterns. It’s from Isleham and on loan from the British Museum. I used to be the curator for that object at the British Museum and it has always been one of my favourites. So, yeah, I’m very biased! But number one, it’s absolutely beautiful. And number two, it’s like, how did this end up in a river? Why would someone put such a wonderful thing in a river?
RR: Which object within the exhibition would you like to bring visitors attention to, either because you find it particularly interesting, or because you feel it might unfairly get overlooked?
JJ: It’s more like a collection of objects. We have another Iron Age burial from Snailwell, and it’s got these wonderful objects, a spiral bracelet, with dragon heads on, and these huge amphorae*. But in that burial as well are these scrappy looking bone objects, which were toggles worn on a horse harness. And I just think that people are going to walk straight past them. But for me, when you look at the story of the burial, they were found very close to the cremated remains. So, they must have been quite personal objects. And perhaps more important to that person than some of the fancy objects in the grave. That’s what I’d like to highlight.
RR: This exhibition showcases a lot of new research, what is your favourite fact that you’ve learned during the process?
JJ: Oh, wow, that’s a good question! I guess going back to the girl from Trumpington, the fact that we found out from isotopic studies of her teeth, that she was born in Germany. Then she came to Britain when she was about seven. I find the story of her life amazing. What does she come to Britain for? What’s the story behind that?
RR: There’s been lots of media interest around the facial reconstruction of the girl from the Trumpington Cross burial, which is on display for the first time alongside the burial goods in this exhibition. Why do you think it resonates so strongly with people?
JJ: It’s very realistic and I think that’s what grabs people’s attention. It could just be anyone in the street. I teach at the University, and it could be one of my students. It’s that connection you make with the living and the dead from a long time ago, and it bridges that gap pretty well.
RR: What do you hope for people who see the exhibition to take away from their visit?
JJ: I hope that visitors realise that people have been living lives for a long time in the region. It’s not all about us digging up mud or them living horrible lives. They actually made wonderful things. Some aspects of their lives are really interesting, and they lived full lives. I think it’s about bridging that gap between us now and people in the past and thinking about all those generations of people who have been living in Cambridgeshire.
RR: Jody, thank you very much for talking with us.
Beneath Our Feet: Archaeology of the Cambridgeshire Region is free to view in the Li Ka Shing Gallery at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology until 14 April 2024.
*For more information on the Snailwell amphora see our Digital Lab blog post ‘Roman Wine in a Cambridgeshire Grave’.