Beyond the Glass Case: Telling Stories from Beneath Our Feet

5 minute read

Once placed in the grave of a young Saxon girl, this cross made from garnets and gold, now sits behind a glass case. The process from its origin to current location is a long biography containing accounts of sampling, analysis, illustration, and finally curation. 100 years of Cambridge archaeology has changed how we communicate stories of the past. Artefacts sitting behind glass, broken or whole, enter a new chapter of their story in MAA’s current exhibition – a discourse with the visitors on the other side. 

Figure 1. A gold and garnet cloisonné pectoral cross, with central roundel and flaring arms. Trumpington, Cambridgeshire. Anglo Saxon, 7th century. Excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit. Donated by Grosvenor Britain & Ireland. MAA 2017.58.

During my six-week internship at MAA in the summer of 2023, I worked alongside the Museum’s Outreach and Education team: Sarah-Jane Harknett, Rob Law, and Sheresse Peters-Valton. I helped facilitate interactions between visitors and objects exhibited as part of MAA’s current exhibition and engage the public with the past. Building connections with heritage can manifest in many forms since each visitor – young old, local, or far travelled – will come to the museum with a story of their own to translate. 

My time at the museum consisted mostly of constructing and developing activities for drop-in sessions in the museum. These sessions were part of UCM’s Summer with the Museums, for which, from Thursday 20th July – Thursday 31st August, free or low-cost events, activities, and trails were organized across Cambridge.  

As an archaeology student most of my own engagement has been through an academic lens. And so, through this internship, I was eager to understand the processes involved in broadening that lens for the public eye. 

Out from behind the glass – How do we actively engage? 

I began this task by getting a feel for the exhibition and the stories that it was aiming to tell. Walking through the exhibition, it was clear from the personal belongings to the faces in pottery and pixels that the exhibit brims with human life. Careful curation of the exhibit has evidenced a rich past; ranging from Neolithic, Roman, Bronze Age, and Medieval the exhibit spans a vast period of time. Behind the glass, illuminated with bright light and text the stories in the exhibit have been chosen to give a snapshot into the long history of the Cambridgeshire region. But they are not yet complete; they do not show how the region felt, how it smelt, or how it tasted. Understanding that the people who once owned these objects were as ordinary as us is important to making connections with local history.  

Bringing the stories out from behind the glass into the gallery, therefore, required connection to the materiality of objects. The activities I created centred around specific objects, introducing handling opportunities wherever possible.  

First, inspired by the Samian ware inscribed with signatures, children wrote their names in Roman cursive. Further writing activities enabled them to explore wax tablet and ink writing methods as well as correspondence about daily matters, parties, and gatherings.

A collage of two images. The image on the right is a close-up shot of a Samian ware with inscriptions on it, and the image on the left is of a young boy drawing on a piece of paper.

Figures 2 and 3. A young boy writing his name using the Roman cursive alphabet. Image source: Author.

Then, to give the children a real sense of the people who once walked the same land as we do today, I introduced role play and sensory challenges. This was inspired by the breadth of time the exhibit showcases. A smelling activity enabled children to place familiar smells into a new context. Smelling common everyday herbs and spices that have been used in medicine for hundreds of years encouraged them to connect the present to the past.

One of the core elements of the Beneath Our Feet exhibits is the illustration of changes and developments in archaeological method. From Cyril Fox’s mapping to photogrammetry and complex analysis of today, archaeology has been a changing discipline. As an archaeology student I was eager to expose children to the depth of the field. This was done through jigsaws of archaeological layers of arial maps and archeologically illustrated reconstructions. These puzzles were followed by finding objects with a metal detecting magnet wand and then a session on cleaning and handling objects. 

A table with several items on it including fruits and vegetables, pieces of paper, and a rolled piece of textile. A few chairs are placed around the table.

Figure 4. A table full of items set up for activities to engage children with the Must Farm site. The task was to pack only items that the children would have found at Must Farm as quickly as possible. Image source: Author.

I focussed multiple activities, such as excavation and textile weaving, on the site of Must Farm, a Bronze Age settlement in Whittlesey near Peterborough. As a unique site Must Farm allowed children to understand the importance of environment and context to preservation. The activities allowed them to get hands on experience with materials, and engage with the biography of an artefact, from extraction to curation.  

Beneath whose feet?  

Cyril Fox described Cambridgeshire as, 

‘… a manageable region, not too large to be covered by bicycle with occasional expedition by car …’ 

Depending on who you ask Fox’s assessment of the Cambridge region may or may not be still applicable to the Cambridgeshire of today. As a university student, I spend most of my time in the centre of the city surrounded by departments, colleges. I am easily able to cycle to libraries or museums, yet since Fox’s days, the demographic of Cambridge and the landscape has changed; some Cambridge residents rarely enter the city centre.

Two people are sitting on either side of a table with several pieces of paper, some tools, and pens and pencils for colouring. The individuals are not visible, and only their hands are visible.

Figure 5. All set for an outreach activity at Brown’s Field Community Centre in Chesterton. Image source: Author. 

Outreach is crucial to provide engagement to the past outside of museums. Telling the stories to the people who the history pertains to personally is important. Community picnics have allowed museums to pick up their feet and bring the stories of the past outside and to a wider audience. We organised one such picnic and took craft activities based on the Must Farm round houses, textiles, and handling objects to the Brown’s Field Community Centre in Chesterton and to St James’ Church on Wulfstan Way. 

A paper model of a house. Behind the model a group of people can be seen crowded around a table, engaged in some activity.

Figure 6. A model-making activity at Brown’s Field Community Centre in Chesterton. Image source: Author. 

During my internship I learnt that museum engagement sessions are not just for children but can also reach wider audiences. Adapting how we translate stories for different audiences is key to making them accessible for all. For instance, a tour for prospective university students differed from a carefully catered session for individuals with dementia that Rob Law delivered.  

Whose eyes behind the glass? 

While the objects lie in their glass cases, and we create activities and sessions to facilitate engagement with them, how do we discern if our efforts are being communicated efficiently? Feedback and surveys are some of the ways to achieve this discernment. As part of my internship, I also participated in tracking visitors to analyse their movement in the galleries and in understanding how demographic surveys are integral to cultivating accessible museum experiences. This practice enables curators and education teams to improve exhibits in the future and understand how visitors interact with the space around them.  

As an intern this summer I have seen how although 100 years have passed since Fox’s work, it is important to keep striving to improve, retell, or decolonise how we engage with our past and keep stories being told. 

Comments

  1. Ella Thornton says:

    This sounds amazing! How do I apply for this internship? When-ish would I apply?

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