Reviewed by Mel Giles.
Hidden away among small, cobbled streets lined with old warehouses and small pubs, with obscure names such as the 'Land of Green Gingerí, the Hull and East Riding Museumís magnificent portico rises up from the backstreets which front the river. However, the first thing to greet a visitor is the rapid realisation that this is a museum of the 1990ís, complete with audio-visuals, soundtracks, reconstructions and 'hands-oní displays. Combining technology familiar to museum-goers from Jorvik and the Museum of London with more traditional cased displays of artefacts, the new exhibitions have been a long time in coming but, as visitors in the comments book note, it is 'well worth the waití.
The 'dome', a series of interlinked rooms, takes the visitor through time chronologically. Under the arched belly of an Ichthyosaurus, East Yorkshire's geological history is laid bare. Whilst casts of fossils provide the curious hand with strange textures to feel, a video shows how the bedrock of the land was laid down, how shallow basins gave rise to the chalk Wolds, how the fluctuating seas created the familiar coastline of the Holderness Plain and the beaked mouth of the Humber Estuary. Glacial histories are illustrated and climatic shifts explained but the visitor can choose to amble on, past the small models of glacial and inter-glacial landscapes where mammoths roam and ice sheets crumble and gouge the earth's surface to redeposit material far from its origin.
As time and the visitor's step marches on, a soundtrack kicks in of birdsong and woodland noises. These aural cues seem to break the hushed library atmosphere common in too many museums, encouraging visitors to talk and stimulating the imagination. The Mesolithic is introduced through displays of fishtraps and bone and flint implements. Whilst 'Woman the Gatherer' seems somewhat inappropriately clad for the mobile lifestyle (an image of roughly stitched skins familiar as the mark of early prehistoric fashion! ) there are touching flashes of imagination in her necklace and a rich sense of seasonality in the illustrated food resources.
Someone with a fondness for puns is responsible for the groan-worthy titles of the Neolithic section ('An 'Ard' Struggle' and 'Caught Knapping') but the museum designer has clearly thought about traditional representations and worked hard to disrupt some common assumptions... the flint knapper, for example, is a woman and although the soundtrack of crying to accompany the Later Neolithic/Early Bronze Age funerary section is (inevitably) female, this attempt to convey grief and emotion around death should be applauded. Also, instead of the traditional 'skeleton in the grave' display of an inhumation, a man is shown fully clothed and curled up in the grave hollow. Axes and stone tools are often shown hafted, pottery vessels are often partly filled with grain or crab apples. Again, this forces the visitor to think about the human life which these barrows on the horizon, struck flakes and pot sherds represent.
Alongside some truly wonderful material (the intricately carved chalk 'drums' found with a young child's burial at Folkton, the Duggleby Howe axes, flakes and boars' tusks), the displays often try to convey how this material was found - the photograph of Mortimer, the Driffield antiquarian with a truly impressive beard and piercing stare, accompanies a set of maps and sketchbooks and even a shovel used in the excavation of Duggleby Howe in the late 19th century. Photos of the excavation of the Ferriby and Hasholme boats show changes in haircuts as well as techniques of excavation! It is good to see archaeology personalised in this way, to convey a sense of how the discipline has revolved around key individuals and changed over the centuries.
In the Later Bronze Age/Early Iron Age, the archaeological wealth of this area is really brought home. In a starkly lit glass cabinet, the Roos Carr figurines (Figure 1. Click here for larger image) are suspended as if the small, curved yew boat on which they are set is itself floating on water. Their tall, polished bodies gaze powerfully with white quartzite pebble eyes, from the case. Three of the figurines slot into 'legholes' in the boat but the other two appear to have been part of a separate ensemble. The boat itself is animal-headed and the figures have detachable arms which are often bladed like paddles. They also have small detachable penises which can be swivelled (!) and were thought to be so shocking that they have been hidden away since the Victorian era and only finally restored to the figurines in this exhibition!
The North Grimston sword, found with a male burial on the scarp slope of the Wolds is equally dramatic in the glimpse it offers into faces of the past. The small copper alloy head, with oval eyes and downturned mouth, has an elaborate beauty and power, which stresses how such artefacts were more than mere 'weapons' and could be artefacts of great symbolic power.
The museum's main exhibition however, is the 'Celtic World' display. (Figure 2. A Celtic World). It would be easy to draw on recent criticism of how much this 'Celtic' identity is drawn from Roman authors who were trying to make sense of the first century A.D. communities in Europe they had contact with. Quotes from texts by Tacitus and Strabo, as employed in the Andover Museum of the Iron Age , may bear little relation to the societies on the Wolds in the fifth century B.C. whose ways of living and dying are portrayed in the reconstructions of roundhouses, yards and cemeteries in the room following this textual introduction. The reproduction of the 'Celts' as tartan-clad, Welsh/Gaelic speaking, tribal groups may not withstand scrutiny by more theoretically aware archaeologists but there is little to be gained from this criticism now. What is pleasing is the way in which inequalities in status and power are subtly conveyed in differences of dress and ornamentation. The physical elevation of the 'queen' (armed with a sword, again disrupting gender stereotypes) above the farmers, on a cart drawn by life-size ponies, captures perhaps the real purpose of these 'chariots', surveying and governing others. The volume of material from Wetwang/Garton Slack, one of the only open settlement and contemporary cemetery to have been fully excavated on the Yorkshire Wolds, is stunning in its diversity and richness. There are also flashes of humour in the small Soay sheep who has knocked over the household's pots and the presence of animal figurines as well as people, the trampled chalk edge to the paths, the trees and wicker fencelines, aim to embed the viewer into a much more 'inhabited' landscape.
Besides the glorious mosaics from Rudston and a small Roman gallery, one of the most dramatic displays of the museum is reached last; the Hasholme Boat. The visitor confronts the glistening, dark wood, of fourth century BC date, through the water/wax sprayed glass panels of the conservation lab in which it is slowly being preserved. Its long, barge-like shape and finely preserved wood renders most visitors speechless and changes forever the way in which the later prehistory of these flat landscapes of Holderness and Hasholme are perceived.
Running through the museum are 'time links' which orientate the visitor to their 'place' in a timeline, a useful linear device for helping children understand chronology, even if it does inevitably convey a rather linear, progressive sense of time. There are also small panels explaining various techniques of archaeology - dating and analysis - as well as the way in which archaeological material surfaces through ploughing and erosion (and, one might add, considering East Yorkshire's history, quarrying) or earthwork/cropmarks revealed in aerial photographs.
In conclusion, the sheer diversity of material and imaginative presentation is testament to the long history of archaeology in this area, which can all too often go unrecognised in national accounts. The hard work which has gone into the redesigning of the displays does justice to the histories of those who have lived very differently in these landscapes. Judging from the comments in the visitor's book, these are stories and lives which the people of Hull and the East Riding feel passionately about. Well worth more than one visit !
The Hull and East Riding Museum, 36 High Street, Kingston upon Hull. HU1 1PS. (Figure 3. Click here for map).
Telephone: (01482) 613902
Click here for Hull County Council Museums Home Page.
City residents: Free with Museum Pass. All children under 13 years: Free. Non-residents: £1. Family ticket (4 people over 13 years): £3. Season ticket: £15 (per annum).
Monday - Saturday 10am - 5pm. Sunday 1.30pm - 4.30pm. (Last admission, 15 minutes to closing time).
This review would not have been possible without the help of the staff of the Hull and East Riding Museum, especially Gail Foreman. The images published here are copyright of the Museum.
Mel Giles is a research student at the Department of Archaeology and Prehistory, University of Sheffield. She is in the second year of her PhD on 'The inhabited later prehistoric landscape of East Yorkshire', where she is attempting to contextualise what is known of the Middle/Later Iron Age square barrow burials with their settlement and wider, worked landscape.
All photographs and images © Hull Museum 1997
© Melanie Giles 1997
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