As part of my MA in Museum Studies I presented a PowerPoint on the subject of museum object meanings and the different effects mounting methods could create on the visitor, in particular with aesthetically focussed mounting. I chose the Anglo Saxon Sutton Hoo hoard, which was excavated in 1939 and resides in the British Museum, and from it in particular the helmet.

A rare piece of English Anglo Saxon history, the helmet was discovered among other weaponry and jewellery in a ship burial mound at Sutton Hoo. Herbert Maryon, the archaeologist who excavated the mound, reconstructed the helmet from small shattered pieces to form a helmet that he thought was closest to the original appearance. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Robert Bruce Mitford modified Maryon’s reconstruction, producing a possibly more accurate headpiece that took into account factors such as hair and inside padding [fig. 1]

Sutton Hoo Helmet Reconstruction, British Museum. Image taken by the author
Sutton Hoo Helmet Reconstruction, British Museum. Image taken by the author

So with a piece of history as important and rare as this helmet, how could I exhibit this best within a museum? And how could the display choice affect how the museum visitor interprets it?

What remains essential to the reconstructed helmet is its rarity and intricate formal detailing, so what could be effective in its display could be to aim for an aesthetic approach to exhibition, where an object takes centre stage and has its own space to emphasise its formal qualities, creating awe and what Walter Benjamin described as an ‘aura’.  Focussing spotlights solely on the objects, having it on a separate plinth away from others, having minimal text so as to not distract from the object are all possible aesthetic ways of exhibition.

Sandra Dudley goes into more detail about display in her ‘Encountering a Chinese horse’ essay. For Dudley, when witnessing an object it is all about the initial encounter. She says when she first saw the Chinese horse, “I would have been distracted by text, would have been drawn to read it first, and would not have had the opportunity to experience and sensorially explore the artefact’s physicality for its own sake.”[1] Despite the size obviously being different in the Chinese horse and the Sutton hoo helmet I do think that experience of amazement and wonder could be used to single out the helmet.

However, problematic issues that arise from an aesthetic approach to exhibition are that the factual and educational side to a museum is being downplayed, and, in particular with the helmet, the singular becomes more important than the collective, therefore some may forget the helmet was part of a bigger interconnected hoard relatable to one Anglo Saxon king. Should the objects from the hoard be competing for attention from the visitor?

Currently the helmet resides with the rest of the Sutton Hoo hoard on display in the British Museum, in a room that was recently refurbished. Alongside the original sits a replica helmet [fig. 2]

Sutton Hoo Helmet Reconstruction, British Museum. Image taken by the author
Sutton Hoo Helmet Reconstruction, British Museum. Image taken by the author

made in the early 2000s by the Tower Armouries. The replica raises an interesting issue of display in the way that the proximity to each other might affect the attention given to either helmet. The two helmets, old and new, are on separate plinths yet in the same glass case, and the newer shinier replica dazzles under the spotlights arranged towards it.

In a class discussion after the PowerPoint questions were raised about the particular place of the replica and what objects are seen immediately when entering the room at the British museum. The room itself has 3 entrances, two of which have the helmets as the first seen thing, this is interesting as depending on what route is taken the visitor either sees the reconstruction or the replica and could base their image of the Anglo Saxons and Sutton Hoo on a pristine object strong with intricate iconographic panels, or the original enigmatic rarity itself [fig. 3]

Room 41, British Museum. Image taken by the author
Room 41, British Museum. Image taken by the author

From researching and creating this PowerPoint I came to realise the difficulty in exhibition mounting to portray an object to its full potential whilst balancing interest, resonance and educational value. However, what I find appealing about an aesthetic approach to display is that it provides wonder and curiosity, a transfixing of the eye and, hopefully, the mind, which I find central to the lasting power of objects.

[1] Dudley, Sandra (2012) ‘Encountering a Chinese Horse’ in Dudley, Sandra, Museum Objects, London and New York: Routledge. pp. 3

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