Stories Shaped by Space
Star Carr in the Yorkshire Museum
After the Ice: Yorkshire’s Prehistoric People exhibition is one of the featured displays at Yorkshire Museum, shedding light on the lifestyles of early Yorkshire landscapes. A particular focus of the exhibition is on the archaeological findings at Star Carr, a Mesolithic site found on a lakeside approximately five miles from Scarborough (Clark 1954, p.xvii). The following review will provide a critical evaluation of the displays of artefacts from Star Carr, focusing on its ability and limitations in creating effective communication to the Museum visitors.
First of all, how is Star Carr a significant site worth a dedicated space for exhibition?
The history of its excavation dates back to 1947–8, when a local archaeologist John Moore discovered ten sites in the area. This initial finding was then entrusted to and expanded by Grahame Clark of the University of Cambridge, and subsequently by researchers during the 1980s. The most recent project, led by the University of York, has received the Best Archaeological Innovation Award. The findings at Star Carr includes the evidence of the earliest built structures, barbed points, flints and birch tree bark, all bearing testimony to the lives of people over 11,000 years ago. The frontlets of stag antlers, initially found by Clark, are also renowned for their rare survival particular to this area within Europe. The interpretation regarding their usage is still ongoing, while recent research suggests its use as a headdress in ceremonies, and its relevance to Mesolithic belief systems.
Hence the locality of the excavation works and the significance of the archaeological findings underline the value of this current exhibition at Yorkshire Museum, and the remaining mystery of the artefacts can potentially intrigue their viewers if presented well.
Upon entering the Yorkshire Museum, there are many things which draw the eye: an interactive video of characters on a Roman street, artefacts along the walls and beautiful columns which coax the gaze upward. If the visitor is to look up, it is here that they will find on the surrounding balcony our exhibition. If the echo of children and the Roman characters downstairs pauses for a moment, you might be able to hear the chipping of stone from above and lapping water against the shore.
What is immediately clear is that here is an exhibit which was cut and pasted into an area not designed for showcasing material. Moving clockwise, the balcony begins its story with a timeline, from modern times walking back to the Stone Age, setting the viewer into the context of prehistory. Throughout the exhibit there are signs set at a lower height for children to read. The walls are painted a rich wooded landscape with animals, and the Corinthian columns are dressed with bark to give them the feel of trees as you look out over the balcony.
There is a small tepee for children to crawl into, from which the chipping sounds are originating. Moving further along, there are four glass cases filled with different aspects of the landscape and the finds, including taxidermy animals, bone, bark and stone finds, a small pendant, and antler frontlets. Facing the last cases are a pair of tablets on the railing which have showing a virtual reconstruction of the prehistoric landscape and videos of archaeologists detailing the frontlets and the pendant. Finally, at the end of the balcony rest several children’s books on the Stone Age, and some information cards for adults should one wish to read more.
With the exhibition positioned in such a constrained space, the entirety of the display area has been imaginatively utilised to set the context for the objects on show. The painted gallery wall wordlessly conveys the nature of the Mesolithic landscape. Two of the four display cases are completely transparent from top to floor so that the animals and birds within are viewed against the painted backdrop of the wall. A large branch serves as a tree enabling display of the creatures at different levels.
Labels accompany the objects in the cabinets, and additional text is wrapped around the four cases, removing the need for text panels on the wall which would detract from the created setting. Yes, you are viewing the exhibition on a balcony never intended for that purpose, but much thought has obviously been put into utilising the available space effectively and creatively. Sharon Macdonald notes that ‘curatorial intentions are often not realised because of failures to envisage how an exhibition will work in practise’ (2006, p221.) Here physical and architectural limitations have been anticipated and imaginatively mitigated.
Great effort has been made to interest children in the exhibition. The tepee has animal skin rugs on the floor and picture books from the box at the end of the gallery can be taken inside to read. Illustrated ‘It’s a fact’ plaques positioned around the display are fixed at an appropriate level, each explaining a simple aspect of prehistoric human life. The top to bottom transparency of the display cases also make viewing easier for children or visitors in wheelchairs.
As different means of engagement have been provided for children, so adults can access more details about the archaeological exploration of Star Carr through a series of laminated information sheets, or the videos playing on the tablets. Presenting the information in this way also negates the need for wall mounted text panels. A chair by the box of information cards makes reading them more inviting, and a couple more seats may encourage further interaction with this part of the display.
The museum has very limited space and due to the listed status of the building little scope to make changes to the layout and design of its exhibits. This lack of flexibility has led to necessary compromises being made in the Star Carr exhibition. However even taking into account the challenges the museum faces the exhibit still has some major flaws in its presentation and interpretation.
Firstly, despite the significance of the finds and the site, the exhibit is not clearly marked and a casual observer could easily mistake it for a natural history exhibit due to the use of taxidermy and the organic nature of the objects. As John Berger succinctly noted in Ways of Seeing ‘The meaning of an image is changed according to what one sees immediately beside it or what comes immediately after it.’ (Berger, 1972, p29) The use of a large mural showing little evidence of human activity deprives the objects of their context as does the lack of illustrations showing the various tools and ritual objects in use.
Secondly, the interpretation provided by the museum relies on densely worded handouts, cluttered labeling and two tablets showing an animation and two short films (which have only one pair of headphones). When watching people engage with the exhibit most just gave a cursory glance over the somewhat abstract cabinets and moved on. It is obviously hard to get people to engage with cultural artifacts from a period so distant to our own which is why they need to be presented in a way that is as easy to understand in a human context as possible.
Thirdly, despite the limited space the exhibit feels quite empty. The Teepee is off to the side of the cabinets and does not share the same backdrop as the objects. As the main interactive element of the exhibit the teepee does not encourage children to engage with the cabinets. There is a large open space between the cabinets which could be used to show something more about the people who lived at Star Carr such as a screen or projection featuring reenactors or archaeological reconstructions. One final improvement could be the creation of some more tactile interactives such as replicas of the deer skull frontlets; either bone or plastic which visitors could touch and wear.
The Star Carr exhibit has some good features and some conflicting negative ones. A restricted balcony space was available to the museum to house and present the exhibition items, making it difficult to stand back and comprehend the objects on display, a common issue faced by museum curators. The tight space forces you to get close to the items in the cabinets, which have clear descriptions explaining their various purposes for belonging there. In many ways this corridor is a little trail which ‘offers more than a selection of artefacts to behold but also elements to navigate, hear, see, and feel’. According to Taylor (2015), this should translate into a pleasurable, educational, inspiring and thought provoking experience for the visitor. A mixed bag of an exhibit, there are clearly some suggestions that could be profitable to make this statement accurate.
In spite of all our well-meaning suggestions, is must be remembered that money and time will always be a limiting factor for museums and they stories they wish to tell. Indeed, the After the Ice exhibition located on the balcony of the Yorkshire museum is not an uncommon situation for museums to find themselves in. The physical space of exhibits always dictate the shape of the story the curators wish to tell — sometimes creating an advantage, and other times a challenge. It is the job of the curator to make the most of the space we are given now to shed light on the stories of the past.
Authors: Sophia Mirashrafi, Mariko Abe, Thomas Hodgson, Anne-Marie Heuck and Sarah Mctiernan
Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing (2008 edition), Penguin, London.
Clark, G. (1954). Excavations at Star Carr: an early mesolithic site at Seamer near Scarborough, Yorkshire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Macdonald, S. (2006). A Companion to Museum Studies. Blackwell, Oxford.
Star Carr Archaeology Project (n.d.). History of Research. [Online] <http://www.starcarr.com/history.html>. Accessed 24 Feb 2017.
Taylor, E. P. (2015). Alternate routes: Interpretive trails, resistance, and the view from East Jerusalem. Journal of Community Archaeology & Heritage 2(2): 106–120. [e-journal]