Below is the unedited text of my review of a current exhibition in National Museum Cardiff. The review appeared in the May edition of The Museums Journal:
The marketing for this exhibition has heavily used the imagery of Indiana Jones, the jauntily-hatted, kangaroo-hide whip-wielding hero of Hollywood scriptwriters. Whilst I am a fan of the Steven Spielberg films this did worry me as I expected to encounter more style than substance. More story than objects. However I was to be pleasantly disappointed.
Treasure: Adventures in Archaeology is the National Museum Cardiff’s first temporary exhibition, for over 20 years, for which an admission charge is levied. £7 per adult is not cheap (35 concessions, 16yrs and under go free) for a museum which has done much in the last decade to grow its reputation as a museum which provides access to all. So I donned my museologists hat, stowed my whip of cynicism on my belt and entered…
The exhibition is housed in the museum’s east wing temporary exhibition gallery which is a long rectangle in plan. Visitors enter via one of the long sides of the rectangle. The first thing to notice is the excellent, large, narrative panels which introduce visitors to some of the basic principles and issues to be found in the rest of the exhibition. The panels are mounted at a relatively low (but not too low for my 6ft 4in frame) height and use language which is both appropriate to a wide range of visitors and as much challenging as it is informing. The size and style of these panels is consistent throughout the gallery and greatly enhance the objects on show (some of which, for me, were stronger than others).
The very first case-mounted objects are poorly lit from high above and shadows spoiled my viewing of them. Throughout the gallery there are some issues with the individual object labels and lighting for the same reasons.
On entry I turned right and started to view the cases and panels. After a few minutes I arrived at the exit! I realised, with the help of a museum attendant, that I should have turned left. A simple problem which could be simply rectified by some kind of panel-, or floor-mounted instruction/arrows.
Once back on track I noticed the exhibition itself only took up about half of the temporary exhibition space, which was a disappointment for a paid-for exhibition. Having visited the museum many times over the years I assumed the whole space would be taken up.
I found my stride and started to read and view. The exhibition adopts an intriguing and stimulating approach of taking the visitor on a chronological inquiry of archaeology, using key archaeologists as the hook.
Did you know that Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823), one of the first real excavators of Egyptian sites, had an earlier career as a strongman and was also known as “The Sampson of Patagonia” and described later as “archaeologist and weightlifter”? I love these kinds of facts and couldn’t have been more surprised and entertained if I’d learned that Geoff Capes had joined the Time Team..
The displays continued on through William Matthew Flinders Petrie “Father of Egyptian Archaeology”, Heinrich Schliemann (discoverer, and plunderer, of Troy), Hiram Bingham the discoverer of Machu Pichu (at this point the large narrative panel asked the question “What’s the biggest thing you have ever lost? Have you lost a city?”, which made me smile) and more.
It was good to see information about Adele Breton who, apart from William Petrie’s wife, was the only female archaeologist I could see. Her obsidian tool cores, from Mexico, were beautiful and my favourite objects).
This trail of historically important archaeologists continued through to include early British examples and some from Wales.
The story of these individuals was cleverly interwoven with the story of a small number of cultures from around the world. Mycenae, Ancient Greece, Pre-Columbian, Rapa-Nui (Easter Island), Egypt and Wales.
One or two of the intermediate level narrative panels were placed at different heights and some were too high for the smaller visitor or those who may be seated. But this is a minor point in what otherwise is a good execution of a text-writing which is highly engaging. The several interactive screens around the gallery are simple, intuitive and work well. They flesh out the story told by panels and objects and give the visitor a deeper engagement. Their use of illustrations and text was crisp and uncluttered.
At one point, for some unknown reason, there is a 2ft diameter brown ball (mounted in a side panel) which is constantly revolving to reveal a skull embedded within. This didn’t bring anything to the experience other than a loud “click” each time it turned.
As a Welshman I was fascinated by the displays of archaeology and archaeologists from Wales. Finds from the wreck of the Ann Francis, the Tregwynt Civil War hoard and hoards from Bridgend. All clearly displayed.
Near the end of the exhibition (now that I knew where that was…) there are cases which explore the cultural impact of archaeology through time. Books, ornaments, stamps, jewellery etc. Another exhibited archaeological “fakes”, challenging the visitor to think about what archaeologists do and the finding of “truth”.
A panel on 1920s archaeologists and their relationships with newspapers and the writing of regular articles was used to draw parallels with “bloggers” of today. Another took the opportunity to explain the importance, and impact, of responsible metal detecting with an explanation of the finding of a Viking burial in Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey.
A children’s area contains paper, crayons, workbooks and textured panels from which to take rubbings. A simple, but well delivered area which will entertain children and adults alike. The workbooks contained some activity which asked children to think about what is meant by “treasure”. I think the exhibition could have been a bit more explicit about this too, but that is a minor quibble.
Finally, framed by the two bronze exit doors, is the case containing the “real” Indiana Jones’ hat, jacket and whip. He is a Hollywood hero to many, but the case label politely pointed out that he wasn’t necessarily the best at careful, logical, scientific excavations and research.
The visitors’ book comments are universally positive and I have to agree with them. I spent an hour in the exhibition and learned many unexpected things.
As I walked down the steps outside the museum I couldn’t resist glancing back to see if I was being followed by an enormous stone ball….