Our exhibit planner goes home to Salisbury

Old British building

The Wessex Gallery is a highly modern exhibition space housed in a building begun in the 13th century.

On Christmas Eve, while visiting my family in England, I found just enough time in a hectic schedule to check out the new Wessex Gallery of the Salisbury Museum. The gallery is housed in the historic King’s House, parts of which were built in the 13th century, situated in one of my favourite haunts, the Cathedral Close. I passed along a familiar passage simply marked with an arrow, to be transported to one of the most elegant new exhibition spaces that I have seen in a long time. I felt like Alice in Wonderland.

Museum space

The Gallery is carefully curated, beginning with the most recent era and then taking the visitor back to the prehistoric.

Mosaic floor

Romano British tessellated (mosaic) floor, 300-400 AD. Found in south Wilshire in the 1950s.

Museum space

The highly robust nature of most of the artifacts allows for bright and well-designed lighting.

Perhaps it was the stark contrast between old and new that did not jar, but opened up a new door into the past.

Perhaps it was the rich collection of objects beautifully displayed, each of the many pieces being mounted with the utmost care and attention.

Perhaps it was the accessibility of the text and the non-cluttered look.

Perhaps it was the use of digital media that was artfully integrated to enhance the experience, adding layers of information.

Exhibit panel copy

The text is layered, rewarding the interested readers the further they read; its modern typography belies a more traditional approach.

Monitor

Discreetly placed monitors feature information of greater detail for the interested visitor.

Museum case

Original plans and teaching models from the famed 19th century archaeologist, Augustus Pitt Rivers.

Whatever the reason, while coming to grips with the complexity surrounding the planning of new exhibitions for today’s world, it was inspiring to come across a magnificent example of a substantial collection taking on a new life.

The narrative spans a lengthy time period from AD 1220 back to 500,000 BC and includes the compelling story of the surrounding region, highlighting the iconic monuments of Stonehenge and Old Sarum. Supporting artifacts include a model of a 19th century excavation site by renowned archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers as well as many recent finds by metal detectorists. Ancient human remains are sensitively displayed alongside grave goods as they were found in situ. These displays of human remains, while somewhat controversial, provide valuable information to historians and give visitors an insight into how experts use this evidence to interpret the past.

Easily accessible drawers that pull out from underneath showcases hold additional artifacts and games that are at a good height for children. As well, an interactive touch table provides a fun opportunity for a virtual dig.

Skeleton exhibit

There have been protests by modern Druids demanding that human remains from the Wessex collection be re-interred at Stonehenge.

Drawer of artifacts

Smaller and related items can be found in drawers beneath many cabinets.

Monitor

An interactive allows you to explore archaeological sites of the region and to piece together broken artifacts.

Project data published in the October 2014 Museums Journal (of the UK Museums Association), reports that the cost for the Wessex Gallery was 2.4 million pounds sterling (Can$4.6 million), of which 1.8 million was provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It was designed by exhibition design and architecture firm Metaphor and built by Realm Projects. The Wessex Gallery officially opened in July 2014. (See the BBC report on the opening)

Having so little time, I confess that I did not do justice to all that was on offer. Naturally I focused on the coins displayed, as well as details concerning the installation, the font size, the use of technology, etc. That I should find such inspiration in what I consider to be my home town (having grown up there) was particularly special. And a quick plug for Salisbury: the Lonely Planet Guide voted it the 7th best city in the world to visit in 2015!