Beth Thomas

Display Cases: Creativity, Arm-Waving & Ideas

Job title: Senior Properties Historian

Organisation: English Heritage

Usual base: Bristol

Currently working on: Stonehenge visitor centre

Find me at: @SueGreaney

Today in stats: 1 workshop/meeting (5.25hrs); 4 trains (3.5hrs);  2 tea runs (20mins); 1 colleague chat (45mins); 1 large chocolate muffin (5 mins); 1 very welcome beer (time tbc).

Today I’ve been up to our West Midlands office in central Birmingham, with my colleague and curator Sara Lunt, to meet with our exhibition designers Haley Sharpe Design.  We’re all currently working flat-out on our permanent exhibition which will form part of the new Stonehenge visitor centre. We’re doing our display case layouts at the moment – thinking about how our archaeological finds will be mounted alongisde text, graphics and replicas.

On the train on the way up to Birmingham I spend some time reviewing and updating my ‘to do’ list – I have so much to do at the moment that lists are the only way I can keep up with the next most urgent thing. Also checking into my e-mails and Twitter. I saw a great tweet the other day, something along the lines of – you don’t choose your career anymore, you just choose what to answer e-mails about! Well my e-mails are mostly about archaeology even if that definition gets stretched a little. With a hefty dose of project management thrown in.

Not the type of building where you’d expect an archaeologist to spend the day… Photograph by Ell Brown via Flickr

Arriving at The Axis, where EH is based, I stop for a tea on the way. The meeting quickly gets underway. Case layouts is one of those tasks that needs a spatial mind – being able to imagine the 3D layouts of the cases from 2D plans and elevations. It’s also a bit like a jigsaw puzzle – well that object needs to sit alongside that text, but that story has to be on the same side as that group of other objects… We’ll be re-creating quite a number of archaeological contexts, so we talk through the details of these. Soon our meeting room table is covered.

These meetings are quite intense but very creative and exciting – lots of ideas and hand waving today. Tea run no.2 and a grabbed sandwich. Time flies by and I forget to take a photo for this post – sorry! We talk reconstructions and look at recent examples we like. More work to be done here. Sara has been up this week to view the final objects we’re getting on loan from the Stonehenge Riverside Project and we look at where these fit in.

We have to have a really good understanding of what stories we’re trying to get across. We’re been into the detail of the archaeology to such an extent that we now have to extract ourselves and think from the position of a visitor. Imagine you are a tourist from Europe, just arrived on a coach, with only a sketchy understanding of prehistory in your own country, let alone somewhere else entirely – what does this tiny bit of flint mean to them? We archaeologists can all get geekily excited about petit-tranchet derivatives, but really… it is the people of the prehistoric past who have to shine through our displays.

We finish in good time – feeling satisfied that we’re nearly there with this task! I take the chance to catch up with another colleague Beth Thomas, the Stonehenge World Heritage Site Co-ordinator who happens to be in the Birmingham office today. We talk about some upcoming meetings relating to projects happening in the World Heritage Site. She’s also just launched a newsletter Megalith for the WHS which looks good (spot my contribution).

On the train on the way home (after devouring a large chocolate muffin and some fruit) I write up the action points from our day for everyone to make sure they complete all their tasks. I also check details for Monday – I have a site visit at Stonehenge with a colleague, following by another meeting with our exhibition designers at our Salisbury office.  It’s all go. I feel like we might need one of those Olympic style countdown clocks…. in which case it is 473(ish) days to go until we open – gulp. You can find out more about our plans on the EH website. I check into Twitter and have a conversation about capes(!), and read some of the posts on this site, before finally reaching home to catch up with my other half and his day. Now I’m writing this with a welcome Friday beer. Cheers!

PS. Thanks to the wonderful organisers of Day of Archaeology 2012 for their sterling work (again) – see you in 2013!