Warning, this is a bit of an archaeorant. My opinions are my own.
In an earlier blog entry about the Stonehenge Visitor Centre. I outlined the circumstances and controversy about the display of human remains from the perspective of a mortuary archaeologists. I applauded the decision to display human remains in the Visitor Centre but criticised the relatively small numbers that could be contained within the space. When it comes to using bones and burials to narrate the complex evolving landscape of Stonehenge, I suggested that less is definitely not more. You can read about this here.
In this blog I want to convey some personal thoughts on having now visited the new Stonehenge experience following its million pounds of make-over and years of planning. My theme is that – to paraphrase Chris Chippendale’s superb book – we were presented with ‘Stonehenge Incomplete’. The visit was worth it, but after putting in a lot of time and money to shuttle 3 kids over 500 miles on a round trip to visit it, I must admit I was slightly underwhelmed and here’s why.
A Visitor Centre Incomplete
The Visitor Centre is apparently complete but the landscape around it still has the air of a building site – nothing has grown yet but trees have been planted. On a cold grey March morning, everthing was stark and barren. From the car park, one passes by the re-positioned memorial to two aviators killed in 1912 to the colourless building to hide in the warmth of the cafe until the site opened at 09.30. In the café there are large photographs of children smiling. The flat-screen displays also include children of all ages presumably enjoying English Heritage sites. But where was the fun? Where was the play area? Where were the interactive dimensions? I expected at least a bouncy Stonehenge! Instead, it is all stark grey broken only by the khaki of the English Heritage pseudo-military uniforms.
We explored the gallery. The surround projection of Stonehenge was brilliant. The individual elements had many merits to them and conveyed the exciting nature of the monument itself and its landscape. Still, the displays took up but a fraction of the space and the monumental placards seemed like gap-fillers arrogantly dictating what you should think. At the end of the display cases there was simply a blank wall. I loved being able to see the latest sequence for Stonehenge displayed through multiple media and a selection of artefacts and other remains from the landscape. It was also great to see the many texts that reveal the reception and interpretation of the stones from the Middle Ages to the present. Still, it seemed as if things were missing.
Outside again beyond the gallery was a mock-up sarsen on rollers and examples of the principal stone-types used in the monument’s construction. The Neolithic houses were still being built as well and closed to visitors. I genuinely felt I was missing out on stuff.
A Journey Incomplete
With three kids 6 and under on a very cold morning, we decided (as most people seem to do) to take the land train. Staff were helpful but this felt like a provisional arrangement: slow and uncomfortable. There was no information about the prehistoric sites passed by and an inaudible voice from the driver coming over the speakers at the kick-off. Insult was added to injury by being overtaken by a bus with extra visitors, laid on because the land trains presumably can’t handle visitor capacity.
The Stones Incomplete
Getting off the land train, one experiences more incompleteness: the old visitor centre is still being removed. Of course the removal of the road and the fences adds greatly to the experience of the stones. But still, one cannot but feel nostalgia for when this was there. The presence of the road and the ugliness of the tunnel in hindsight seem a small price to pay for relatively immediate access to the monument.
Still, the experience of going around the stones is largely unchanged, a clockwise encircling, although many visitors seemed confused and went the wrong way due to inadequate signage. The kids needed no prompting to feel a sense of disappointment at not getting to play on the grass and walk between the stones, let alone climb on them. Controlled access is undeniably essential given the volume of tourists, but I had expected some innovation in this part of the experience. I must say the new signboards were excellent. We couldn’t experience the audio-tour: we had kids to look after and communicate with instead.
Anyway, we encircled and headed back to the land-train, raced rapidly through the unavoidable gift shop (there is no option to exist around it) and back to the car park.
My expectations were high. Whatever was displayed, some people will be delighted and others will complain. Many elements of the experience are slick, new and exciting. Shed-loads of money has clearly been spent. The human remains I blogged about previously are superb and insightful, although somehow I managed to miss the cremated remains I was looking for (perhaps the difficulty of viewing exhibitions and keeping an eye on three kids). There were many other individual elements of the gallery and the display boards that were impossible to fault. Staff were friendly despite the depressing feel of the place and the crypto-military feel of everything.
Still, it all felt joyless and incomplete. Perhaps by the late summer it will look less sorrowful and perhaps even poppies will grow. Or maybe I will stop being such a grumpy old Professor who wanted a bouncy Stonehenge to play on. In Stonehenge Incomplete 2, I will discuss another, more academic, dimension of the incomplete nature of the Stonehenge narrative.