Treasures: Adventures in Archaeology, National Museum Cardiff, Wales
The imagery of the jauntily-hatted, kangaroo-hide whip-wielding hero of Hollywood scriptwriters Indiana Jones has been used heavily in the marketing for this exhibition. And while I am a fan of the Steven Spielberg films, this emphasis did worry me because I expected to encounter more style than substance. I was pleasantly disappointed.
Essex Havard whips through a cracking show, which looks at the meaning and purpose of archaeology through the lens of the Indiana Jones films
Treasure: Adventures in Archaeology is National Museum Cardiff’s first temporary exhibition with an admission charge for more than 20 years. At £7 per adult it is not cheap, particularly for an institution that has done much in the past decade to develop its reputation as a museum providing access to all. Nevertheless, I donned my museologist’s hat, stowed my whip of cynicism on my belt and entered.
The exhibition is housed in the temporary exhibition gallery of the museum’s east wing, which is long and rectangular. Visitors enter via one of the long sides of the rectangle.
The first thing I noticed was the excellent large narrative panels, which introduce visitors to some of the basic principles and issues in the rest of the exhibition. The panels are mounted relatively low down (but not too low for my 6ft 4in frame) and use language that is appropriate for a wide range of visitors, at the same time as being challenging and informative. The size and style of these panels is consistent throughout the gallery and they greatly enhance the objects on show.
The first case-mounted objects are poorly lit from high above and shadows spoiled my viewing of them. Throughout the gallery there are similar issues with the individual object labels and lighting.
On entry, I turned right and started to view the cases and panels, but 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 mistake that could be easily prevented by better signage.
Once back on track I noticed that the exhibition itself only takes up about half of the temporary exhibition space –disappointing for a paid-for exhibition. Having visited the museum many times over the years I had assumed the whole space would be used.
In terms of content, though, the exhibition adopts the intriguing and stimulating approach of taking the visitor on an inquiry-driven chronological journey through archaeology, peppered with information about key archaeologists.
For instance, did you know that Giovanni Belzoni (1778-1823), one of the first excavators of Egyptian sites, had an earlier career as a strongman, was known as “The Sampson of Patagonia” and was described later as “archaeologist and weightlifter”? Personally, I love these kinds of facts and wouldn’t have been more surprised and entertained if I’d learned that strongman Geoff Capes had joined Time Team.
The displays continue through Flinders Petrie, “Father of Egyptian Archaeology”; Heinrich Schliemann, discoverer – and plunderer – of Troy; and Hiram Bingham, the discoverer of Machu Picchu. At this point a large narrative panel asks the question “What’s the biggest thing you have ever lost? Have you lost a city?”
It was good to see information about Adela Breton – apart from Flinders Petrie’s wife, the only female archaeologist I could see. The beautiful ancient obsidian tools that she found in Mexico are my favourite objects in this show.
This trail of historically important archaeologists carries on to include early British examples, including some from Wales. The story of these individuals is cleverly interwoven with the story of a small number of cultures from around the world: ancient Greece, Pre-Columbian America, Rapa Nui (Easter Island), ancient Egypt
Intuitive and engaging
One or two of the intermediate level narrative panels are placed at different heights and could be too high for some visitors. But this is a minor problem, and the text is engaging and well written. The several interactive screens around the gallery are simple and intuitive and work well. They flesh out the story told by the panels and objects and provide visitors with a deeper level of engagement. Their use of illustrations and text is crisp and uncluttered.
At one point a rotating brown ball, 2ft in diameter, spins automatically to reveal a skull. There is no label for this feature which, I imagine, is a representation of an archaeological dig. It didn’t add anything to the exhibition other than a loud click each time it turned.
As a Welshman I was fascinated by the displays about archaeology and archaeologists from Wales. These include finds from the wreck of the Ann Francis, a merchant ship that ran aground in Glamorgan in 1583, the Tregwynt Civil War hoard from Pembrokeshire, and other hoards from Bridgend. All of these are clearly displayed.
Near the end of the exhibition, cases explore the cultural impact of archaeology over time. The objects on display include books, ornaments, stamps, jewellery and other material. Another case exhibits archaeological “fakes”, challenging visitors to think about what archaeologists do and the nature of uncovering the “truth”.
A panel on archaeologists in the 1920s uses the articles they wrote for newspapers of the time to draw parallels with bloggers of today. Another explains the importance of responsible metal detecting through an account of the finding of a Viking burial in Llanbedrgoch, Anglesey.
A simple but well-delivered children’s area contains paper, crayons, workbooks and textured panels from which to take rubbings, and should entertain children and adults alike. The workbooks include activities that ask children to think about what is meant by the word “treasure”. On reflection, I think the exhibition could have tackled this question more explicitly, but that is a minor quibble.
At the end, framed by the two bronze exit doors, stands the case containing the “real” Indiana Jones’s hat, jacket and whip. Though he is a hero to many, the case label politely points out that he wasn’t necessarily the best at careful, logical, scientific excavations and research.
The comments in the visitors’ book were unanimously positive, and I have to agree with them. I spent an hour in the exhibition and learned many unexpected things. And as I walked down the steps outside the National Museum Cardiff I couldn’t resist glancing back to see if I was being followed by an enormous rolling stone ball...
Essex Havard is an adult learning and cultural consultant based in Cardiff
Main funders National Museum Wales, Welsh Government, players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, Patrons of Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales
Design and build Cod Steaks
Display cases ClickNetherfield
Refurbishment of galleries Traxium
Exhibition design and installation, AV and content National Museum Wales
Exhibition ends 30 October
Admission £7 adults (17 years and over), £5 concessions, free to everyone 16 years and under. Under 12s must be accompanied by an adult.