The New Sutton Hoo – a staff breakfast evaluation

Another Wednesday morning, another fascinating staff breakfast at the British Museum.

At this week’s talk, the interpretation team at the department of Learning, Volunteers and Audiences discussed the major changes made to one very important British Museum gallery, holding relics from the Sutton Hoo ship burial.

For those who don’t know, the Sutton Hoo ship burial is a hugely important piece of British history. Excavated in 1939 by a team led by Basil Brown and Edith Pretty, one of the Sutton Hoo sites contained a large number of rare and in some cases pristine artefacts within the burial chamber of an enormous ship (only the indentation of this ship remained). It is thought to possibly be a royal burial, due to its size and extravagance, and the artefacts within are of major historical value.

The interpretation team explained how before renovations, visitors were not getting the most out of the “Sutton Hoo Gallery”, which also contained artefacts from early Europe and the Byzantine period.

Using various data collecting methods such as observation of visitors, interviews, time measurements and so on, the team were able to paint a picture of how visitors responded to the gallery, and what to do to improve it.

They discovered that visitor “dwell time” (how long people stay inside a gallery) was very short. They also found that the Sutton Hoo helmet, one of the most important items, had the most “attracting power” (more visitors went to see that object), whereas other parts of the gallery were often overlooked or ignored. They showed this through a “temperature” chart – popular sections were in yellow, orange and red, less popular sections blue or light blue. There was a lot of light blue!

So – how to change the visitor experience?

Stuart Frost, Head of Interpretation and Volunteers, explained the many interpretive challenges – how to connect the collections, how to introduce visitors to the gallery, and how to make people stay.

Stuart explained that by using key themes and connecting sections of the popular collection (the Sutton Hoo) to other parts of the space through these themes, visitor experience vastly improved.

By removing some objects (cases were overcrowded), redesigning cases, repainting, changing lighting and adding digital media, the gallery is a breath of fresh air.

After renovations, the gallery has a “dwell time” almost three times longer, and the temperature chart is looking much warmer!

ITP 2014 participants were lucky enough to see the new gallery just after opening and have a session with Stuart Frost, who explained this project and the practice of interpretation in more detail – if any of you would like to share your thoughts, please do so below.