Designing a gallery fit for warrior treasure…

26/04/202009:0023/04/2020 11:23Leave a Comment

‘Some earl forgotten, in ancient years, left the last of his lofty race, heedfully there had hidden away dearest treasure’ Beowulf

How do you begin to design an immersive, atmospheric gallery fit for the wonderful treasures of the Staffordshire Hoard – and on a limited budget?

Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia Gallery at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

Well, the colour scheme, an easy choice, taking inspiration from the hoard itself, we painted the walls a beautiful rich red colour to complement the garnets which are in abundance on the treasure. Painting the ceiling black brought an air of mystery to the space.

The gallery itself – already an intimate space, low ceiling with supporting columns and a centre stage area which could not be removed – surely this would be a hindrance to the space? – Not for the team at PMAG, in fact, it became the perfect central focus for our design – An Anglo-Saxon Mead Hall.

Our Gallery text panel explains that ‘Wooden mead halls were at the heart of pagan Anglo-Saxon settlements. They were places of feasting, storytelling, lawgiving and oath-taking. Loyalties were forged over ale and mead, a drink made from honey. Some halls were decorated with carvings and tapestries. Warriors sat on benches around a firepit. Lords lived in their mead halls with their followers. The pagan kings of Mercia had no palaces but travelled across their kingdom from hall to hall, settling quarrels and giving gifts.’

Design inspiration was taken from reading translations of Beowulf an Old English epic poem, and also, (which I’m sure the curators will be horrified to hear me say) J. R. R. Tolkien’s fantasy setting of Middle-earth. However strange this may seem, if you are aware that Tolkien’s academic background was in Anglo-Saxon and medieval studies and, it is also considered that Meduseld Tolkien’s Golden Hall of the Kings of Rohan is based on the mead hall Heorot in Beowulf, perhaps it’s not so strange that we also drew inspiration from poems and stories as a starting point for creating our immersive gallery.

Tolkien’s description of Meduseld:
“The travellers entered. Inside it seemed dark and warm after the clear air upon the hill. The hall was long and wide and filled with shadows and half lights; mighty pillars upheld its lofty roof. But here and there bright sunbeams fell in glimmering shafts from the eastern windows, high under the deep eaves. Through the louver in the roof, above the thin wisps of issuing smoke, the sky showed pale and blue. As their eyes changed, the travellers perceived that the floor was paved with stones of many hues; branching runes and strange devices intertwined beneath their feet. They saw now that the pillars were richly carved, gleaming dully with gold and half-seen colours. Many woven cloths were hung upon the walls, and over their wide spaces marched figures of ancient legend, some dim with years, some darkling in the shade. But upon one form the sunlight fell: a young man upon a white horse. He was blowing a great horn, and his yellow hair was flying in the wind. The horse’s head was lifted, and its nostrils were wide and red as it neighed, smelling battle afar. Foaming water, green and white, rushed and curled about its knees.”
The Lord Of The Rings: Two Towers (1955) Chapter 6 The King of the Golden Hall.  © J.R.R.Tolkien, 1955

To ground the stories, we also spent time visiting the reconstructed Anglo-Saxon village of West Stow, images of which later formed the backdrop to 2 areas of the gallery.

West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village

So, on to design a gallery fit for treasure.

Armed with these stories and agreement that the Mead Hall should be the central focus, the design process began.

We already had the columns and stage area to start the mead hall structure. Chris Fern shared his preliminary research drawings reconstructed from the patterns of actual hoard items with us and we used them to create the artwork for the columns. Originally produced in gold vinyl, to refresh the gallery for the 10th Anniversary of the discovery of the hoard, we had the opportunity to clad the columns in wood complete with carved out the patterns as they would have been in Anglo-Saxon times. We designed hanging banners, again depicting traced patterns from the Staffordshire Hoard, and also designed with the rich colours of the hoard.

Chris Fern’s preliminary research drawings alongside corresponding pieces of the hoard

The wooden floor of the raised area stage was sanded down and stained to make it look more authentic and with the addition of a realistic fire pit surrounded by benches dressed with boar skins, lends itself perfectly as a space for storytelling. As Heorot, the name of the mead-hall in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf, translates as hart or stag which is a male deer. With this in mind, we adorned the back wall of the mead-hall with antlers from out Natural Science collection.

The atmospheric mead-hall created, where do we now site the cases for our most treasured and star items of the gallery – the Staffordshire hoard?

Well, space in the gallery was limited, they needed to make an impact as people walked into the gallery, again the answer came from stories from Anglo-Saxon times – reading stories of the Anglo-Saxons leaving weaponry at the entrance to the mead hall we displayed the sword suites directly to the front of the stage as if they were left at the entrance to the hall, with the other cases surrounding the central case. The recent addition of the reconstructed helmet adds to the grandeur of the central case.

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Now to the entrance of the gallery, how do we entice visitors in?

Looking at images showing sentinels at the entrance to a mead hall, was perfect for drawing similarities between this and Katharine Morling’s mythological god figures, an artist’s response to the hoard. Two pieces of Katharine’s work were ideally placed as sentinels at the entrance to the gallery, guarding the treasures inside.

One of Katharine Morling’s mythological figures
The wall leading to the gallery. Art by Daniel Dociu
Copyright National Geographic Museum

The National Geographic commissioned Daniel Dociu image of the rider fitted in perfectly with the idea that a warrior would come riding from battle to the entrance of the mead hall. So, this was ideally positioned to the entrance of the gallery on the right-hand side.

To the left-hand side, we tell the story of the amazing discovery of the Staffordshire hoard.

Who were the Anglo-Saxons?

To put them into context, on one of the walls we added a very long timeline, showing what was happening nationally and locally around the Anglo-Saxon period and the time we believe the hoard was buried. A map on the wall shows the extent of the Kingdom of Mercia.

The Hoard is believed to be mainly warrior treasure, but what was life like for the everyday people? Around the gallery from left to right we tell the story of Anglo-Saxon Everyday Life and death, using objects from our collections.

Our younger visitors can dress up as an Anglo-Saxon and have their photo taken next to our popular mannequin (which the museum staff have affectionately nicknamed Sean Bean!) and find out how to train to become an Anglo-Saxon warrior. There is a replica of a grave excavated at Stapenhill on the Staffordshire-Derbyshire border. The woman in it was buried with goods including beads, brooches and a spindle whorl, so she was probably quite wealthy.

Throughout the gallery there are a series of iPads and a touch table giving further information and short film clips about the hoard, and the exterior of the gallery also focuses on the ongoing conservation and research into the hoard.

Once again J. R. R. Tolkien takes inspiration from Beowulf in his novel The Hobbit, where both talk of a dragon guarding its hoard.

Finally, we continued this ideology on through a photographic image of the entrance to Thor’s Cave (in the Manifold Valley), where you can catch a glimpse of another of Katharine Morling’s mythological figures whilst watching a short film entitled ‘The Last Dragon Hunter’.

Made especially for the museum the film is a story about a young Saxon boy who runs away following his father’s death in battle, and embarks on an exciting journey filled with tales of warriors, gods and monsters.’

We hope you have enjoyed the insight into Designing a gallery Fit for warrior treasure and hope you will be able to visit us soon, where items from The Staffordshire Hoard remain on permanent display in our Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Mercia Gallery.

Helen Cann, Design Services Officer,
The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

Written by Helen Cann (Design Services Officer) - Modified by Joe Perry (Curator, Local History)

One thought on “Designing a gallery fit for warrior treasure…”

  1. Gary Bloomer says:

    Spectacular. A truly great series of compelling displays and powerful graphic elements. Nicely done, Helen and team. Really, really impressive. Gold standard stuff (no pun intended).

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