As some previous posts have indicated, I have been visiting Sutton Hoo throughout the summer out of interest to note how the £4 million+ -worth of revamping of the site for visitors has developed. I have not been involved in the scheme in any way other than to observe. All is now complete and open, except for the new observation tower overlooking the site of the burial mounds.
A much-hyped part of the scheme has been to open-up the whole site by encouraging visitors to participate in a ‘new and exciting’ ‘landscape experience.’ Essentially this means going on one or more prescribed walks, some along newly-made paths, and looking at a few new information structures dotted around the landscape. One of them is illustrated below: an information panel and a concrete ‘map.’
The panel reflects a theme throughout the new presentation – exhorting visitors to use their imagination. All well and good but quite a lot is known about the Anglo-Saxon landscape and its seems a pity not to tell people about that as a foundation on which to use their imagination. The concrete slab beside the panel has some marks in it and both bumps and a coloured area on it. The former include but six mounds representing, without explanation, the (minimum) 17 which actually exist or existed. The last, somewhat enlarged by rainwater when I took the photograph, is meant to show the River Deben, whence the ‘royal ship’ was towed uphill (in imagination); for the graphic is meant to be a map of the area, acting as both a guide – it shows modern paths – and a background on which to embroider the viewer’s imagination. I asked several people on different occasions what they made of this visual – some didn’t even realise it was a map – and they found it difficult to use. Not surprising really, since without a scale or a North point it is indeed difficult to use.
Unfortunately, this is the case with all the maps and graphics on site: the cartography is poor throughout. And though the walks themselves are attractive, there seems to be a mismatch between the laudable intention to lead people healthily and educatively by roundabout ways to the burial mounds and what most people actually do; which is of course to follow their desire lines along the most direct route to the mounds. Perhaps they will follow the sinuous route to the barrows when the observation tower is open and best-approached from below.
I know that a site is constantly evolving in terms of its presentation and use; but management should be able to mitigate some of the more obvious flaws. Here, a walker around the whole site will encounter at least five different styles of information media/panels. Some of them are relics from much earlier presentations of Sutton Hoo, indeed from last century. As a result, what the visitor sees today bears a hint of stinginess and shoddiness, not exactly the impression you want from a £4 million refurbishment; and of course overall there is a lack of coherence in the presentation because different interpreters have wanted to make different points at different times in the past. Maybe all the interpretive clutter around the mounds will be cleared away once the observation tower is open; but that begs the question of how and where you inform all the visitors who will still walk directly to the mounds, whether or not they then climb the tower.
Meanwhile we have experienced a wet autumn; and such has been the wear and tear along the desire line to and at Mound 1 that visitors have had to be roped off on to other lines and taken off Mound 1 altogether. There were 700 visitors on the day in late September when I asked about visitor numbers. Doubtless many people have been attracted by sustained publicity about the newness of Sutton Hoo’s presentation throughout the year.
I’m going to stop there but a part II will follow idc. Two further photographs serve as tasters.