Covering 500,000 years of history in a small space is not an easy task, but unperturbed, that is what Salisbury Museum sets out to do; admittedly it focuses on some time periods more than others. But it does it well, incorporating archaeological finds of national importance alongside some truly local bizarre treasures . . . well at least one giant one anyway.
My favourite gallery was the Wessex Gallery, which is still new having only opened in 2014 and boasts over 2,500 objects on display. Compared to the rest of the museum this gallery has quite a large footprint; the space is broken up artistically with different level of plinth case displays, which act to divide up information by time period but also cleverly allows you to still see across the gallery rather than blocking you into smaller room spaces. There is a really nice consistent use of a coloured timeline, meaning each exhibit you can pick out which part of history it is from. There are also plenty of low plinth cases, meaning greater visibility for both children and wheelchair uses.
Children’s activity sheets invite you to explore the gallery taking on different roles, for example as a modern day archaeologist or General Pitt-Rivers. The coloured timeline makes an appearance in these too. There are drawers to open below plinth cases, inviting you to touch, sort and investigate objects.
The use of enlarged black and white images of the landscape on the walls between cases was really effective. It’s not until you step back from appreciating these incredible objects on display that you become aware of the dramatic images of the landscape that these objects have been discovered in. Each object was mounted and displayed beautifully. One clever way of presenting a burial with grave goods was to have the outline of the skeleton, which highlighted what was left of the human remains without them actually displayed, but with the grave goods presented around this outline indicating where they were discovered.
In terms of finds on display this museum is a true gem. From examples teaching models created by Pitt-Rivers (who is heralded as a founder of modern scientific archaeological techniques), to the Amesbury Archer, an individual who travelled from the alpine regions of Europe ending up in a rich beaker burial on Salisbury Plain dating to around the construction time of Stonehenge itself.
An older, but no less interesting gallery reveals the history of Salisbury. I think this gallery is what I expected the museum to be like as a whole; a dimly lit room smelling faintly of old libraries, with Edwardian style wooden cases full of interesting objects. This area displays the heart of the collection; objects found in the sewers that once flowed through the city and brought together as the ‘Drainage Collection’, which actually led to the formation of the museum in 1860. Thus proving that truth in the saying ‘one man’s rubbish is another man’s treasure’.
It also houses St Christopher the Salisbury Giant, alongside black and white pictures of him and his partner in crime Hob-Nob (some kind of weird horse-donkey-camel creature) on parade. Parading the Giant and Hob-Nob through the streets was a local tradition of which the origins have been forgotten, but the rather large and very odd remains of which can still be seen here.