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Hunting a Hoard

Wanna become a detective for an hour and investigate a 3000-year old mystery? Wanna turn into an archaeologist? Wanna know what’s like to be an exhibition curator?

Then run to the Museum of London Docklands and be part of a quest! Havering Hoard: A Bronze Age Mystery is the new free exhibition at this museum near Canary Wharf.

But first, let’s clarify one thing: free doesn't mean second- or even third-rate as (according to some marketing surveys) our brains seem programmed to think. Havering Hoard is as good (I’d say much better) than many paying exhibitions.

Second, the layout is inverted to the majority of exhibitions I know. It's often explained that our neurons are normally designed to browse by the left, but here, the route takes you to the right. It’s against nature, and maybe that helps to deconnect us from Canary Wharf and to time-travel.

As you open the door, you’re welcomed by very atmospheric lighting and sound designs, and in a flash you leave the Museum of London Docklands and travel to a field in East London. It’s a Friday in September 2018, it’s the late afternoon, and as the Sun sets on the excavation site in the middle of the London countryside (not an oxymoron, it does exist), you’re part of an incredible discovery: the finding of a treasure hoard, right there, in Havering.

The exhibition team has managed to transport us there with a panoramic photograph of the field at sunset, the design of an excavation site, two railings and three phone-like screens showing the films taken by the archaeologists from their mobiles at the time of the discovery.

And then, we’re transported to the Bronze Age.

Several cases display some of the finds, explaining that they belonged to a blacksmith, and describing the process of making bronze and bronze objects. It’s didactic and not dull, which can often be the case in history and science museums. The curators have avoided that pitfall here. A film of a metalwork expert explains how an axe was made in the Bronze Age. Dressed as a Bronze age blacksmith, he melts the metal and creates the tool. We can touch the wooden model, ceramic mould and bronze blade as we’re watching, sitting cosily around the coffee-like table.

What is very interesting is the part of the show dedicated to the origins of the metal and objects. Too often, we see the past as a society separated from contact with 'foreigners'. Havering Hoard sweeps this away by showing the different routes taken by the objects retrieved in the hoard, making it clear that England has always been a land of migration (like anywhere else in the world), very well connected to the rest of Europe. Take that, UKIP!

The central room is dedicated to the mystery itself: Who buried the hoard there and why? Why was it never retrieved? In four cases containing the items found in the hoard, you explore different hypotheses and become part of the research team, a real mystery detective. Which hypothesis will you choose? A model of the enclosure, as well as a drawing of it on the wall, together with a replica of a Bronze Age hut, help to make us feel back in ancient times. To evoke the prehistoric landscape, a film, Sunrise over Rainham Marshes (2019), is projected onto the back wall. The twilight, coupled with the sound from the film, makes the whole show very atmospheric.

As you turn, we’re back in our own time. Walking in the footsteps of the scientists, through X-rays and microscopes, you can play at being an archaeologist. And then follows a video showing everyone involved, interviewing archaeologists, experts, conservators and curators, explaining how, from finding the hoard, they created the exciting exhibition before our eyes.

An old picture of the field taken from the air shows the enclosure as the crops grew differently on its borders, and we understand straight away why the field became an excavation site.

A real ‘behind the scenes’ show, Havering Hoard is a clever A to Z exhibition. The concept is absolutely awesome! Extremely child-friendly, which is rare in the exhibition world, the show is very interesting for adults, too. I’d have preferred a detective trail, as having visited lots of exhibitions with my kid, they’re the only trails which really work; they keep the children interested while allowing the grown-ups to enjoy the show in peace.

The Museum of London Docklands is accustomed to creating great exhibitions. Roman Dead and Hidden Rivers were two good examples of simple but effective, atmospheric shows. If you want to learn the 'Art of Curation', go there. And you can have fun at the same time becoming an archaeologist detective whether you’re big or small!

Havering Hoard: A Bronze Age Mystery is on at the Museum of London Docklands until 18 April 2021.

Karen Eeckman for Cradles & Labels

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