Stonehenge – Visitor Centre

Location: Stonehenge
Era: Stone Age
Status: Active Project
Tradition: Druid
Objective: Other Heritage Action


Visitors’ Reactions to the Display

We are collecting people’s reactions to the display of ancestors at the new Visitor Centre at Stonehenge. These are published here with the hope of promoting further debate about the display and that this might encourage English Heritage to consider improvements.

“The upright ancestor I found to be quite imposing and powerful – he had a genuine ‘presence’ in the exhibition – the facial reconstruction displayed next to him showed a strong character, though there was as far as I could see no context to the landscape or the past, and I felt there was a lack of dignity in how he was shown; the steel rod holding him upright was simply wrong, and the way he was placed with other exhibits, without any form of him being distinguished from other artifacts is unforgivable.  Surprisingly, I found the display of the other ancestor – show as found in the grave – far more distressing.  He was laid on the base of a cabinet with no distinguishing description or change in the format of display – he was simply another ‘artifact’ shown on the cold grey base of the cabinet he was placed in.  I visited with two others who missed the grave altogether, so poorly was he shown. 

To me there seemed a huge opportunity missed, especially with another side area of the exhibition having more subdued lighting and a much more reverential feel being assigned to the display of books and artifacts charting how Stonehenge had been perceived through the ages; here were ancient texts and objects within a darkened, quieter and cooler area displayed with care and thought, away from the main hubbub of the other areas of the exhibition.  If the two ancestors had been provided with as much respect, and had replicas been used, then I would have no issue at all.  As it is, and notwithstanding the sense of power our ancestor exudes, I do feel no respect has been shown to these two people – they are simply being used as a focus to pull more tourists and generate more money for EH.” 

“I visited the new Stonehenge Visitor Centre, early in the New Year.  On arrival my partner said he was “underwhelmed” it was extremely busy but as English Heritage Members we didn’t have to queue for tickets. At this point we started to wonder where the millions of pounds were actually spent!

As we entered the gallery/exhibition area I was impressed by the new multimedia display, and I had high hopes for what was to come next.  As we entered further into the exhibition there was a display about what Stonehenge means to people; the Pagan community seemed relatively well represented.

Then to its left I spotted the display of the Human bones!

The display was probably the worst I had seen for a long time, considering this was a newly opened modern exhibition I cannot understand why such an archaic, insensitive and really un-informative display could have ever been considered ‘educational’. The main display comprised of a full Human Skeleton hanging in a glass cabinet in an upright position, with a smaller, full skeleton in a foetus position on a board on the other side of the cabinet. This area was open to the full light of day, spot lights and surrounded by other finds such as flint tools, antlers, etc. I personally was most disturbed and proceeded to make my silent prayers to the poor souls just hanging there in a glass cabinet.

Some Americans soon came up close to me and asked if I knew if they were real or replicas, I told them that unfortunately they are real human bones, ancestors of the Stonehenge landscape. They were horrified, that “we” would allow our ancestors to be treated in such away. They said they were going to complain to the site manager.

Then contrastingly there was a dark room in the far corner, the entrance to which was framed by a heavy security door, within this room the black lined wall cabinets were dimly lit, to contain the most precious documents, maps and literature associated with those great thinkers and their theories on what Stonehenge was, and who had built it. I immediately wondered why the two exhibitions could not have been swapped! As much as I would not want to see the ancestors displayed, within this part of the exhibition a respectful, dignified and educational display could have easily been created, providing them some of dignity they surely need.

We did not stay for too long, and left find some quite countryside for a few moments for me to make more prayers and find clarity and to shrug off the unpleasantness to enable me to drive home.”

“We made a point of going to Stonehenge and the Visitors Centre on a recent visit to the area.  The first point I would like to make is that if you are a National Trust Member you are allow to get in free of charge or by showing your membership card.  Fortunately for us we had checked this out beforehand so were aware but there was no indication around the ticket office to let you know that you would be allow in free if you were a NT member.

I have never been to see Stonehenge before, I have passed the site, and have never had any wish to visit the stones, no idea why that is but it is not something that appeals to me or my beliefs.  So this visit was purely a fact finding tour for me, did the stones call to me?  I can’t say that they did, which was disappointing given that I am a spiritual person.  I suppose I, like many others, look upon the site as the tourist attractions that it has become.   In that respect the visitor centre does very well, it was well organised and got you to the stones without a great deal of hassle.  However, we must remember that this was not the height of the season and not school holidays.  Even so it did get very busy around the stones and I still cannot understand the attraction to have your photo taken while you are jumping up in the air in front of the stones???    The stones were, in my opinion, just the same as all the photos you see.   Only one side do you get close to them to really see them.  I did try to meditate with the stones only to have someone disturb me (the people apparently had been trying to get my attention but I was obviously too far gone and they made me jump when they actually touched me!) to ask me if I would take their photo for them.  Lesson is that you cannot have a private moment in the tourist area.

The visitor centre is well set up and trying to blend in with the surrounding area.  The information/Museum area seemed spacious but again it was out of season so may get too crowded to take in all that they are trying to show you.  

There is no warning anywhere that I could see, so if there is a warning it is not in an appropriate place, about human bones being on display.   The first set of Ancestral bones that you see are in a glass casing and although not a full skeleton and each bone has been pinned to the back of casing so to look complete.  The display is upright and has appearance of being in mid-air,  at their feet are a few artefacts.   The case also has a head and shoulder cast of what the Ancestor would have looked like.   Personally I would have like to have had a full model of what the Ancestor looked like rather than seeing the bones.

The second set of Ancestral bones were those found buried in the recent excavations(2001) and they were laid out, again in a glass case with a few artefacts, in the crouch position, presumably the way they had found them.   I am not sure that it was necessary to display these remains when maybe just photos of how and where they were found would have sufficed in my opinion.

All other displays were well lit but not sure that in the peak times everyone would be able to see them clearly.

I am glad that we took time out to go and see Stonehenge and the visitor centre but not sure that I would return.”

“I have been inside the stones a couple of times on archaeological visits. The stones do not speak to me either, although I have dowsed the site and can feel some connection. The visit is well organised and the audio commentary was well constructed. 

I thought the visitor’s centre was well designed and blended in well with the area as it sits a bit lower and does not intrude too much in the landscape. The display had no warning about the presence of human remains although this was mentioned in the audio commentary, perhaps EH thought this would suffice, however no good if you visited the display first. The skeleton that was hung up was visible across the room and I thought it would have been better displayed on the other side of the case which faced the wall and could then have warned people to not go round. It gave the appearance of a skeleton in a laboratory standing waiting for medical students to use. There was in my opinion no need to display it in that was an unnatural position as it could not support itself. The ancestor had been excavated in the Winterbourne Stoke barrow complex in 1864 and EH may have justified the inclusion by providing a lot of information. It was headed “What was the area like before Stonehenge” and said before Stonehenge the area was used for burial and ceremony. He may have been the person they had found most out about. They had gone to the expense of doing a facial re-construction and just showed head and shoulders. I also think that a whole body would have shown more realism, then his remains could have been shown in a photograph lying down, if indeed that was how he had been placed in the grave, perhaps with a dark background to give the appearance of soil.

The other person was a crouched burial excavated in 2001 closer to the Henge itself, but south of the A303. It looked odd as displayed quite low in the display (easy for children to see) but was just lying on clear Perspex and gave the appearance of unnaturally hanging in mid-air. There were some artefacts from the grave and again there were some details they had gleaned about the person including a conclusion that he could have been local. Ironically they had made a replica of the broken beaker pot found in the grave. Again I feel it was unnecessary to have the person on display.”

“Stonehenge is invisible from the new visitors’ centre.  Walking from the car park, the oddly-configured building dominates the seemingly flat landscape. We were early enough not to have to queue for tickets.  But for most people their first impression of this World Heritage Site will be standing in what feels like a lofty wind tunnel with barely any protection from the rain and none whatsoever from the cold.  The second impression will also be negative – being charged a whopping £14.90 for admission (except for EH or NT members).

The exhibition area counters these negative first  impressions with a very positive ‘wow’ moment: a 360-degree computer simulation of the day-night cycle seen from inside a ‘fully-restored’ henge.  Further inside the gallery another massive digital presentation provides considerable information about the archaeology. Other video displays provide more details – from showing the making of replica stone tools through to a subtly-worded overview of the popular culture of Stonehenge in recent decades.

There are plenty of artefacts from the digs to give a reasonable sense of the material culture.  These’ artefacts’ include human remains.  One person is set out as discovered, with grave goods, in the far corner of the exhibition area.  If you feel that displaying human remains in a ‘museum context’ is still valid, then this is about as respectful as it’s likely to get. However another person’s skeleton is wired together into a standing position and faces out the full length of the exhibition space.  This hark back to Victorian museums seems about as disrespectful as it’s possible to get.  

I probably need to make a declaration of interest here.  I have taken a fairly active interest in the advisory group Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) since it’s formation ten years ago.  One of the successes of HAD has been to draft guidelines on the way museums curate human remains. Unlike some vociferous members of the Pagan community, I’m am not opposed to the display of human remains and would not expect all human remains from archaeological excavations to be reburied.  But I would expect human remains to be displayed respectfully. EH not only chose to ignore HAD’s guidance but seemingly felt the need to poke the opposition in the eye.  

There is a temporary exhibition area, which currently has a display of old manuscripts and books showing illustrations of Stonehenge over the centuries.  Most of these are on loan from the British Library.  Future exhibitions will include Julian Richard’s collection of memorabilia (often rather kitsch!) about Stonehenge and the wartime history of Salisbury Plain.

The shop and café are spacious, though food options are limited.  The ride to the monument itself is via the ‘road trains’.  However, as I’m already familiar with the monument, I opted not to take in this part of the experience.  Replica Neolithic houses are scheduled to form part of the attraction, but have yet to manifest.

Note that from 1 February entrance (even for EH and NT members) will be by pre-booked timed tickets only.”

September 2013

Since writing to English Heritage to express our concerns for plans to display the bones of ancestors as part of the redevelopment of the visitor centre at Stonehenge, HAD has received the following information (see below). Note that English Heritage (none of the addressees) has not responded to HAD directly.

The conclusion they have reached is very disappointing as it demonstrates a closed attitude and disregard for a genuinely consultative process as a means of reaching a consensus outcome.

human remains Stonehenge letter to EH 20130829

Human remains at VC commission ruling final