Research into maritime and experimental archaeology at the University of Exeter played a major role in transforming how museums encourage the public to engage with the past. This included the full-scale construction of a Bronze Age sewn-plank boat undertaken in front of the public, designed to provide visitors with a new perspective on the size and complicated design of such a vessel.
The project conducted by Professor Robert van de Noort, Professor Anthony Harding, and Dr Linda Hurcombe, with the National Maritime Museum Cornwall (NMMC), received regional, national and international media coverage. It greatly increased the Museum’s visitor numbers, and has given the NMMC the confidence to undertake subsequent projects, developing their own research capacity and helping them reposition themselves as a centre of research excellence.
The research combined work on prehistoric maritime culture and Bronze Age sewn-plank boats, organic material culture and experimental archaeology, and the economic basis of the Bronze Age. The purpose was to understand the importance of boat building in Atlantic Europe; its contribution to trade, and the exchange of precious metals and the movement of these metals between Britain, Ireland and continental Europe; while developing an innovative method of public engagement that moves experimental archaeology into the public’s arena.
This innovative ‘construction-as-performance’ project also involved a far wider range of sensory perceptions including vision, smell, sound, and touch, than is normally achieved with static exhibitions, offering museums a new concept for engaging with their visitors. Along with presenting research through experimental archaeology, it created unprecedented opportunities for engagement with local, regional, national and international audiences.
During the project 131,835 visitors witnessed the building of the boat in person, more than 500 individuals attended one or more public lectures, over 1,000 children took part in one of the specially designed education programmes, and in excess of 100 volunteers gave at least one full day to the project. During the exhibition there were 18,000 additional visitors compared to the previous year and during Archaeology Week in June 2012 there were 7,500 visitors, 3,000 more than the same week in 2011.
This work addressed the strategic aims of the EU Objective One programme for Cornwall in assisting in the economic recovery of the region, in particular through developing high-quality tourism and a stronger knowledge-based economy. As well as the exhibition and lecture programme, this included the creation of a Facebook page dedicated to the exhibition and the monthly posting of time-lapse videos on YouTube, which have received over 200,000 views to date.
More than 200 people, along with the local and national media, turned out to watch the launch of the boat in Falmouth harbour in March 2014. Dr Linda Hurcombe was interviewed and shown doing some last minute work on to seal the seams of the boat, which is still floating beside the NMMC in Falmouth harbour.
The success of this project has also led to the concept of ‘construction-as-performance’ being adopted elsewhere including a log-boat in Finland, a Viking-period fearing in the British Museum courtyard, the full-scale reconstruction of the Romano-Celtic Barland’s Farm Boat from near Newport (South Wales), and the organisation of a series of workshops for archaeologists from open air museums and heritage centres - to promote ‘construction-as-performance’ as a means of engaging visitors.