Salisbury Museum opens £2.4 million Wessex Gallery of Archaeology

By Ben Miller | 12 July 2014

Salisbury Museum's new £2.4 million gallery could be only the start for a venue showcasing an amazing wealth of archaeological discoveries

A photo of a woman holding up a skull inside a museum
Dr Alice Roberts will open the Wessex Gallery of Archaeology© Courtesy Salisbury Museum
The shimmer of more than 2,500 exhibits and the glitz of celebrity visitors will illuminate the Wessex Gallery of Archaeology at its grand opening today, turning the old galleries at the Salisbury Museum into a cohesive sweep which includes the Amesbury Archer and the Wardour Hoard among one of the finest collections of its kind in Europe.

Dr Alice Roberts, of the BBC’s TV Coast and Origins of Us programmes, and Phil Harding, the presenter of Channel 4’s Time Team who will be demonstrating flint-knapping, join the public in a first glimpse of the £2.4 million gallery, inviting them to watch falconry displays and try on dresses from Norman times, wear a knight’s armour and sword and attempt coppicing, pottery, wool dyeing and Stone Age chalk carving.

A black and white photo of people looking at a large mosaic during the 1950s
The Downton Mosaic, found during the 1950s, has been laid horizontally at the centre of the new gallery© Courtesy Salisbury Museum
“The first thing that people won’t expect is that unlike most of the rooms in this building, which are quite small, this is one fantastic, large open gallery dealing with half a million years of history,” says Adrian Green, the Director of the museum.

“The old galleries were built in the 1980s. I came here about seven years ago and already then the galleries were starting to look a little bit tired.

“But it’s not just that – there’s also the fact that there’s new information coming out of the ground, more finds. Even in the time we’ve been here we’ve made some hugely important acquisitions, like the huge limestone sarcophagus from Amesbury, which we put in the porch because we didn’t have anywhere else to put it.

“The old displays weren’t a design classic; they hadn’t stood the test of time very well. There was that sense that they weren’t meeting visitor expectations.

“We had a whole gallery dedicated to Pitt Rivers and it didn’t feel quite right that we had that – we wanted something that appealed to a much wider audience. It makes sense to integrate that into one narrative.”

A photo of a large long black stone with a pointed edge
Reputed to come from Stonehenge, this extremely rare jadeite stone dates from 3000-4000 BC© Salisbury Museum
The Heritage Lottery Fund provided £1.8 million in backing, supporting the efforts of Green and his team to raise match-funding for a medieval building in a region renowned for its archaeology.

“What we’re blessed with here are some fantastic archaeological sites on our doorstep, of national importance,” he says, having formed a good relationship with organisers at Stonehenge, who provided funding towards showcasing important artefacts relating to the country’s most visited stones.

“We’re able now to display them in a way which respects their importance in high quality display cases. It’s a national quality exhibition in a local museum.

“Hoards of bronze from south-west Wiltshire have turned up over the past couple of years, and we’ve had a huge amount of treasure as well. In the old galleries we just did not have the security to put them on display.”

The Downton Mosaic, originally positioned on a wall, now lies horizontally on the floor halfway through the gallery.

A photo of a circular golden artefact with a dark blue gem in its centre and a black backdrop
Alfred, King of Wessex commissioned the Warminster Jewel, an Anglo-Saxon jewel found in a field near Cley Hill, Warminster in 1997© Salisbury Museum
“I think people are quite taken by that – it’s quite a dramatic change,” says Green, reflecting on a “huge amount” of positive feedback at a private view on Thursday.

“Sometimes at these things you get people you’re asked to talk to, but I didn’t have any chance to do that. I just had a succession of people coming up and saying how great they thought the gallery is. That was wonderful.

“I think people are attracted to the iconic, stand-out objects which really got lost in the old displays.

“There’s the Warminster Jewel, which someone said to me is as good as the jewel on display at the Ashmolean.

“There’s this jadeite axehead we’ve got from Stonehenge which, in its own display case, really stands out, and the Wardour Hoard.

“I think the challenge for us now, having done a new gallery, is to do the rest of the museum.

“It brings that into sharp focus. People have been looking at TripAdvisor and making comments about some of those old displays.

“We’ve got to jump on that and say to people, ‘actually, this is just the start of the rejuvenation of the whole museum.’”

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