New visitor centre for Stonehenge finally opens to the public

By Sarah Jackson | 18 December 2013

Stonehenge's new visitor and exhibition centre opens today as part of a £27 million redevelopment project

Visitor stands in front of a projection of a solstice at Stonehenge
A visitor stands against a projection of Stonehenge during a solstice in the new visitor and exhibition centre© Clare Kendall / English Heritage
Anyone who has visited Stonehenge in the past has probably felt a very strange disconnect between the importance of the site and the way it was presented.

Not only were the stones within sight (and hearing distance) of a main road, but they were accessed by means of an underground subway that had the charm of a multi-storey car park. Visitor facilities were at an absolute minimum; it was nothing short of embarrassing.

But all those bad memories are set to be swept away as the long-awaited new exhibition and visitor centre opens to the public. Designed to have minimal impact on the landscape, the new centre designed by Denton Corker Marshall is located 1.5 miles away from Stonehenge itself; visitors will be ferried to and from the stones by means of land train.

"Instead of just a stopover or a quick photo opportunity, we want our visitors to step back in time and into the shoes of those who created and used this extraordinary place," opines Dr Simon Thurley, the group's Chief Executive of English Heritage.

"To marvel at original everyday objects they used, to walk the surrounding landscape as they did, and to sit in the dwellings that they would have built. It makes the real encounter with the stones themselves so much more exciting."

The opening of the centre means that for the first time, visitors will have a proper introduction to one of the most important and iconic prehistoric monuments in the world.

More than 250 objects of international importance will be on display. But the highlights of the centre will undoubtedly be the reconstructed face of an Early Neolithic man and a virtual Stand in the Stones experience.

Since the 1970s, visitors have been kept at a distance from the stones in order to better preserve them. A 360-degree virtual experience will now allow visitors to stand among them before entering the main gallery.

Based on state-of-the-art laser scanned images of the stones, the three-minute film gives visitors the chance to see Stonehenge through time, experiencing the summer and winter solstices as they would have been thousands of years ago.

The rest of the exhibition is devoted to recreating what life was like for the Neolithic and Bronze Age people who built and used Stonehenge. Important objects, never before seen together, will reveal how the site was used and how understanding of it changed over the centuries.

Permanent exhibits are on loan from Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum, Wiltshire Museum in Devizes, and the Duckworth Laboratory, University of Cambridge, all within the Stonehenge site. Temporary loans have come from many sources including the British Museum, the British Library, Society of Antiquaries of London, and the Museum of the History of Science at Oxford University.

The former A344 has been closed and covered with newly sown grass so that the first view of Stonehenge comes as it slowly emerges from the horizon during the ten minute shuttle ride from the visitor centre.

Future work includes demolishing the former facilities and car park and the building of a group of Neolithic houses, complete with furniture and fittings. These dwellings will be built by volunteers and will form the highlight of an outdoor gallery due to open at Easter 2014.

"A huge amount of work has gone into getting this right," says Culture Secretary Maria Miller.

"Stonehenge is one of the UK's most iconic sites. So it's only right that, after decades of indecision, we can now offer them the visitor experience and exhibition centre they deserve."

However, not everyone is so thrilled with the new facilities. Self-proclaimed reincarnation of the legendary king, Arthur Pendragon has led protests about the use of real human remains in the exhibition displays, claiming that they are being displayed in “trophy cabinets” in the style of a “Victorian peep show”.

For the majority of visitors though - particularly those who remember the previous facilities - the new centre will provide a welcome improvement to the site, giving it the context it so richly deserves.

  • For visits from the February 1 2014, entrance to Stonehenge will be managed through timed tickets. Advance booking strongly recommended. Visit english-heritage.org.uk/stonehenge for details.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

A photo of an ancient circular golden compass
This simple theodolite, a precise instrument used for measuring angles, is similar to the apparatus used to survey Stonehenge during the early 18th century© The University of Oxford for its Museum of the History of Science 2013
A photo of children looking at a large cow jawbone inside a modern museum
An exhibition case in the new visitor centre features a cow jawbone© Clare Kendall / English Heritage
A photo of a modern outdoor visitor centre on woodland under a grand dusk sky
Newly sown grass is growing on the former route of the A344© James O Davies / English Heritage
A photo of a modern outdoor visitor centre surrounded by people under a dusk sky
The monument will also be reunited with the Avenue, its ancient processional way© James O Davies / English Heritage
A photo of a set of huge stones on wintry grassland under a dark blue dusk sky
A future outdoor gallery will feature three authentically reconstructed Neolithic houses© English Heritage
More on Stonehenge:

Stonehenge star exhibits: A silicon-enhanced Neolithic man, toolkits and cow jawbones

Druid protest to greet Stonehenge Visitor Centre in row over display of human remains
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Why does the land train have not enough room to turn without bashing up against the platform, so far two back panels have been damaged. Why have the roof above the platform perforated so that the rain pours all over the awaiting passengers, as it did on the 18th December?
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