Sunday, July 11, 2010

Day Trip 1, Part 1: Stonehenge

Just as I was having a Neverwhere moment, Friday and Saturday USM students were given the chance to get out of the city on two day trips to the country.

Friday was Stonehenge and Bath. The drive west was amazing--we got a peek of West London, first (I know where I'm shopping on break), but the really amazing part was after we got past the grubby outer fringe of the city and into the country.

Heathrow in the middle of fields was an odd sight. I finally got how the airport in How I live now could be taken over by ivy.

Pass Heathrow, and the country was gorgeous--big, deep hills neatly divided into fields, some traced with deep green curlicues of irrigation, others contented horses and cows grazing, all occasionally obscured by grassy banks sprinkled with wildflowers and by thickets of trees.

As we got closer to Stonehenge, the fields (still spread across hills and valleys) started to come decorated with knobs of high ground left to grow trees. Our guide explained that the knobs were barrows--ancient burial mounds--and the farmers presumably left the trees rather than attempt to farm over a hill on a hill.

With such an introduction, I was thinking Stonehenge would be the high point, the crescendo of the orchestra, but it was rather less. I attribute this to its presentation. Based on my background as an anthropology major and avid museum-goer, I wrote an extensive rant in my commonplace book on how the monument's presentation could have been altered to enhance visitors' appreciation of the site. So as not to bore you all senseless, here are the main items:

1. Move the parking lot and visitor's center further away. Making allowances for accessibility, visitors should climb up to Stonehenge and feel its significance and the vastness of the landscape the same way as people did before the arrival of asphalt and cars, and have the privilege of *not* looking down on a car park and concessions.

2. This site had some sort of ceremonial usage. There is even a causeway, suggesting ritual processions. Rituals can take all sorts of forms, but the only vibe I got was free-day-at-Disneyland, and I just don't think that was the idea. Strictly limiting the number of people that can be on the site at once would be a huge improvement

3. High noon is an underwhelming time of day to look at a monument designed to mark sunrises and sunsets. Send those very small groups of people up early in the morning and in the late afternoon, when there are at least some shadows.

4. The little audio wands that visitors could carry to get a little narrative as they circled Stonehenge are a good idea, but at my hypothetical Stonehenge, I would put an interpretation centre. If you didn't take a course in anthropology, you wouldn't draw the line between an agricultural surplus and freeing up labor to build monumental architecture. And without a focus in prehistoric Britain, I never would have put two and two together with the barrows, or known that the people that built Stonehenge also made sophisticated jewelry, if our tour guide hadn't mentioned it.
Taking as a baseline the family who just happened to stop by for the day and thinks the pictures of Mum and Dad as kids are ancient history, here are some things that a good interpretation centre would include:
--A timeline to illustrate how long ago Stonehenge was built, and another display à la the British Museum to show what else was going on at the time, for context.
--A display illustrating how these people got their food, what they ate, what their sociopolitical structure was like, what their clothes and houses looked like if possible, original or reconstructed tools and jewelry, and what went into a barrow.
--A breakdown of the phases of construction of Stonehenge, complete with models of the site at each phase and a relief map showing where the stone came from, plus a sign discussing how the site would have been constructed and how it started falling apart. This would be a good place to put interactive stations for kids (press the buttons to see sunrise and sunset positions on the solstices, play with antler digging tools in a sandbox, try to drag the rock on the sledge, etc).
--My inner anthropologist would like a section with details of excavations at the site (what was found, how it enhanced our knowledge of the site), but that might be a bit much for our fictional family.

By the time my scribbled rant was completed, we were on to Bath, and more sights--to be detailed in their own post.