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VM inspiration: Sutton Hoo

Sutton Hoo, the site of 6th and 7th century Anglo-Saxon burial mounds discovered and excavated in the late 1930s, and now managed by The National Trust, is a masterpiece in display that visual merchandisers may find interesting. The only real thing to be seen at Sutton Hoo is a burial mound which is not yet excavated. Almost everything else is a copy of something that was found on the site, but is now stored safely in the British Museum. In this respect, it is rather like a store window or a theatrical set writ large with the addition of a dash of heritage.

The replica ceremonial helmet does look fantastic on the deerskin. It is both strange and alien, because we don’t see finely-worked Anglo-Saxon cultural items every day, but also because it has the recognizably human reference of the skull. The skull fascinates us all both as an object and a representation of a human being - witness Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The decision to mount it against a deerskin gives it a slight wildness that adds to its power.

The replica horse’s bridle straps and snaffle bit with its golden bosses does make clear how the harness worked, but it does appear a touch Hermes-like. Perhaps it’s the whiteness of the horse, and the bright cerise/red background, which suggests this? From the bone measurements found, we know that the horse was probably a pony, and I wondered if it might look rather more warrior-like if a thicker-set, fibreglass pony’s head was used instead of a fine, racing thoroughbred’s one.

However, I totally love the way the head shows the way the bridle was assembled, showing us exactly how it was used, as well as being shown in conventional museum-style as parts under a glass case. In VM terms, glass cases are great for inspecting fine workmanship in detail, wonderful for fine jewellery and small accessories, but I’m not certain they really work for old pieces of leather. That said, the leather parts of the bridle seem to be the only genuine artifacts in the exhibition.

Fascinatingly, the process of making the blade of the swords used at the time, is shown as a series of steps. It is so impressive to see how, without the super-heated furnaces we use to make strengthened metals today, Iron-age residents in the quiet Suffolk countryside could create highly-skilled work. The processes are shown as a board with numbered images, rather as we might follow a recipe in a cookbook today. As humans, we love to follow visual instructions - a trick VM practitioners have used successfully with ‘how to tie a tie‘-style visuals. Unfortunately, we are not so good at actually reading instructions.

Together with the replica burial boat and coffin, the artifacts are housed in a museum adjacent to the site. The interior of this bespoke building needs to be dark to create the atmosphere of the past, and to allow light to be focused on the contents, yet some natural light is required to link the space to its surroundings. This is achieved with narrow, angled, slit windows. Rather like castle-style archery slits, they are set on the north side of the building so that they do not allow direct sunlight in, but a constant light, in much the same way an artist’s studio is lit from the north. They are deliberately narrow: to make them larger, so that visitors could look outside, would disturb the continuity of the exhibition. At the base, the reveal is deliberately angled so as to maximize the light outside without increasing the window size. A nice idea for freestanding stores or those centrally placed in malls perhaps – as they would allow glimpses in to the store?