Experimental archaeology in a museum – an exhibition review

«Savoir-faire – Mit Kopf und Hand, die experimentelle Archäologie erzählt»
Museum Schwab – 28.05.2011 -26.02.2012

A man with a long grey ponytail, dressed in yellowish leather clothes assembles a stone axe. A little later we see him stalk through the forest with a hafted stone axe in hand, looking for a victim. After a while he finds an average sized, living tree. Within a few minutes he has the tree down.
You wonder why he has to chop down a living, healthy tree. But that is not the main point here. This stereotypical scene of experimental archaeology is shown on a big screen in the entrance hall of the Museum Schwab in Biel/Bienne, Switzerland. This small archaeological museum shows a small selection of excellent finds from the rich archaeology of the region of the Lake of Biel.

Museum Schwab. Biel, Schweiz

Museum Schwab. Biel, Switzerland

The ground floor, however, is reserved for temporary exhibitions. Until Feb. 26th 2012 one can still visit the exhibition «Savoir-Faire», on experimental archaeology. So what does the exhibition show us? I believe the film scenes I described above are a little unfortunate. Throughout the exhibition one does not get to see many experimental archaeologists working, neither in photos not in film. To then start with such a stereotype, which also probably is not true for many exp. archaeologists, is a shame. Especially, as it seems that the rest of the exhibition and also the accompanying booklet tries to give us a very different impression. L. Marquis, the museum’s director, writes in the introduction of the exhibition booklet: “Experimental archaeology asks, using a practical method, about the function and production methods of archaeological finds, asks about the `how´.” (my trans.)

The first half of the exhibition is very hands-on. On a number of low tables examples of materials used to produce various archaeological artefact categories are presented: wooden throwing sticks and spears, pottery, bows and arrows, chipped stone artefacts and polished stone artefacts etc. Considering the location of the Museum within the Three-lake –region, it is not surprising many examples come from the archaeology of the lake side villages. The material samples can all be handled. Each category is accompanied by a leaflet in which the production of the artefact category is described and an example is given of how experimental archaeology has contributed to our understanding of them. Furthermore, examples of each of the artefact categories are presented in nearby a glass case. There is no definite order in which to view the small exhibition and that is fine, really. Especially, if there are many visitors it might be nice to be able to manoeuvre freely around the room. The design is very clean and easily `read´. The visitor is not bombarded with images and text and the designers worked with few colours.

A second room is largely taken up by two `tableaux vivant´. Two, further unspecified, reconstructed scenes show a late ice-age hunter-gatherer camp and the scene of a camp near a lake where a dugout is being made and some fishing and hunting material lies around (probably representing the Neolithic). The other side of the room is taken up by tables on which you can try your hand on drilling a whole in a polished stone axe or working wood. The walls are covered with reconstructions of archaeological artefacts: bows, arrows, spears, axes and the like.

savoir-faire, Musuem Schwab. Biel, Schweiz

overview of one of the rooms of the exhibition "savoir-faire", Musuem Schwab. Biel, Schweiz

The exhibition is obviously aimed at the general public. There is quite an elaborate program of activities, mainly aimed at school classes. That is good. Only the texts in the leaflets placed with the exhibits really explain what experimental archaeology is: that is has become a valid research branch within archaeology and that is aimed to answer specific research questions. Only reading these texts or joining a guided tour will clearly communicate these perhaps less clear themes. The one family (2 children aged 8-10) that visited the museum at the same time as us, did not look at the texts and also the father seemed not able or even interested in explaining the children what they were looking at. I fear that many other visitors will also not really learn what experimental archaeology aims to do and how it helps archaeologists interpret the past.

It should also be mentioned that the exhibition is accompanied by a very nicely produced `booklet´, published in the form of a newspaper. In it you will find a few short texts about the personal experience of doing exp. arch. by students of the Dept. of Pre- & Protohistory, University of Zürich. They were made as part of an undergraduate course on Museums and the transfer of knowledge. Further text are a. o. by S. de Beaune and M. Sommers. The whole is illustrated by diagrams showing the gestures of production of various archaeological production processes.

My colleague and I came away with the feeling of having seen an exhibition about prehistoric production techniques. Of course, understanding production techniques is one of the main aims of exp. arch. However, as S. de Beaune writes in the accompanying booklet: exp. arch. allows us to come closer to people’s gestures, the way they engaged with materials and evolved new techniques, and to prehistoric cognition. I believe the exhibition makers aimed to communicate this aspect of exp. arch. However, except for the texts in the booklet, the leaflets and in a small slide show, this is never really explicitly explained and that is a shame. An exhibition has the possibility and should go beyond the possibility of texts to explain and communicate such concepts to the general public, a public that does not always want to read.

However, if you have not yet: go an visit, it is worth a trip. Besides, there is a decent beershop near the station, selling a number of good local beers!

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