New Stonehenge Visitor Centre, Review and Some Thoughts

Apologies for the lack of pictures. I thought it was important to get this up quickly, and I need to replace a broken cable to get the pictures off my phone. Hopefully I can add the photos I took today in a day or two so check back soon.

Today I was lucky enough to visit the new Stonehenge visitor centre. Before I say anything else I should declare my interests- firstly I work part time for the Ancient Technology Centre, Cranborne, who are building the Neolithic buildings which, when finished, will form part of the new visitor centre. Secondly I am a Druid. There has been a great deal of debate (not always good natured ) among Druids about the new visitor centre, firstly about its design and planning, but more recently about the display of human remains. I’ll give my two-penneth about this issue a little later in this post.

Firstly some thoughts about the location and the building. The new visitor centre is a considerable distance from the stones. The stones can’t be seen from it, although it has some good views of the surrounding countryside. The building is interesting, a single roof covers two distinct ‘pods’, one of which, clad with timber, holds the ‘gallery’ (museum) and the other made of glass holds the cafe and shop. The space between the two makes a fairly wide atrium which holds the ticket booth, and to be honest is a bit of a wind tunnel in the winter, though it will be wonderful in the summer when the majority of visits are made.

The tickets now cost around £15 for adults, almost twice what it cost before. I think this reflects the improved facilities, but is a little overpriced. I’d have been happy to pay £10 to £12. Once the Neolithic buildings are finished it will feel better value perhaps as there will be more to see.

The roof is held up by many thin posts and the edge of the roof has small random holes in it, which combined give some sense of the dappled light of a woodland edge. The toilets are accessible from the outside of the building here.

The cafe is a reboot of the old hole in the wall and offers tea and pasties. I was pleasantly surprised by the reasonable price of the tea, which comes in a big cup and is good quality. I was also happy to hear that the cup and its plastic lid will be recycled. Pastie prices were what you’d expect, but you can eat and drink for a little over a fiver. No option for a proper meal, but I think the cafe ‘offer’ is designed to get people through as fast as possible.

The shop is large and has a very good selection of books, including some of the more thoughtful Pagan and Druid books and a lot of history and archaeology books. I know I’ll be going back for these. The new guidebook by Julian Richards is £4.99 and very good value, well written, informative and brilliantly illustrated. I wasn’t able to buy a copy of the exhibition guide as they were out of stock.

On the other side of the atrium is the museum entrance. They checked our tickets here so I imagine it is possible to go to the shop and cafe without paying the entrance fee. Walking into the entrance you come to a circular room whose walls are a continuous screen. A film is projected onto the walls which cycles through the phases of Stonehenge’s building, and then fast forwards to the present, all seen from the viewpoint of the centre of the stone circle. It isn’t a substitute for being in the stone circle itself, but it is atmospheric and interesting and gives a sense of the passing of the millenia.

Step out of the circular cinema and ahead is a group of interpretation boards with the grand name of The Meaning Totems. These have some quotes on them, and there are more diverse literary quotes on the wall too. There is also a film playing in this area on four screens, which has a potted history of the various interpretations antiquarians and archaeologists have made of Stonehenge over the last few centuries. The film includes a disappointingly brief reference to how some modern people think the site is important, annoyingly misusing the word ‘spiritualism’. This absence of the contemporary is a big gap in the permanent exhibition.

Other multi-media present include an extremely large video screen which shows a fairly long and detailed animation showing Stonehenge in its landscape context, a detailed timeline affixed to one of the walls, and screens built into the display cases showing the making of many of the replica objects as well as animations outlining the techniques archaeologists believe were used to move the stones. All this multimedia is extremely well done and very informative, and I’m sure will add a lot to visitor’s appreciation of the site.

A second room holds the temporary exhibition space. Each summer this will hold Julian Richard’s collection of Stonehenge ephemera, so at least for three months of the year there will be some reference to the Henge’s recent and often turbulent and contentious history (in my opinion this collection should be on permanent display here, possibly on the as yet empty rear wall). The other nine months of the year will see a rolling programme of different exhibitions related to the Stones, starting with an exhibition of historical books. Next year I’m told will be an exhibition relating to the wartime history of Salisbury plain.

Lastly we come to the contentious part of the museum, the display cases. These are each designed to answer a commonly asked question about Stonehenge- such as How was it built?, What was it for? What were the people of Stonehenge like? etc. There are many interesting artefacts here on loan from Devises and Salisbury museum, though if you like looking at old stuff I’d still recommend a visit to Devizes Museum over the Stonehenge Visitor Centre as Devizes has a fantastic collection, now displayed in recently refurbished exhibition space. These cabinets however are also the current home to three sets of human remains.

Now some background to the debate; for several years a Pagan pressure group called Honouring the Ancient Dead (HAD) have been campaigning to encourage reburial or failing that the sensitive display of human remains. HAD have consulted with both Pagans and museum professionals and drawn up a code of best practice for the display of human remains, which you can read here. Also more recently Mr Arthur Pendragon and his allies have been campaigning vigorously to have the cremated human remains found in one of Stonehenge’s Aubrey Holes reburied rather than displayed in the visitor centre, and indeed they were protesting outside the visitor centre today.

I personally am not opposed to the display and retention of human remains providing they are displayed sensitively. In fact I’d go so far as to say I am in favour of the display of human remains as I feel they can be a tangible link to the lives of our ancestors in a way nothing else can. All that said however the remains at Stonehenge are not displayed sensitively. They are in the same cases as antler picks and reconstructed arrows which seems to symbolically reduce them to the status of inanimate objects rather than what was once the remains of a thinking feeling human being. One person’s bones in particular are wired together and displayed upright fixed to a board in a way that made me viscerally uncomfortable. It is extremely saddening to me that English Heritage did not take a middle way with these remains and at least abide by HAD’s best practice guidelines. The current lack of sensitivity seems almost calculated to prolong the controversy and the protestations and plays into the hands of those most opposed to the display of human remains whilst making it difficult for those of us in favour of display to defend English Heritage.

Moving through the museum and out the door to the reverse of the building is the site where the 5 Neolithic buildings based on archaeology from Durrington Walls will be once they are finished in April.

Also outside the rear of the building is the pick up point for the land train that takes visitors to see the Stones. On the day I visited the land train (pulled by a land rover) was running at roughly 15 minute intervals. The carriage windows were sadly very fogged up so little could be seen of the landscape despite the sound of what I presume was a dehumidifier running. After a few minutes one arrives at the stones which I have to say are now in a greatly improved setting. It is still obviously a work in progress, as the old visitor centre and carpark is yet to be removed and the old road is in the process of being grassed over, yet two things made an enormous and profound difference.

Firstly and obviously the road, and accompanying fence, that thundered past the Hele Stone is gone. The sound of traffic is still present from the A303 a few hundred metres away, but even so the absence of traffic so close is wonderful.

Secondly because of the removal of the road it is possible now to walk all the way around the circle. You even have a choice of clockwise or anticlockwise direction (I recommend clockwise…). You really can see the Henge in a way that has not been possible in perhaps 30 years, since my childhood, when the A344 was still a fairly quiet road. You can also approach reasonably close though of course it isn’t possible to go inside the circle. If you want to do this, it is possible to book special access in advance.

The only fly in the ointment at the Henge end of things was the long wait for the land train to pick us up. Today the wind was blowing strongly and it was raining quite hard, pretty usual conditions for Salisbury Plain, yet there is no shelter of any kind or even a fence to break the wind while you wait. We stood in the rain for 10 minutes whilst the tourists around us began to shiver and shake in their thin clothes, unprepared as they were for an extended period outdoors in the British weather. My advice then is to wrap up very warm and bring waterproofs as an umbrella will probably not cut it in Salisbury Plain’s famous wind…

So to conclude the visitor centre is vastly improved. The exhibition succeeds in its aim of setting Stonehenge in its context and answering the most commonly raised questions whilst providing a more in depth experience for those who seek it. The shop is good and the cafe although basic is serviceable and not overpriced. The Neolithic buildings when finished will be very interesting and really enhance the visitor’s experience. The setting of the Stones themselves is enormously improved.

If the human remains were displayed more sensitively I would be completely happy.

  1. Gwion said:

    Thanks for this comprehensive review. Think I’ll wait until the weather improves to visit though! When are “your” Neolithic buildings due to appear there?

    • they should be finished by the end of April.

  2. Talisman said:

    Very interesting review of the new visitor center. It is a shame about the display of the bones, and I think English heritage have missed a trick by not putting replicas on display and re-burying the bones in a marked place. The cost of entry is a bit prohibitive for most people and I would question the cost of entry to value received. It will be interesting to see the Neolithic buildings in place in April, perhaps a visit would be better then.

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