I have been hanging out in the Moesgaard Archaeological Department Attic for the past 7 days – in part to attend and present at the fantastic “3D Knowledge Production in Archaeology” conference and in part to get to grips with where I will be spending a year of my PhD. I am utterly exhausted from all the incredible things I have managed to see and do in these last few days and will set aside some time to write about these elements in due course, but for now, I simply couldn’t put off writing up my thoughts about the fabulous Moesgaard Museum. So here, in this post, I will offer some reflections of the first half of my day spent at the museum (covering arrival and the temporary exhibit hall) – further posts will detail the afternoon and the remainder of the exhibits…
I have been super hyped to visit the museum since I first sent off my Aarhus / York joint PhD application and positively chomping at the proverbial bit to actually get my hands on the exhibits since Camilla Bjarnø presented “Let Your Fingers Do The Walking” at the YOHRS seminar series back in February. Thus I arrived at 10am this morning, notebook and camera poised, anticipation levels at an all time high.
The first thing that struck me about Moesgaard was the building itself – tucked away in a forest in the southern outskirts of Aarhus and approached from a winding forest track it is a monolithic structure of juxtaposing concrete, glass and grass, seamlessly rising out of the surrounding landscape.
Many of the museums that I have had the pleasure of visiting since arriving in the UK have been housed in grand or ornate structures, but Moesgaard is something quite different – the instant the structure filled my field of view I became aware, to paraphrase Linus from Fanboys, that this was was more than likely not going to be your ordinary, everyday, garden-variety museum.
The Temporary Exhibit: Terracotta Army
After acquiring my year pass (a fancy, sparkly swipey-card thing) I made my way through the lofty, glass walled foyer and into the highly atmospheric temporary exhibit space for the Terracotta Army. From the moment you walk through the door you are made aware that this is not an exhibit, it is an experience. The carefully selected colour palette of bright reds, stone greys, jade green and gold stand out against the otherwise matte black floors and walls. Oriental music floats through the dimly lit space as the case lighting dances across the objects in time to the beat, inviting you to become part of the exhibit, moving through the space in rhythm with the sights and sounds.
You begin your journey through a dark corridor, weaving between beaded screens, learning about the context and background for the era. You press forward through another screen into a darker area, soon coming face to face with a suit of stone armour. The devil is in the details here and as you peer further down the exhibit you can see the pattern of the armour replicated on the wall behind – tying areas of the exhibition together through aesthetic and underpinning themes.To the right a case of equestrian artefacts doubles as a window through to a later section of the exhibit, masterfully placed so that the artefacts juxtapose against one of the terracotta horses. Both of these visual cues act as portents – inviting you to imagine what is to come, where this narrative is headed, whilst ensuring you follow the story as it unfolds in the immediate area.
You proceed, taking in the sights of the model palace, proceeding up a ramp to two administrative terracottas and a replica entranceway. The doorway serves a dual purpose – sectioning off the artefacts held within and creating a visual equilibrium between the displays held on either side. As you enter the doorway you are confronted with a cabinet of curiosity set up – intimate and unusual objects are displayed against each other, weaving a narrative separate to, but simultaneously inextricable from the overarching exhibit.
Proceeding down a short stair case leads you into the second, and main act of the exhibit. The music is louder here, emanating from a huge screen which serves as a backdrop to the centre stage exhibit of four terracotta warriors, a terracotta horse and a downscaled carriage, which are set aloft on a runway strung between halberds bearing crimson banners. It was a huge change of pace from the preceding area and I found myself seriously shaken by the change of pace, forced to stop and drink in the changing sights and sounds, left breathless at the end of the runway gazing at the terracottas. I spent the next 30 minutes inching my way around the statues, gazing at their individual features, compelled by the story of their construction and internment.
Finally I tore myself away from this section, the dim lighting, slower paced music and return to black backing marking the transition to the third and final act of the temporary exhibit. To the left was an interactive space – a life-sized replica terracotta warrior backing onto a projected screen. I approached the player controls, selecting colours to personalise and paint my own warrior. As I selected the projector rendered the colours directly onto the life-sized statue, and once I had finished my creation was engulfed in flames before being rendered on the screen behind, joining the ranks of the thousands of other museum-goer creations.
I am usually a sceptic of interactive installations at museums – the majority seeming arbitrary (LITERALLY NO NEED FOR THIS BUT KIDS LOVE INTERACTION RIGHT?), forced in their pedagogic focus (GAMES ARE FUN, NOW HAVE SOME FORCED LEARNING OUTCOMES JANKILY OVERLAID ACROSS INCOMPATIBLE MECHANICS) or weirdly confined to child-only-participation (NO FUN FOR ADULTS). This was none of these things. It was simple to operate and accessible without being confined only to participation by children. The learning element was not overt or forced, but rather was intricately woven into the participation itself and seamlessly integrated into the surrounding displays.
The remainder of the exhibit is dedicated to elements of funerary practices, each section getting progressively darker until you reach the very back of the hall where a mural of the mysterious burial chamber is painted. The cumulation of the exhibit here is strangely cathartic – from the intrigue of the first act, through the excitement of the main stage in the second section, now pulled full circle and closed off.
The exhibit has many narratives running through it – war, diversity, unification, power, immortality and mortality- but in the end these are grouped under three strongly characterised performances, each setting the environment and tone for your engagement. I left the exhibit feeling like I had been on a journey – an adventure – and that whilst so many new insights and ideas had been formed during my time in this space I also had been afforded what so many of my other museum experiences had lacked – closure.
I will sign this post off here as it is now 2am and I require a modicum of sleep before tackling tomorrow, but before I go I will conclude with this: The temporary terracotta exhibit is masterful in it’s execution. The three-act structure builds and releases tension, creating engagement on different levels through the leverage of tone and intensity. The interactive elements and key pieces seamlessly work together, tying together the disparate narrative strands into an overarching story. It was not only a thoroughly interesting and informative exhibit but a deeply moving one as well.