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There are particular challenges and opportunities involved with public archaeology when the archaeology is under water or on the muddy foreshore. The very nature of such sites limits public access and visibility. Nevertheless, and perhaps because of this, there is an inherent public fascination with underwater heritage, from shipwrecks and crashed aircraft, to submerged historic and pre-historic settlements. For more than 20 years, the Maritime Archaeology Trust, based in Southampton, UK has been overcoming the challenges and realising the opportunities, to bring maritime heritage into the public’s consciousness.
The most recent addition to our toolbox for this work, is a purpose-built maritime archaeology outreach vehicle. For the past three years we have had the benefit of this unique tool to help us reach remote audiences. To our knowledge, this is the only such vehicle in existence. It has been possible due to generous support from the UK’s Heritage Lottery Fund under a project called ‘Engaging New Audiences’ but does being mobile, necessarily mean you’ll reach more people and more diverse audiences?
Many years of delivering public talks, internal and external school workshops, public events and outreach activities from the back of cars helped identify the need for a mobile outreach unit. On the road the vehicle is an eye-catching Luton-style lorry. But within 30 minutes of arrival, it transforms into an interactive discovery centre, with artefacts (real and replica), models, a digital microscope, HD DVDs, posters and audio. Of course the outreach staff are still the lynchpin to engaging and enthusing the public but this bespoke mobile resource makes the task much easier. We call it the Maritime Bus and visitors are invited on board to make the most of a strict ‘Look AND Touch’ policy.
Content for a typical public outreach event might include Palaeolithic hand axes and a mammoth tooth, parts of a Second World War crashed military aircraft, artefacts from a First World War shipwreck, assorted faunal remains, models and underwater video footage from wreck sites or prehistoric landscapes and examples of materials with different states of preservation. The public are often amazed to hear that all this material has come from underwater sites.
Associated hands-on activities include trying on SCUBA equipment, excavating with a miniature air-lift, exploring with a miniature Remotely Operated Vehicle or viewing super-magnified microscopic environmental evidence with 3D glasses.
The mobile nature of the Maritime Bus enables us to address potential barriers to access. Taking this exhibition come research laboratory into the heart of communities, overcomes not only travel and transportation issues but also anxieties about visiting more traditional heritage venues. As a recent visitor to the Bus said:
Stepping into this van is like stepping into a museum. I didn’t realise the Solent hides so much history beneath the waves. It’s quite unique to have this kind of information out here for the public and I think it is really cool that we get to see it and hear about it without going into a museum.
The entire content of the Bus can be very easily changed to suit a particular theme or to create a site-specific exhibit. By choosing an appropriate geographical ‘pitch’, it can therefore help highlight and explain the existence of nearby sites not otherwise visible to the public.
As well as public events, the Maritime Bus is popular with schools where pupils and teachers particularly value its ability to offer practical, hands-on sessions, creating a stimulating, unfamiliar venue without having to leave the school grounds. Schools and communities geographically located inland, value the Bus’s ability to bring the coast and underwater environment to their doorstep.
The reach of the Maritime Bus is not confined to UK’s shores. In 2009 the Maritime Archaeology Trust took the Maritime Bus on a mainland European Road trip. Working with partners in France and Belgium, the Bus visited schools and public events in France, Belgium and the Netherlands where it was well received by an international audience.
A mobile until like the Maritime Bus enables us to reach more people, not least because of the efficiencies achieved by having everything ready to go (no more loading and unloading cars). It also enables us to take resources to more remote places, where local access to cultural heritage is limited. The fact that it constitutes an exhibition and activity space all rolled into one, means we can reach more people at a time and offer them a variety of formats and media. This helps with engaging more diverse audiences. The Bus enables us to offer visitors a variety of media to choose from, including video, audio, models, books, posters, equipment, artefacts, games and computers. Everybody usually finds something that piques their interest and suits their abilities. Recent visits to schools for young people with Special Educational Needs have been particularly successful as the Bus provides a new aesthetically attractive and safe venue on the school site and both teachers and pupils have found the ‘Look AND Touch’ approach particularly beneficial. When the environment allows, we will have brightly coloured bean bag seats outside the front of the Bus with a variety of relevant books. The informal nature of this approach is very popular, particularly with young families, but also with teenage visitors who have been heard to say: “This is the first time I’ve read a book out for school for years!”.
So this is our experience with a mobile public outreach unit. We’re more than happy to share our experiences further, so if you have an interest in this area, please do get in touch. We’d be particularly interested to hear about any other experiences with mobile units. What other mobile outreach projects are out there? Do you have similar or contrary experiences?