Putting things to the test…

In the last two weeks we’ve finally had the chance to get out and about with some friends and test our digital pilot projects in the landscape. But could months of time, effort and research really prepare us the occasion?

The four pilot projects are currently sitting on a dedicated website http://buxtonmuseumapps.com. Most of them, with the exception of Dovedale, rely on a mobile internet signal to run the web-based application. However, the site can also be viewed from home on a PC or Tablet or anywhere else with a Wi-Fi connection.

We’re very interested to hear what people think, so whether or not you get out in the landscape or explore from your armchair, let us know!Arbor Low in the sunshine...it didn't last!

For me, one of the most interesting locations was Arbor Low & Gib Hill. This is for two reasons, firstly because I love the site, secondly because of the technical challenges it has thrown up!
On both the 7th and 8th March we bundled into a minibus and set-off to try The Mysterious Arbor Low web app. Strong, cold winds awaited us, but the rain held itself at bay as we explored the site and tried to access the digital content through our smartphones or tablets.

Participants explore the barrow built in the bank at Arbor Low

Participants explore the barrow built in the bank at Arbor Low

So what did we did discover?

Our participants were full of great of ideas about what they liked and what they didn’t. Once we’ve completed our evaluation process it looks like we’ll have a great resource with which to decide the next step for Collections in the Landscape.

However, here are three lessons I learnt very quickly over the weekend.
Don’t trust the weather forecast!

Go to Arbor Low they said…It’ll be sunny they said.

Friday had been bright but chilly. But as I drove through thick fog on the following Saturday morning it began to dawn on me that the promised ‘brightening up’ was unlikely to take place before our visit began! That said, the rain held off and the mist and fog do lend Arbor Low & Gib Hill a certain spooky charm.
In cold weather, people don’t like taking off their gloves!

As a general rule, the screens of tablets and smartphones don’t react well to gloved fingers. However, there was a certain reluctance to remove these accessories whilst standing on an exposed, windy ridge in the Peak District!
Mobile Data can be extremely variable

During out visit we experienced amazing variability in the accessibility of mobile data. Some participants had almost no problems at all whilst others (myself included) found themselves relying on pre-downloaded audios as a ‘plan b’. Interestingly, I’m on the same network as my colleague Jess, who had no difficulties whatsoever! This variability is certainly something to bear in mind as we plan ways to roll-out Collections in the Landscape.

As the mist fades away, the group advances to Gib Hill

As the mist fades away, the group advances to Gib Hill

We’ve already learnt a lot from the digital pilots, things that can only be gained from actually getting out there and braving the elements and technical difficulties! As we study the results of our evaluation we hope to take this learning further in order to tidying up the projects we have, and to plan more for the future.

As a final note, I’d also like to take the time to thank Museums Sheffield for their support and cooperation during the making of the Arbor Low & Gib Hill pilot and for letting us incorperate some their own amazing collections.

What Does the Derbyshire Landscape Mean to You?

Regular visitors to the museum or its digital incarnations may remember the launch of White Peak Dark Peak on Friday 13 December, blogged about by Ben shortly afterwards. He was kind enough to photograph me sampling the buffet!

The exhibition examines some of the places we’ll be exploring through Collections in the Landscape, using objects, paintings and photographs to contrast the ‘soft curves of the White Peak’ with the ‘gritty angles of the Dark Peak’.

Visitors to the exhibition are also asked a question – What does the Derbyshire landscape mean to you? We’re encouraging people to let us know through social media (#WPDP) but also in the gallery itself.

The whiteboard in White Peak Dark Peak has allowed visitors to express themselves.

The whiteboard in White Peak Dark Peak has allowed visitors to express themselves.

For this week’s post I’ve taken it upon myself to analyse some of the comments – exploring the moving, interesting, and often imaginative responses left behind by visitors. Already there are some strong themes emergingGet ready for the top 5 so far!

5. Flora & Fauna

No surprise in this strong entry. The living landscape of Derbyshire has clearly made an impression on those who visit it. Mammals, birds, insects and flowers all get a mention! A casual walk around Miller’s Dale in late Spring/Early Summer rewards the visitor with hundreds of pink Common Spotted Orchids.


Space, air, butterflys, orchids, hares...a fox...

Space, air, butterflys, orchids, hares…a fox…

4. History

I can safely say that the museum team are very relieved to see this feature in the top 5! The messages left convey the sense of special places, where time has stood still or that, despite changes, the past is all around us. Take a stroll up to Arbor Low to feel this deep connection to the landscape’s ancient past.

Where the past still lives

Where the past still lives

3. Weather

How very British, our visitors simply couldn’t help but comment on the weather. The rain and wind seem to feature quite a lot…I can’t imagine why. If you do catch yourself in the area in poor weather I can only recommend you visit us at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery as a perfect way to spend a wet afternoon.



2. The Physical Landscape

In at number 2 – the geology and geography of the region. From rolling hills and deep dales to dark moors and peat bogs, visitors have enjoyed describing the physical features of Derbyshire. The top of Mam Tor, near Castleton, is a great place to contrast the landscapes of the White Peak to the south and the Dark Peak to the north.

Long rambles through dales and over moors

Long rambles through dales and over moors

1. A Beautiful Place

Topping our list – it’s the sheer beauty of this unique landscape. Many, many different terms were used to describe the spectacular scenery of the region. I’ve often pulled over on my drive home along the A53, from Buxton to Leek, to admire the view across the hills and dales.

Unspoilt Untamed Incredible

Unspoilt Untamed Incredible

We’re continuing to photograph the board as it fills up to keep a record of the comments. We’re also starting to share some of these quotes with the world through our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

We've started to share our responses through social media.

We’ve started to share our responses through social media.

Please share your own thoughts about the Derbyshire landscape with us and we’ll endeavour to print some out and include them in the exhibition. Use #WPDP on Twitter posts. I’ll leave you with one of the most artistic contributions so far, but perhaps a little unfair on some of our neighbours though…

Some visitors have been quite creative

Some visitors have been quite creative…(not the opinion of the museum I hasten to add!)

A Visit to Arbor Low

A number of weeks ago, Ben and I braved the elements, jumped in the car, and made the 10 mile journey from Buxton to Arbor Low. The prehistoric monument is one of the sites we’d like to build a pilot project around for Collections in the Landscape. The Scheduled Ancient Monument is one of the most important monuments in the Peak District but also holds national significance. This is reflected in it’s popular nickname, ‘Stonehenge of the North’.Luckily the rain held off as we met our guide for the morning’s visit: Ken Smith, Cultural Heritage Manager for the Peak District National Park Authority. Ken explained the archaeology and history of the site as well as how the monument is managed for present and future generations.

Welcome to Arbor Low

Welcome to Arbor Low

Prehistoric Henge & Stone Circle

Arbor Low consists of a henge monument, enclosed by a bank and ditch, with a circle of stones inside. A round barrow was incorporated in the south-western bank during the Bronze Age. Another barrow, known as Gib Hill, lies 300m to the south-west.

There are still many gaps in our understanding regarding Arbor Low. This doesn’t harm the sense of mystery and wonder I always experience when I visit, but it does frustrate the archaeologist in me! The Arbor Low Environs Project has recently been set up to help broaden our understanding of the monument and is still on-going.

The monument we see today was created in several phases over more than 1000 years, from around 2500 to 1500 BC. According to English Heritage, it’s thought that the first feature on the site was a Neolithic barrow at Gib Hill, followed by the creation of the bank and ditch at Arbor Low. Later, in the Bronze Age, the stone circle was added inside of the henge monument and two barrows built; one over part of the bank and another built over the Neolithic barrow.

Plan of Arbor Low

Plan of Arbor Low

The stones at Arbor Low lie flat rather than upright as one might expect. This has caused some debate over the years about whether or not they were ever standing. Ken was definitely in the ‘they once stood’ camp and pointed out what look like the stumps of several stones long since broken and removed.

Regardless of whether or not the stones ever stood, I think a lot of blood, sweat and tears must have gone into the construction. Today the bank stands at over 2 metres high and is 75 to 79 metres in diameter. This demonstrates a huge investment in time and effort even before anyone dragged more than 40 slabs of quarried limestone into the centre of the monument! However, looking out at the view, and the prominent position of the site, it’s easy to see why the spot was chosen.

It’s very easy to get bogged down in the fascinating archaeology at Arbor Low, but we also had other business for being there. It gave us a sense of the landscape we’d be working in and we were able to explore both the benefits and potential issues that delivering digital projects at the site might bring forth. It’s easy to sit in an office and forget all the problems that the weather, rugged terrain, variable mobile signal and rogue sheep can bring!

 Access vs Conservation

Access to Arbor Low for you or me is thanks to a partnership between the Peak District National Park Authority, English Heritage and local landowners. This aims to create a sustainable future for the monument, balancing out the needs for conservation, visitor access and agricultural use of the land. Access is maintained through a £1 charge, payable at an honesty box at the farm. A bargain if I do say so!

My favourite bit of subtle visitor management was a thin line of gravel path that peters out as you cross the field towards Arbor Low. For many years visitors went through the gate and made a bee-line for the closest point of the henge, crossing over the bank and wearing a noticeable groove in the earthwork. Without any intrusive signage, the subtle gravel path sets today’s visitors unconsciously towards one of the monuments two entrances, ancient gaps in the bank and ditch.

Objects from the Past

Our collection includes many stone tools discovered in the region of Arbor Low, many discovered by local people as they walked the fields. There is little evidence to suggest where the communities that built Arbor Low may have lived, but finds such as arrowheads, scrapers, knifes and axe heads confirm their presence. Other tools, pottery and bones, found in other areas of the Peak District, also help put the world of ancient Derbyshire into context.

Some of our Arbor Low flints on display at the museum

Some of our Arbor Low flints on display at the museum

The collection also contains crawings, prints, lantern slides and photographs of Arbor Low. These help us understand how subsequent generations viewed the site. The monument attracted the attention of many local antiquarians including the likes of Thomas Bateman. 19th century excavations discovered human remains and grave goods in both barrows and further remains were discovered at the centre of the stone circle between 1901 and 1902.

We’d like to make our collections available to people as they stand amongst the stones and we’re still figuring out the best way to do this. I Dig Sheffield is a good example of a simple, effective method but at the moment the site doesn’t translate well to mobile devices. Keep tuned and we hope to announce exciting things for Arbor Low very soon…

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Photographs in the Landscape

One of the challenges we face with a project like Collections in the Landscape is to provide the public with high-quality images of the objects from Buxton Museum’s collection. Although I have grown accustomed to taking the occasional snap over the years, photographing hundreds of artefacts for people to view online is a daunting task. Luckily, we have hired the services of professional photographer Nick Lockett to get the ball rolling. The plan is for Nick to shoot key objects for the early stages of the project and for the team to absorb some of his expertise and continue his legacy. However, as you will be able to see over the next few months, Nick’s pictures are fantastic. If I can take shots half as well, I’ll be happy.

Nick in action

On Monday 5th, August, Nick came in to photograph a selection of objects from BMAG’s Wonders of the Peak gallery. The safety and security of the artefacts was paramount so we took time to remove and replace the objects. The Wonders of the Peak was built in the 1980s and the display cases have rarely been opened since. Myself and my Collections in the Landscape colleagues, Anna and Joe, were faced with a series of puzzles as we tried to find our way into the displays. For a moment, it was reminiscent of 90s game show The Crystal Maze. Amongst the selection were two Bronze Age skulls and we enlisted the handling skills of assistant manager and resident archaeologist Martha Lawrence to ferry them to the photographer’s temporary studio in gallery one.

Martha in action

The art gallery soon became animated with clicks and flashes from Nick’s busy camera. Nick and his brother, Steve, were great about letting me shadow them. I worried about getting in the way and asking too many annoying questions but the Lockett brothers were very accommodating. In between shots, Nick gave me some of his trade secrets on lighting and composition. He told me that the most important aspect of photographing museum objects is to make it clear to the viewer what exactly they are looking at. Photographing the top of a skull might look great, for instance, but will people be able to tell that it’s a skull?

Nick and Steve

For the time being, I am content with seeing what Nick can do with the museum’s collection. As far my own photographs are concerned, I think that setting up a similar studio environment would be beneficial, it’s all in the preparation. Although our equipment is not as good as Nick’s, getting the best out of what we have got is the key. BMAG has a large archive of photographs, most of which can be seen on website Picture the Past . Recently, I found this lantern slide linked to one of the pilot locations for Collections in the Landscape, Arbor Low. It is entitled “A group dressed as Druids” and dates from 1927; a curious scene as I’m sure you will agree.

A Group Dressed as Druids Arbor Low 1927

Getting an image from a piece of glass is not easy. In the end, I had to scan the negative but left the scanner’s lid up so the light would shine through it. If you ever try the same technique, take care to shield your eyes from the glare! Another challenge we face in coming weeks is to shoot a selection of paintings from the museum’s art collection and many of these are glazed. Again, I will be seeking tips from Nick. Watch this space to see how we get on.

Ben in action