I recently left the Crannog Centre after two weeks of volunteering, and I came away with plenty to think about. One thing that struck me as I learned how to speak to tour groups about the finds in the museum and the Iron Age activities on-site was the emphasis placed on things. Not just in the sense of looking at artefacts behind glass, but on the handling, use, making and even breaking of replica artefacts so that the guides could illustrate their explanations to visitors.
Of course, it’s natural in any museum for there to be an emphasis on objects, but the frequent use at the Crannog Centre of replica items, many from recent archaeological experiments, means that the public can closely examine objects and consider them as in-use items rather than damaged relics. Just as teachers who try to help their pupils understand the past by using tea-stained paper to make amateurish reproductions of historical documents may accidentally foster the inaccurate idea that documents from the past were always old, so viewing archaeological remains in traditional museums sometimes obscures the fact that artefacts were once new. Since the replica items are made on-site visitors do not necessarily see something finished or perfect, a reminder that the past was not static but constantly in flux. When visitors to the technology tent leave behind the small clay finger pots they have made, these are fired around the fires on-site and those that break in the process can be seen lying in the firepits, a reminder of the fact that some archaeological finds were things that went wrong, not things that got broken in the centuries between the Iron Age and their being unearthed.
Using replica objects from experimental archaeology allows these experiments to continue as the replicas acquire, for example, wear marks. Visitors (including enthusiastic children) can handle replicas without fear of breaking them and replica objects may be more accessible to some visitors than written texts or spoken tours. The replicas have their own stories too, not just as copies of older items, but with their own meanings for the people at the Crannog Centre. As I learned to give museum tours, I watched different guides pick up handily-placed reproduction artefacts to illustrate their points. When I came to give tours, I made use of the replica butter dish, the bronze and irons tools and the swan-necked pin, all of which enable visitors to better understand how things once looked and felt in the hand in a way that can be hard to appreciate from looking at original artefacts that are missing (sometimes quite important) parts. The choice of replica artefacts also allows very different (although equally accurate and informative) tours to be delivered by guides drawing from the same collection, depending on which particular objects they decide to show, and I found this constant variety to be one of the most rewarding aspects of my time at the Centre.