Interrogating the display case: communicating prehistory within Museum Displays


  • Felicity McDowall Oxford University



Prehistory museum displays represent a vital medium through which the complex narratives of early human history are communicated to the public. These narratives, however, are not neutral and are subject to a variety of factors such as: institutional mission, curatorial preferences, funding and history of collections. This paper seeks to understand what narratives museums currently convey by providing an evaluation of contemporary prehistory displays in England. The evaluation operates at both a macro and micro-scale to facilitate the interpretation of broad trends influencing the presentation of prehistory, as well as capturing ‘fine-grain’ detail about how these displays influence visitor engagements.

This paper is based upon a combined visual analysis of 173 prehistory displays across England and visitor-based evaluation of 300 visitors at 6 different museums: The British Museum, The Stonehenge Visitor Centre, North Lincolnshire Museum, Torquay Museum, Weston Park Museum and the Great North Museum. The combined visual and visitor-based evaluation reveals representational disparities between how early prehistoric periods are communicated compared to later prehistoric periods, and the effectiveness of interactive and audio-visuals interpretation for engaging visitors with narratives about their earliest past. How these trends relate more widely to prehistory museum displays in Europe is reflected upon in the discussion and the paper concludes with some evidence-based recommendations for effectively communicating prehistory within museum displays.




How to Cite

McDowall, F. (2023). Interrogating the display case: communicating prehistory within Museum Displays. Journal of Mediterranean Earth Sciences, 15.