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I'm author of The Snipesville Chronicles. I'm also a published academic historian, but don't hold that against me.Oh, and I'm a Brit. I just happen to live in Georgia.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Judging a Museum By Its Website? Cressing Temple, Essex, UK

Cressing Temple sounds, on first hearing about it, like an historical site that wouldn't need a strong sales pitch: First estate in England purchased by the Knights Templar, the crusading warrior-monks in the 14th century. Home of the world's oldest barn. Site of a Romano-British settlement. Home of the original Templars' manor house (burnt down during the Peasant's Revolt) and an 18th century manor house (burned down) Location of an attractive Tudor garden. With associations that are classical, medieval, and modern, and a fairly attractive setting, this site would seem to have it all.
Which may, in fact, be the problem.
The website sort of sucked. Judge for yourself: http://www.cressingtemple.org.uk/CTaerial.htm It was hard to feel enthusiastic about visiting on a day with no historical events. But we got a warm welcome from the staff, and enjoyed a falconry display by the resident raptors, which was the day's special event. We opted for the free audio tour, handsets that were supplied with a laminated map (for loan) indicating which numbers on the handsets we should push at which parts of the site.
The audio tour was reasonably interesting for adults, but did not really work for eight-year-old Alec. Likewise, the information posters at various points were sufficiently engaging for grown-ups, but were difficult to translate into kid-friendly language.
The larger problem is that, despite extensive archaeological digs at the site, very little of it is visually interpreted. There's an exhibition in one of the barns, which has the advantage of several life-size mannequins depicting medieval building techniques and a Knight Templar. The museum also had a real chainmail shirt to try on...if you could lift it, which we couldn't (far more instructive that way!) However, much of the museum was heavy in text, and limited in hands-on activities.
Cressing Temple is used often for meetings, sales, weddings, etc, so that a number of areas, rather jarringly, featured modern seating, or were in the process of being set up for events. This included the world's oldest barn, which was a wonderful structure. In another anachronistic touch, other barns included nineteenth century blacksmiths and wheelwright shops, and a 1920s summer house, designed to match the barn's architecture but filled with agricultural tools. Anachronism is not a problem per se, but the interpretation of this fascinating and complex site was not similarly fascinating and complex, especially for kids. It had a cobbled-together feel, one that was only partly alleviated by the audio tour.
Funds are almost certainly an issue (Cressing Temple is owned by the county of Essex), so I certainly wouldn't prescribe expensive interpretive technology. But I do hope Cressing Temple is successful in recruiting volunteers (we never saw anyone after we left the gift shop), and that perhaps the means are found to update the informational displays, as well as to develop materials for kids that clearly show the multilayered history of the site. It would also be lovely to see a display of the archaological finds.
We will be back, but on an event day. A kids' archeological dig (held Mondays and Tuesdays this summer) looks very promising.

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