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New exhibition focuses on Stonehenge through the years

It has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries and a tourist attraction probably since Roman times.

New exhibition focuses on Stonehenge through the years
The new Wish You Were Here exhibition at Stonehenge Visitor Centre 
will run until March 2016 [Credit: English Heritage]
But a new exhibition opening at Stonehenge on Friday tells the fascinating story of how the monument developed from a crumbling curiosity in Victorian times to one of the world’s most visited sites, drawing in more than 1 million people a year.

Over the past 15 years, the archeologist, broadcaster and writer, Julian Richards, has collected hundreds of books, souvenirs, postcards and pictures related to the prehistoric monument.

His “Stonehengiana” – as he terms it – ranges from lurid pink pottery adorned with a picture of the great circle to the earliest guidebooks with lovely black and white illustrations but some, frankly, odd conclusions about the history of the site.

The exhibition, called Wish You Were Here, also reveals how 20th century advertisers used the image of Stonehenge to sell everything from cars to beer and the fascination rock bands and comic writers have with the ancient stones.

“Anyone visiting Stonehenge today is part of a long tradition,” said Richards, a prolific writer on the monument. “I am fascinated by how Stonehenge has been experienced by visitors over the years and the way it has been used as an inspiration for art and music.”

But Richards, who has picked up many of the artefacts from eBay, has insisted on making sure the exhibition is fun. “There are plenty of things here that I hope will make people smile.”

New exhibition focuses on Stonehenge through the years
Archaeologist Julian Richards with a pop-up Stonehenge on show as part 
of the Stonehenge exhibition Wish You Were Here at the visitor centre 
[Credit: Sam Frost]
Among the guidebooks on display is the first one by Henry Browne, who was the first modern “keeper” of Stonehenge. Published in 1823, his book is billed on the title page as being: “The unprejudiced, authentic and highly interesting account which that stupendous and beautiful edifice Stonehenge in Wiltshire is found to give of itself.” Inside he describes how Stonehenge was one of the few structures in the UK that must have survived Noah’s flood.

By 1893 William Judd, another custodian of the site, was describing the monument as a “druidical erection” in his guidebook. Judd made a living taking photos of visitors, developing them in his caravan on the site and selling them to the tourists. His duties probably included chasing off those who came with hammers (which could apparently be hired locally) to chip away pieces of the stones as mementoes.

A less damaging souvenir trade was in full swing by the end of the 19th century. Tasteful ceramic plates were decorated with black-and-white prints of Stonehenge and Josiah Wedgwood produced lovely matchboxes.

Many Stonehenge visitors still swear they can remember when admission was free (English Heritage now charges £37.70 for a family ticket). But the exhibition proves they are mistaken.

From 1901 the Antrobus family, who owned the site, charged sixpence admission. The advent of the railway age and the concept of tourism for the masses led to a boom in cheaper – and sometimes tackier – souvenirs. One of the odder artefacts from the first part of the 20th century on display is a ceramic chicken adorned with a Stonehenge image.

New exhibition focuses on Stonehenge through the years
A collage of postcards on display at Stonehenge visitor centre
 as part of the exhibition [Credit: Sam Frost]
This was the age of the postcard. One wall of the exhibition is covered in them. Most visitors write about their sense of awe at the stones. But by no means everyone. “We have pottered out to see Stonehenge today – not as large as I expected,” was the conclusion of one postcard writer.

Still, the growing popularity of the site prompted advertisers to grab a piece of the action. An MG advert from the late 1930s shows one of their cars parked beside Stonehenge; a Guinness one dating from 1957 has a family enjoying a liquid lunch with the stones as their backdrop. “Stonehenge is a symbol in these images of solid Britishness,” said Richards.

But his favourite part of the exhibition is one documenting some of the more bizarre uses of Stonehenge’s recognisable image. American bands such as the Association and Queens of the Stone Age have used the image in their artwork. The spoof rock band Spinal Tap produced a Stonehenge-shaped vinyl record.

The Marvel character Thor can be spotted at Stonehenge in a story called Day of the Deadly Druid and both Scooby-Doo and Xena: Warrior Princess have also cavorted around cartoon versions of the monument.

Richards’s most beloved item might just be something even more curious – a set of stamps featuring Mickey Mouse and his friends posing in the stones issued by the South Asian country of Bhutan. “American cartoon characters at Stonehenge on stamps produced by a Himalayan country. That does seem odd, doesn’t it?”

Author: Steven Morris | Source: The Guardian [April 30, 2015]

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