National Trust brings Sutton Hoo alive with £4m revamp

Eighty years ago this summer, a beautifully situated if unusually lumpy field in Suffolk became, briefly, the site of an archaeological sensation.

An immense Anglo-Saxon ship burial had been uncovered, loaded with some of the most astonishing gold and jewelled artefacts ever found. But the looming outbreak of war in July and August 1939 meant that Sutton Hoo’s greatest treasures were hastily dug out of the ground and packed off to anonymous safety in a London tube station, later to become some of the most iconic exhibits of the British Museum.

The site of Sutton Hoo was given to the National Trust in 1998, presenting the conservation charity with a particular challenge. Justifiably famous around the world, Sutton Hoo was nonetheless best known for treasures which were no longer there. The wooden ship and the body it contained had long since vanished into the acid soil, the riches it once contained were 100 miles away in London. So what were visitors to the site actually coming to see?

A shield, believed to have belonged to King Raedwald of East Anglia, on display in the new exhibition.

A shield, believed to have belonged to King Raedwald of East Anglia, on display in the new exhibition. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA Media

“The word ‘underwhelming’ was used quite a lot,” admits the trust’s Mike Hopwood, with admirable frankness, of the experience of many visitors in the subsequent decades. “There was a sense that no matter how much you read that this was a really important place, when you stood at the site there wasn’t enough to give a connection: ‘OK, I have seen some lumps in the ground, but I don’t really understand why I should be so excited.’”

That is something the charity hopes to transform with the unveiling on Monday of a new visitor centre, exhibitions and “immersive experiences”, with the intention, says Hopwood, of “giving people the thrill and the connection that the people who work here every day feel”.

Visitors will see an enormous, full-size sculpture of the Anglo-Saxon ship – 27 metres(89ft) long and 4 metres (13ft) high at its ends like the imprint of the ship’s remains uncovered in 1939 – and dramatic new audiovisual displays, centred around reconstructions of the treasures and exhibits showing how they were made. They can also walk new paths around the site, revealing the mounds of the royal burial grounds in context. The Trust hopes the revamp will help connect visitors more viscerally to the stories behind the lumps in Sutton Hoo’s sandy earth.

Later this year, a 17-metre observation tower will open, offering a view over the landscape in which an entire royal dynasty is believed to have been laid to rest. In the words of Hopwood, who led the four-year transformation project, “we wanted to put in some wows, some pops”. The £4m project has been aided by a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

The planned observation tower that will open later this year.

The planned observation tower that will open later this year. Photograph: ©Nissen Richards Studios

It is a challenge faced by many museums and heritage sites, where the focus is increasingly moving from individual exhibits to overall visitor experiences. At “bucket-list” sites like Sutton Hoo in particular – 40% of whose visitors currently travel for more than two hours to see it – a few dusty exhibit cases and a fibreglass model of a figure clutching something shiny wouldn’t quite cut it.

“People’s expectations are changing all the time,” says Ian Barnes, head of archaeology for the National Trust. “What wowed people [in the past], now in the age of CGI films and computer games, people would look at and it wouldn’t impress them at all.”

Capturing the interest of visitors need not be particularly technologically inventive – the stars of Sutton Hoo’s exhibition hall remain the reconstructions of the great ship burial treasures, along with artefacts excavated from some of the site’s other rich graves. But visitors do have to be engaged with a narrative, according to Hopwood. “We’ve got to work harder to give people a really emotional connection to the stories.”

At Sutton Hoo, that includes telling the remarkable stories not only of Raedwald, the seventh-century king who is most widely believed to have been buried with the treasure, but of the discovery of his grave, when Edith Pretty, who owned the estate, decided in 1938 to engage a local amateur archaeologist to investigate the mounds in her field. Her former home, which overlooks the burial site, has been transformed by the Trust into an interactive space which juxtaposes the dramatic moments in the ship burial’s discovery with the ominous global events that made its safe excavation so urgent.

One of the burial mounds and Tranmer House, the home of Edith Pretty who instigated the Sutton Hoo digs in 1939.

One of the burial mounds and Tranmer House, the home of Edith Pretty who instigated the Sutton Hoo digs in 1939. Photograph: Michael Brooks/Alamy

And while the royal burial grounds of Sutton Hoo remain, in essence, a series of bumps in a grassy field, Hopwood hopes that approaching them via a new route, likely the path taken by the ship when it was hauled uphill from the nearby River Deben, will fire the imagination in a new way.

“If people ask what I am doing here, I say: I’m putting the tingle in the hairs on the back of people’s necks when they come here as they stand before the site. It’s putting a story to what you are seeing.”

Tranmer House, Edith Pretty’s former home, and the Sutton Hoo Exhibition Hall open to visitors on Monday 5 August


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