Whitby Abbey, English Heritage and Archaeology

Julie Ward *

Cite this as: Ward, J. 2002 Whitby Abbey, English Heritage and Archaeology, Internet Archaeology 12. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.12.16

This review aims to describe a variety of activities that have taken place at Whitby Abbey since 1999 and consider some of the issues raised from these various activities, in particular issues of community learning, widening audiences and social inclusion. The abbey is open to the public throughout the year, and the various programmes have been funded mainly by English Heritage, which cares for Whitby Abbey. English Heritage is responsible for the protection of the historic environment and with promoting public understanding and enjoyment of it. The outcomes at the end of the review represent some personal views following my involvement with various archaeological programmes, including the following at Whitby Abbey.

Archaeological Excavations

Since 1999 there has been a programme of archaeological excavations at Whitby Abbey and on the headland. These excavations were in advance of major developments on the site, including a new car park and entrance to the south of the abbey and a new visitor centre to the west of the abbey. The excavations included an Anglian cemetery to the south of the abbey, courtyards in front of the 17th-century Cholmley's House and rescue work on the cliff-top, following major cliff falls during the winter of 2001-2.

Education and Outreach Programmes

Included within the project design for each excavation was a substantial education and outreach programme. At each excavation it was important to include areas for visitors to view the excavations, with information panels and leaflets provided where appropriate. During the 2000 season there were panels on the boardwalk overlooking the excavation of the Anglian cemetery which included frequently asked questions together with the appropriate answers. The leaflets available outlined various aspects of archaeology and were entitled 'Archaeology without digging', 'Rubbish from the Past' and 'Southern Anglian Enclosure'. These leaflets provided visitors with further information that they could take home and read. There was more information available on a dedicated website. The education activities included work with school groups from Key Stage 1 (5 year olds) to post-16, special needs groups and further outreach work with the local communities.

The schools programme, at its largest in 2000, included work with over 1800 pupils undertaking structured activities running alongside the excavation. An Education and Outreach Officer and an assistant were employed for the 8 weeks of the education programme. These staff were archaeologists who were part of the site team and were able to keep up with developments on site. The activities included a planning session (using grave pits excavated in 1999), finds recording, skeleton recording from photographs and site introductions and tours. Two temporary classrooms were set up next to the fencing surrounding the excavation site, which enabled the education groups to be close to and feel part of the excavation but remain separate for health and safety reasons. The education groups worked outside, where possible, but the undercover areas enabled the activities to continue if the weather was wet. Most members of the excavation team were also involved in the education activities for 1 to 2 days over the 8-week period as part of the training aspect of the excavation programme, although when site work was behind schedule this extra input was not available. Although the education programme was set up to enable teachers or adults with the groups to conduct the various activities, in practice the teachers did not feel confident enough about many of the archaeological skills to take the lead, and input from the site staff was needed. A teacher-training session to introduce the site, the archaeology and the activities was undertaken prior to each education programme.

All visitors to the abbey, including education groups, were given warnings about the nature of the excavations and that grave pits were being excavated.

The education programme at the excavations was complemented by talks to local interest groups, archaeology groups and local residents, both at the site and at local community centres.

National Archaeology Days

The National Archaeology Day activities followed the outline of the schools activities, with families and members of the Young Archaeologists Club in mind.

@the Abbey

In 2000 an innovative project linking archaeology and art was developed in partnership between English Heritage and the Culture Company. This programme commissioned community artists Shaun Fagan and Amerjeat Kaur to work with schools from Bradford, Kirklees and Whitby. Groups from the Kirklees and Bradford schools worked with the community artists at Whitby Abbey, and in school used the form and design of elements of the abbey for inspiration, particularly developing window shapes for stained-glass windows incorporating knotwork and interlace designs. The schools from Whitby worked with the community artists at a mosque in Bradford and in school on complementary pieces of work, using the form and design elements of the mosque for inspiration. The artwork formed the major part of an exhibition at The Life Force Centre in Bradford.

The Visitor Centre

The new visitor centre, opened in 2002, strongly reflects the information from the excavations and the reinterpretation of the whole abbey site and headland, particularly in relation to the Anglo-Saxon period.

After the dissolution of Whitby Abbey in 1539, the Cholmley family acquired the abbey site and many of its lands. Sir Hugh Cholmley I and his wife, Elizabeth, moved into the gatehouse while the Abbot's Lodgings were remodelled during the early part of the 17th century. Their son, Sir Hugh Cholmley II, built a grand new house completed in 1672, in front of the Abbot's Lodgings in the latest style. The visitor centre has been built in the ruined shell of part of this 17th-century house next to Whitby Abbey. The architects, Stanton Williams, designed a new structure built behind the fine classical fašade of the house built by Sir Hugh Cholmley II. It was always intended that the front of the house should remain as an imposing entrance with the hard gardens or cobbled courts in front for visitors to use as an open space.

The ground floor of the visitor centre includes an introduction to some of the techniques that have produced more information about the abbey and the headland, including archaeology, documentary sources and surveying techniques.

The first floor of the visitor centre houses the main part of the displays, which develops the main period themes of the abbey and headland, including the Anglo-Saxon monastery, the medieval monastery, 17th century Cholmley's House and more recent history. Each of these periods includes artefacts, interactive touch screens and audio-visual film shows. Hands-on activities develop particular themes such as Anglo-Saxon and medieval manuscripts, food, clothing, and finding archaeological evidence.

The interactive touch-screens allow visitors to question or find out about various people from the past including Abbess Hild and Caedmon from the Anglo-Saxon period, Sir Hugh Cholmley I and Sir Hugh Cholmley II from the 17th century, as well as Frank Meadow Sutcliffe and Bram Stoker from more recent history. A fictional monk, Brother William, is used to introduce aspects of a medieval monk's day at Whitby Abbey. These touch screens use live actors with computer-generated backgrounds. The audio-visual films were developed with advice from experts and other sources to make computer-generated models of the Anglo-Saxon headland, the medieval church and the 17th century house.

This Anglo-Saxon theme is being further developed by teachers from Whitby through placements to develop materials to encourage all local schools to concentrate on Whitby when studying the Anglo-Saxons as part of their history curriculum. The current scheme of work from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority schemes of work, which many schools follow, concentrates on the excavations of a boat burial from Sutton Hoo.

All of these activities at Whitby Abbey have developed many aspects of education and, to some extent, outreach work. My involvement in the development of these activities has made me question what form the education work associated with archaeological activities should take and where the resources available should be concentrated. The main issue is, as always, funding but it should be possible to undertake some education or learning activities with relatively limited funding.

Although the education programmes undertaken at Whitby Abbey have been very well received, the activities - particularly the @the abbey project - also generated publicity for the work being undertaken. One concern is how these activities can become sustainable, or are the main activities that receive funding those that are new, innovative but ultimately unsustainable without huge funds? Most activities associated with archaeological excavations are of relatively short duration, because of the time-scale of the excavations, but the longer-term nature of the activities, or at least the information produced, must be considered.

All excavations that are accessible to the public must have an education or information programme to tell the public, and particularly the local community, what is going on. The public are necessarily the ultimate funders of most archaeological excavations and archaeologists have an obligation to inform the public about what they are doing and why. The education or learning programme should primarily be about information to the public, and this includes more formal education groups, including schools.

The information available needs to be in different formats to suit the differing needs and learning styles of the potential learners. It is preferable that people can engage with the archaeology through talks by archaeologists, handling finds (if appropriate and, ultimately, archaeological activities - perhaps as part of National Archaeology Days or special open days). These archaeological activities can be expensive when staffing, undercover areas, toilets and equipment are included. There are also many other issues that need to be considered such as careful organisation, clear links to the learning needs of the groups, child protection legislation, health and safety, insurance and staff training.

The statement from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, The Historic Environment: A Force for Our Future, addresses some of these issues particularly in the section 'Including and Involving People'. Communities should be involved, particularly with a view to engaging them in the process of local planning and regeneration, of which archaeological investigations form a part. Statement 3.16 declares that the Government wants to ensure that policy-making in this area takes proper account of this wider perception. The historic environment should be seen as something which all sections of the community can identify with and take pride in, rather than something valued only by narrow specialist interests.


The outcomes below have enabled me to consider and clarify what aspects of education and outreach work should be engaged in during archaeological activities.

* Education Officer
English Heritage
Yorkshire Region
37 Tanner Row
Tel: +44 (0)1904 601901
Fax: +44 (0)1904 601999

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