Gary Bankhead and the River Wear Assemblage at the Museum of Archaeology

A post by Gemma Lewis, Curator (Museum of Archaeology and Biosciences)

Since 2008, Gary Bankhead has been diving under Elvet Bridge in Durham City, bringing to the surface over 13,500 objects. The objects date from the 12th century to the modern day, although the majority date to the 17th century. The objects range from dentures to pilgrim badges, and from a toy of Homer Simpson to Tudor buttons. The collection has been described as ‘a major research facility, probably the largest collection of late- and post-medieval finds in the North of England: a unique regional/national resource’. In 2010, Gary created the Dive into Durham project, to research, catalogue and display this important assemblage of objects. To date, Gary has uncovered 454 buttons, 36 pieces of ammunition, 329 buckles, 344 cloth seals, 512 (pre-decimal) coins, 149 trade tokens, 3,459 brass pins, and many more objects. The numbers are staggering, but it is not the quantity that it is important, it is the potential of these objects to change our understanding of the history of Durham.

Image of a selection of the River Wear Assemblage

In 2014, the first temporary exhibition based on the then 3,500 objects Gary had found opened at Palace Green Library. The exhibition was curated by the MA Museum and Artefact students at Durham University and was the beginning of a number of exhibitions and projects by students working with Gary.

Poster for the 2014 Diving into Durham exhibition at Palace Green Library

Hundreds of the objects were also put on display in the Museum of Archaeology’s main gallery ‘Living on the Hills, 10,000 Years of Durham’ which ran until 2020. The gallery closed with Covid and has remained closed ever since, as the roof needs repairing. Gary has been one of the key stakeholders for the Museum of Archaeology since 2013 and has promoted and supported the museum throughout his time diving in the river. He has regularly promoted and advertised the museum through the hundreds of talks, lectures and engagement activities he has been involved in.  

Although the gallery was closed, we needed to keep a visual presence for the assemblage and in June 2021, the MA Museum and Artefact students from Durham University, working closely with Gary Bankhead, curated an online exhibition: ‘Hidden Stories from the River Wear – Exploring 1000 years of Durham History’.

Online exhibition: Hidden Stories from the River Wear

The exhibition, which is still available online, highlights some of the unique objects within the River Wear Assemblage and explores some of the stories that have been discovered about those objects. The exhibition was a huge achievement, considering almost the entire exhibition was curated online and through various lockdowns and restrictions.

Some of the objects have also been researched by Master Students within the Department of Archaeology, through the Artefact Studies module. Those students spend an entire academic year studying and analysing two objects (usually one is from the River Wear Assemblage). This research will enable them to gain understanding of the theory, practice and status of artefact studies, from both an archaeological and an inter-disciplinary perspective, but also means research is very active around the River Wear Assemblage. 

In November 2022, we had an opportunity to create a temporary exhibition within Palace Green Library. Since 2020, the History of the Book gallery had been closed. In 2022 and with the lifting of further COVID restrictions relating to air flow, the gallery became available for a short period before it was to be developed into the home of a new gallery dedicated to the Archive and Special Collections at Palace Green Library.

The idea for a Gary Bankhead exhibition was discussed late in 2022 at the University Library and Collections (ULC) programming panel. The panel reviews all exhibitions, events and other engagement and activity proposals that are received or generated within the ULC team (which includes the Museum of Archaeology) or from the wider community. Support for the exhibition was universal. We could use the gallery as soon as we were able to create the exhibition for a period up until the end of April 2023. This time, however, we really wanted Gary to be involved in curating the exhibition. He has always supported the students in their exhibitions and really never put his own stamp on their exhibitions – this time he would co-curate.

For reference, lead in times for exhibitions are ideally at least 12 months or more. Time was very short this time. I made the decision to base the exhibition on the online exhibition that had been curated by the students in 2021. During the pandemic, the students worked with new online technology, to create the Hidden Stories exhibition. What they curated was a really interesting and personal exhibition, but for some of the students it wasn’t the same as seeing and creating a real physical exhibition. I had said that if I ever got the opportunity, I would turn their online exhibition into something real and tangible – the proposed Gary Bankhead exhibition gave me the chance to do this.

I talked with Gary, and we knew we had to keep everything simple. Both of us were doing the exhibition on top of everything else at an already busy time. We met several times and went through the student exhibition – and in particular the themes. While we kept the ‘pilgrimage’ and ‘toys’ themes, we decided to create a ‘daily life’ case rather than the existing ‘weird and wonderful’ and ‘romance’ themes. We also added in a ‘trade and industry’ case, while we kept the ‘people’ section of the online exhibition, as they really brought to life the link between the objects and people.  

We talked about who the exhibition would be aimed at. We needed to create an exhibition that was accessible for general visitors to Durham but would also appeal to the thousands of people who Gary has given talks to, and are interested in the project. It also had to appeal to families, as the exhibition would still be open during the Easter holidays.

A basic gallery layout was made, which also needed to be adaptable just in case the gallery had to be used for academic teaching. Design had to be simple as other staff were already committed to other projects, which meant it was just me doing the design. Gary however, over the years has taught himself archaeological illustration. The illustrations, which while mainly made for research and publication use, are beautiful, and these became the basis of the design for the text panels. They would also help in the interpretation of the objects, as many of them are so small, as well as helping to highlight some of the key objects.

Above, an archaeological illustration by Gary, and below, the images created by the students.

The students in 2021 had also done their own illustrations of some of the toys, so we were able to include these as well. They had also created mascots and illustrations of Gary that we were able to use.

I also persuaded my husband (who also does archaeological illustrations), that what he really wanted to do one weekend was create a Lego visual of Durham that could be used on the floor to show where Gary had found the objects. It would have the added bonus that it could be used by younger visitors to play and build on.

Lego version of Durham

We were pretty much ready with the visuals. We then set about selecting objects. The collection is so rich and varied that this was a very difficult task. Gary suggested and brought in the objects for us to borrow for the exhibition. We decided to demonstrate the richness of the collection, so that the daily life has over 100 objects and includes everything from dentures to poison bottles and from a Porsche badge to lion candlestick. With the objects selected we then wrote and edited the labels and began installing at the start of February. We opened on the 20th.

The coverage and interest in the exhibition has been high. Many of those who have followed and supported Gary over the years have visited. It also not only made local BBC News and the local press, but the same piece then appeared on the national BBC News. It is an exhibition with strong Durham links, and it tells not the history of the Bishops of Durham, or of those who ruled the area, but the history of the cloth makers who washed their wool in the river and the peddlers who once sold their wares on Elvet Bridge during a busy market day in Medieval Durham. It really is the social history of Durham.

The exhibition runs until the 23rd April.

On Saturday 8th April between 12pm-4pm at the Museum of Archaeology at Palace Green, we are also having a meet the diver day, so if you would like to talk to Gary about this remarkable collection, do feel free to drop in.

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