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The Early Middle Ages: Christians, Castles and Charlemagne?

Knights, Christians, miniature art, poverty, ‘Dark Ages’, 500-1000AD, monks and monasteries, princesses, Charlemagne, beautiful dresses, inequality, some time after Rome..

.. can you find the common denominator of all these concepts? According to the people of Amsterdam it’s the Early Middle Ages. As part of the development of the CROSSROADS exhibition, opening in Amsterdam in September, we carried out some informal, qualitative, visitor research and asked people about their associations with the Early Middle Ages.

This type of visitor research is called front-end evaluation. Often, we think that visitor research takes place after an exhibit opens – the visitors are then asked (in interviews or through questionnaires) about their experiences in the exhibition. However, an important part of visitor research also takes place before the exhibition opens, while it is being developed. The main goal of this front-end evaluation is to understand more about visitors’ preconceptions regarding the topic of the exhibition. This information will help exhibition makers to think about how they will present the story. What do visitors already know about the topic? What are their assumptions and feelings about it? Knowing these things will allow the museum to find an appropriate approach to the topic, which will draw visitors in based on their pre-existing ideas, and through these address the museum’s core message.

In the case of the CROSSROADS exhibit it was important for us to know more about people’s ideas regarding the Early Middle Ages. This kind of research is actually quite easy because it doesn’t have to be quite as rigorously formal as some large quantitative studies. On a sunny day in February we went out to the street across from the Allard Pierson Museum, the Kalverstraat, one of the largest shopping streets in Amsterdam. Here, we briefly asked approximately 50 people about their ideas regarding the Early Middle Ages.

The responses were very informative and helpful. It was quite interesting to note that, even though we specifically asked about the Early Middle Ages, people quite often discussed concepts that could be linked to a slightly stereotypical image of the Middle Ages in general. Words such as castles, knights, horses, kings and queens, and swords came up quite a lot. Also religion was prominent: monks, monasteries, Bibles, the power of the church, the Inquisition, and even – burning witches. This is important for us to know, because it shows us that these themes will be familiar to most of our visitors, and even though they might not always be related to our specific time-frame, it would be worthwhile to mention them as a way to draw visitors’ attention.

As was expected, many people also seemed to have a quite negative image of this time period. Participants mentioned concepts such as darkness, difficult times, poverty, inequality, general misery, obscurity. It was remarkable that quite some people associated the Early Middle Ages with mud. One woman even described the period as one of “miserable people in the mud”. For us, these associations are extremely important – they teach us that we must work very hard to create a different, more nuanced, image of these Early Middle Ages, because, apparently, these negative associations are fairly deeply ingrained.

Luckily, the participants also mentioned positive elements – many people associate the time-period with cultural expressions such as beautiful clothing, interesting music, Bible miniatures and delicate writing. This shows that the core message of our exhibit – which will highlight much of the cultural wealth of this time period – will not be completely foreign to most visitors.

We are very excited about the results of this small visitor study. They will help us immensely in developing our exhibition because they will continuously make us aware of our visitors, and help us to frame the exhibit in such a way that will be most beneficial to them. Or.. to you! What are your thoughts and associations regarding the Early Middle Ages?