Crossrail – Portals to the Past – An exhibition of archaeology finds 2014

Crossrail is one of Europe’s largest civil infrastructure projects. Construction of the railway involves excavation at around 40 sites right across the historic city, a history that dates back to the last ice ages. The project provides an unprecedented opportunity to carefully record the historic buildings and archaeology of the capital. Lead Archaeologist for Crossrail, Jay Carver explains how an extensive archaeology programme, on this scale, across London, is bringing more and new evidence to light, enabling us to re-examine current thinking and often changing the way we think about the past.

The objective of objects

As a publically-funded project, a key objective is to communicate the project to our stakeholders and the public at large, in an immediate way. By offering a bespoke venue for creating specific exhibitions, the public have been able to engage with the team and the stories and objects revealed. These objects belong to everyone and a key objective was to provide a free, accessible and succinct engagement with the general public.

The latest exhibition was ‘Portals to the Past’, where the main target set was to achieve an audience of 3,000 visitors over the 16 days of the event. The target was based on audience numbers from previous events titled ‘Bison to Bedlam’ in 2012.

Press and media coverage was designed to increase traffic to our website and helpdesk and generally raise awareness about the project and its public benefits.

The venue choice was determined by the need to make the exhibitions easily accessible to all from the west end/central London. In terms of display content, we wanted to represent the diverse timescales of London’s history and include items that connected people to the individual lives of Londoners. We feel that all targets were met or exceeded.

The exhibition design, writing and planning was undertaken by our core team and the venue was a Crossrail location so particular costs for development and venue are excluded. However a number of costed items essential to the event can be identified and are set out below:

Total: £13,370

  • Cabinets: £1,180 2 No. Silver Aluminium Single Door, lit Display Cabinets, with Full Display Area (Cabinets and Showcases Ltd)
  • Additional Security £1,760 (Cofly for Crossrail)
  • Transport and installation costs £830 (Harrow Green)
  • Image licensing £300 (various)
  • Additional Venue charges £400 (St Giles in the Fields church)
  • Print 16no. 800x1600mm 5mm kappa mount display panels: £710 (
  • Artefact conservation, photography, transport and setting out and collection: :£7,600 (MOLA)
  • Provision of historic buildings information for display,: £590 (Oxford Archaeology)

Exhibition challenges – Content and design

With tens of thousands of artefacts found so far and minimal space available for display, it was apparent that there was a need to keep the exhibition focused, succinct and relevant to the general public. A particular challenge was to choose the top 50 artefacts that illustrated the wide timescale of the investigations and provided an insight into the private lives of past Londoners.

The exhibition theme and title was derived from the role of our construction works as windows into London’s past. It provided a framework within which to write a series of narratives for 16 exhibition panels, based on time periods and locations. The artefact displays were then connected to these specific stories so that the visitor could approach the exhibition both as a museum object experience and as a reading/viewing experience, independently or together. The exhibition was also designed to be digestible within a short timeframe of say 15-20 minutes and therefore effort was made to deliver messages about the past in a simple but informative way.

Human remains

Care had to be taken to assess the impact of displaying human remains. It was important to ensure that the remains were viewed with dignity and that the message surrounding their interpretation was educational and not sensationalist. In practical terms, we had to remain sensitive to displaying these remains and followed advice to ensure that the remains were not readily visible from the street and a notice was placed by the entrance to advise visitors that they were on display inside.


The project was conceived and delivered by Crossrail with contribution from a number of suppliers. While not strictly a collaborative project, as a large organisation, significant internal collaboration between teams was essential. The archaeology and marketing teams worked closely together to ensure that the design of the exhibition delivered the desired impact and level of public engagement.

Our suppliers largely came from an established supply chain previously set up for the project. They were selected for their ability to react quickly and deliver on time and on budget. Our two archaeology framework suppliers MOLA and Oxford Archaeology played a key role. In order to get the discovered objects, many of which were recently out of the ground, on display in time, special instructions were given to accelerate some of the conservation and object recording tasks to meet the deadlines.

Exhibition panels were written and designed in such a way that they can be used as a complete set, as individual topics displayed alone, or in combination with previous exhibition material. Panel sizes, branding and style have been kept consistent in order to do this.

We used standard audio visual methods, but with unique content including short films and interviews featuring the Crossrail people involved in the excavations and construction.

End game: our achievements

As a display of new discoveries, all the finds provide a new insight into London’s past. Perhaps the most important achievement is being able to offer this output to a widely diverse audience and bring them in contact with thousands of years of London history, all in one room.

Unlike the major city museums which may sometimes seem overwhelming to the average passer-by, the ‘pop up’ event gave a unique opportunity to drop in and choose to quickly scan, or take time over, a series of stories and objects related to specific parts of the city where people live and work.

Although, many visitors responded to media and website coverage about the event, many came because of word of mouth or as they were ‘passing by’. Our visitor book is overflowing with comments which demonstrate that visits were often made “on the way to somewhere else”, or “just happened to be passing”, or “heard about it from my sister”.

Observations (rather than a formal data collection) confirmed that the event reached a hugely diverse audience spanning age, gender, background and interests. There was a relaxed atmosphere within the exhibition space which allowed for photography or sketching so that people spent more time interrogating the individual objects and, rather than a dignified silence, the exhibition was punctuated with lively discussion and often debate. In addition, audio visual material was used on a large flat screen projector that reeled the various short films we have made about the archaeology project so far.

The event was accompanied by weekly Wednesday evening talks on various subjects drawn from the exhibition presented by one of our archaeology team. These provided first-hand accounts of the discoveries and interpretations of the objects on display and encouraged further exchange and learning through Q&A sessions.

Finally, the exhibition makes up part of a larger body of works that will culminate in a book and a final exhibition in 2016. The greatest achievement is the legacy this project leaves behind. Not only the growing interest as witnessed by the increased visitors to this exhibition and their positive feedback, but also the new knowledge to academic archaeology circles. In broader terms, we hope that the project demonstrates the value that can be added to future archaeology programmes from major infrastructure projects in the UK and internationally.


Koriech, H 2014 Review of “Portals to the Past” presented by Crossrail. Papers from the Institute of Archaeology, 24(1): 6, pp. 1-3, DOI: