A few months ago, I wrote a post about the Viking exhibition at the Yorkshire Museum here in York, in collaboration with the British Museum. It closed yesterday, but will shortly be moving on to the University of Nottingham Museum, The Atkinson, Southport, Aberdeen Art Gallery and Norwich Castle Museum over the course of the next year. Writing the post was made a great deal easier by the fact that I live locally and have a yearly pass for the museum, which allowed me to visit as many times as I wanted (I think I made about four or five visits in order to take enough notes for the blogpost). Of course, visiting a museum or gallery isn’t usually like that. Normally, you will only visit a temporary exhibition once, and even if you are looking at the permanent collections, you may be on holiday and only visiting. Very often, you will find that there is one particular exhibit that stays in your mind, perhaps changing the way you think about things, or making something you already knew about seem much more real. Like these …
When sixteen centuries aren’t that long …
A couple of years ago I went to the British Museum’s exhibition Egypt: Faith After the Pharaohs, on the subject of the different religions (the Roman, Christian, Jewish and Muslim faiths) that took root in Egypt after their own ancient religion. It was a particularly good exhibition, filled with fine statues and sacred art, but one thing that stood out for me was a very humble thing: a child’s sock. Brightly coloured, divided into two for use with sandals, and basically intact (it has a hole in it, but then, so do some of my socks), it is in absurdly good condition. How could such a little thing as this survive so well for so long? If I recall correctly, it was found under sand, and of course in a dry climate, which probably did a good deal to preserve it. Perhaps it is such little things that make the past seem closer to the present.
… but a century or two is a great age
Although sixteen centuries can be a short space of time, sometimes one or two can be incredibly long. This was brought home to me when I saw a book in the British Library’s exhibition on Shakespeare through the ages last year. It was included in the exhibition for the fact that it contains the earliest reference to Hamlet, but what caught my attention was that it contained a glossary to obscure words in the works of Chaucer. Chaucer died in 1400; Hamlet was first performed in 1600. That is the same length of time between Jane Austen and the present day, but we can read Pride and Prejudice barely encountering any unfamiliar words at all. In the late medieval/early modern period, the English language changed with a rapidity that hasn’t been seen for a few centuries.
Of course, hindsight doesn’t require centuries: a couple of decades will do. That was brought home to me by a truly alarming exhibit in another recent British Library exhibition, Maps and the 20th Century: a geographical map of Europe, given away free with the Financial Times as part of a reader competition at the start of the First World War. Draw in where you think the national boundaries will end up afterwards, and send it in, and the most accurate entry will win a fabulous prize! Considering what happened afterwards, it’s hard to understand that kind of optimism.
When it tells us who was here
A few months ago, there was a certain amount of hubbub on social media about some educational materials produced by the BBC, which depicted a black family living in Roman Britain; the historian Mary Beard stepped into this to note that the Roman Empire, including in Britannia, was indeed multi-ethnic. And I was reminded of one of the exhibits in the Yorkshire Museum right here in Eboracum, one of the major cities of Roman Britain. In 1901, a stone coffin was uncovered a few streets from the museum, containing the skeleton of a woman and what the museum label calls ‘an array of unusual and expensive objects’, including bracelets carved both from African ivory and Yorkshire jet. Judging from her facial structure and dental residue, she is believed to have been of mixed African ancestry and to have grown up in a hot, dry climate, before coming to York. While I’m thinking of Roman York, I’m also reminded of another noteworthy find: a bun of hair. Somehow, a lead coffin containing gypsum appears to have conspired with whatever hair products this woman was wearing in order to preserve her reddish-brown locks, complete with jet hairpins, into the present day.
When the notes are part of the exhibition
One must-see exhibit for students of Anglo-Saxon is the wing of the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery dedicated to the Staffordshire Hoard, an enormous find of swords, war equipment, jewellery and other precious metalwork uncovered in Staffordshire in 2009. There’s so much to see in such a small space that I would like to do a proper blogpost on it when I have a chance to go back. But one thing that stands out for me in this gallery is not part of the hoard, but the way in which it is presented, and what a great job they have done of explaining the work of the conservators – an understandable emphasis, considering the fact that the exhibits were only discovered recently, and many of them are probably still being worked on. Alongside the gold you can see a handwritten notebook, in which an archaeologist with better handwriting than mine has sketched out one of the exhibits and noted down important things about what it is and how it was found. It’s an important reminder that nothing that we see in museums would be there without having first been worked on and studied by many people – and how much more that there is left to find out about them.
Exit via gift shop
On a trip to Ireland in 2012, my friend Laura and I paid a visit to the then newly-opened Titanic Experience Museum in Belfast: she has been deeply interested in the story of the Titanic since childhood. I completely recommend the museum for the meticulous way in which it not only tells the stories of those who died, but also demonstrates the great talent of the local shipbuilders. But it must be said that my most abiding memory of the visit was of the gift shop. Laura took the opportunity to stock up on books and DVDs that she didn’t already own – no light undertaking, as she was living in the United States at the time.
‘I hope you don’t think I’m crazy to be buying as much as this,’ she remarked to the checkout assistant as she was scanning the stack of DVDs through the till machine.
The woman laughed. ‘Oh, that’s nothing. A lot of our American and Canadian visitors buy ever so much here. Really, this is just the tip of the iceberg.’
And then we realised what she had just said …