Tag Archives: Museum

Seven things I learnt from the British Library’s Magna Carta show

The British Library has a terrific, totally absorbing show about Magna Carta – which is the cornerstone of world democracy or a sort of baronial shopping list weirdly granted in a field by a King who didn’t mean it – depending on your perspective. It includes two original 1215 manuscripts and dozens of other beautiful documents. It’s not enormous but there is a lot of reading so the audio guide is worth the money. I’m not a historian – or even very bright – so I learnt a lot, like for instance:

1. Magna Carta’s actual connection to the present day is unbelievably tenuous. The whole thing was repealed a couple of months after it was agreed, the Pope (who was technically in charge at the time) rubbished the enterprise completely (which is what reluctant signatory King John wanted him to do all along) and hardly any of the charter’s provisions survive in law. That it has any influence at all should be a surprise. That it’s the central text of representative democracy and the rule of law all over the place is mind-blowing. This is how pieces of paper (parchment) become totems, people.

2. The first one isn’t the important one. Later ‘editions’ of Magna Carta, copied out by monarchs, bishops, lawyers, barons – each introducing their own variations, glosses, limitations, expansions – have been more important in the formation of law and practice. Henry III’s 1225 version is probably the most influential and the nearest to a definitive Magna Carta.

3. Magna Carta didn’t make it into print for nearly 300 years. The first printed edition was published in London in 1508 (Caxton got going in 1473) and the first English translation wasn’t printed until 1534. That’s when its influence exploded. Hardly anyone knew it existed before that – the constitution nerds and rule-of-law geeks of their day. Once it could be passed around, though, in compact printed form, its language began to be used in laws, cited in disputes with overbearing monarchs, quoted in the popular prints. So – you guessed this already – the long-term influence of Magna Carta is actually all about advances in content distribution technology.

Part of the 1689 Bill of Rights
4. The Bill of Rights of 1689 is a much more important document. It’s an actual act of Parliament to begin with, using recognisable legal language, and most of its provisions actually survive in law. It’s the Bill of Rights that we have to thank for the modern idea of ‘civil rights’. Many later documents owe a lot to the 1689 Bill of Rights – not least its American namesake (if you Google ‘Bill of Rights’ the English one doesn’t show up until page two) and the European Convention on Human Rights (PDF). I’m happy to learn that the resonant phrase “certain ancient rights and liberties” is from the Bill of Rights. It’s also, incidentally, unbelievably beautiful. Whoever wrote out the original document had the most exquisite roundhand. It makes Magna Carta look shabby.

5. The Cato Street conspiracy is one intense story. And it’s got the lot: a government spy, a honey trap, a ridiculous, hopelessly bodged plan straight out of a Tarantino movie and a brutal response from the state, including the last judicial beheading to take place in England. The conspirators set out not to assassinate a statesman; they set out to assassinate all of them – the whole cabinet anyway. Their beef was, er, vague, but hinged on the oppression triggered by the wave of European revolutions that preceded it. And Magna Carta was cited in the defence when the case came to trial.

Poster for Chartist meeting, Carlisle, 1839, from the National Archives
6. The Chartists knew how to design a poster. As I said, I’m no historian but the orthodoxy is that the Chartists achieved almost nothing. They were after the vote for working men but it was decades before suffrage was extended meaningfully (and did you know that it was 1918 before all men over 21 could vote?). Fear of dissent and revolution meant the Chartists were harried out of existence before they could produce any change. But, while they were active, they were great communicators and the first movement to make really smart use of mass protest, of what we’d now call ‘the street’. This poster, which is in the National Archives, is absolutely beautiful. A vernacular letterpress masterpiece. We should all aspire to such clarity (there are others, like this one, for a meeting at Merthyr Tydvil in 1848 and this one, for a meeting in Birmingham in the same year. All lovely).

7. 1935 was the 720th anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta so, unaccountably, a year before that, a great pageant was held at Runnymede, site of the signing.

Advertised as a celebration of English democracy, the pageant engaged some 5000 actors, 200 horses and 4 elephants, who over eight days performed eight historical scenes, the centrepiece being a recreation of the sealing of Magna Carta. (Apparently the elephants were withdrawn at the last minute.)

The pictures and this Pathé newsreel suggest a very English blend of eccentric and noble, camp and dignified. I’d love to have been there. This BL blog post suggests something rather splendid and rousing: ‘It’s a Knockout’ meets a BBC Four history doc.

You know, actual curation

Patrick Keiller's 'Robinson Institute' at Tate Britain

Everyone’s going on about curation these days. We’re all curators now. But yesterday I witnessed some of the old-fashioned variety, the kind they do in art galleries, and I was blown away.

I took two of my kids to Tate Britain (four different modes of transport: train, tube, boat and bus – I suspect that’s what they’ll remember about the day). First I dragged them round Patrick Keiller’s ‘Robinson Institute’ which, in truth, was my main reason for schlepping across London (like I said, four modes of transport…). I love Keiller’s films (although I haven’t seen Robinson in Ruins yet) and I was really excited to see what he’d come up with in an art gallery. It’s a stunning exhibit – works from the Tate’s collection are brought together with passages from Keiller’s films, books, film stills and artefacts of his own (over 120 works in all).

This is curation as storytelling as art. The connections Keiller makes are provocative, funny, illuminating. Nineteenth century romantic and picturesque imagery (landscapes, landowner portraits, animal pictures) interleaved with documents of resistance to enclosure, maps, signposts and other inscriptions made by humans on the landscape. Also those Keiller signature images of mysterious and desolate scientific and military establishments and quite a lot of post-war conceptual art. And the persistent Robinson cosmic entrainment stuff is here: meteors, geological patterns, lay lines and other psycho-geo tropes. It’s magically done. A situationist people’s history. A visual poem.

And the designers have done simple things to parenthesise the content – the works are offset from the gallery walls in a kind of linear zig-zag that gives the choice a kind of scrapbook-feel. The Tumblr/Pinterest generation will get this. It’s a cheeky, delirious intellectual walkabout.

Next (after the compulsory visit to the cafe for cake, obviously) we walked through to the Clore Gallery and caught what I learn was the second-to-last last day of another beautiful specimen of the curator’s art. David Blayney Brown is the man behind the wonderful ‘Romantics‘, a show that mashes up the work of the Clore’s anchor tenant, JMW Turner, with that of his contemporaries to tell the story of Romanticism in a way that was hugely and pleasurably engaging for an art history pygmy like myself (I notice that the broadsheet reviews for the show when it opened nearly two years ago were pretty snooty about the accessible format – I think this kind of curation with a personality will put critics’ noses out of joint – it seems to be straying onto their territory).

This is (was, sorry!) a highly-visible kind of curation – opinionated and full of information about the period and the context. Big, assertive statements about the context and the work are printed in huge type alongside pictures grouped together in ‘pods’. It’s a really vigorous narrative, full of energy and ideas. I came away with a sense of the flow of events and the interaction of personalities that I’d never have got from the mute curation of the old school. Gripping storytelling about art.

And the whole experience (not the cake, obviously, or the boat) was a quite bracing reminder that this curation business is really not about pointing, in a sort of dilatory way, at stuff we like the look of (I called it ‘the curatorial twitch’ in an earlier post), but about the hard graft of assembling artefacts, information, context and inspiration to tell really important stories (see the previous post about Radio 3’s awe-inspiring week of Schubert output for an example of how to do this on the radio).

Holiday diversions, part 1

Various lovely insignia at Hendon
The Royal Airforce Museum at Hendon is a top day out with the kids – especially now that, like all national museums and galleries – it’s free. It’s a pretty sobering experience too – war is not glorified here (although the ejector seat display is pretty exciting).

The most striking thing is how flimsy these aeroplanes are – not just the stiffened linen and bent wood of the early warplanes but the dodgy looking riveted aluminium and steel of the modern fighters. I’m sure the pilots and engineers know better but some of these crates bring to mind nothing more solid than the creaking plywood holiday caravans of my youth – only with nuclear missiles hanging under them.

Nothing invulnerable about these machines – and nothing trivial about getting in one and setting out over enemy territory…

Memory at the British Museum

The Great Court
Bloggers will love ‘The Museum of the Mind’, a new exhibition in The Great Court at the British Museum: odds and sods assembled to support a larger purpose – a sort of physical semantic web. The show is a clever window onto the museum’s vast collections focused on memory in all its aspects. Materials from just about every collection in the building are gathered together, in a well-organised single-room show.

There’s a gorgeous (and specially made) Mexican Day of the Dead shrine to the museum’s founder Sir Hans Sloane, an amazing twig-and-shell mnemonic device used by Pacific navigators, ancient Roman and Greek memorial statuary and a Ghanaian coffin carved in the shape of a Cadillac.

The paradoxical thing about clever, information-rich shows like this is that they can only undermine the case for retaining the huge Western hordes of looted artefacts. Once you wrap the object in its human context – making connections – its status actually declines. It may be a beautiful, haunting object but here it’s just part of the information mix – a plaster cast would work just as well. Retaining the originals just seems like more indefensible Imperial greed.

There’s also an instructive comparison to be made between the ancient artefacts, most of which were looted, and the more recent items, most of which were probably bought on the open market or commissioned from their makers: the expropriatory economics of empire vs. the consensual economics of trade.

The accompanying book, by the museum’s top ethnographer, John Mack, is also pretty good.