Tag Archives: museums

A showcase of my new department (as of 2015)

Tomorrow there will be marking again, if I am to write here at all, it must be tonight… If that sounds a little hunted, I apologise, but the effect of my workload on my ability to blog sadly cannot be denied. At the end of last October I promised you about five posts; here is the first of them, in which I report on an afternoon spent in the bosom of my then-freshly new department, Leeds’s Institute for Medieval Studies, on a day when it was in some sense on display, and since it showed it up so well I thought it would be good to remark on it here, even after such a long time.

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds

The Parkinson Building, University of Leeds, home of the IMS. Photo by Tim Green from Bradford [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

There are in the IMS two long-running seminar series—most of the institutions within the IMS have a long and venerable pedigree by now—and one of these, Medieval Group, is slightly less formal than the other. Whereas the regular medieval history seminar is exactly what one would expect, the Medieval Group has members who are not part of the University and also does extra-curricular activities. Naturally enough that requires some publicity to get people to come, and on Saturday 24th October, 2015, there was therefore held the 22nd Annual Medieval Research Afternoon, and I was there and indeed part of the display.

The afternoon was broken into three parts, ‘Resources and Opportunities’, ‘Collaborations and Projects’, and ‘Research Presentations’. The first of these, maybe obviously, was intended to showcase the various medieval research things you can do in Leeds you can’t do elsewhere, and so we had short presentations from each of Elizabeth Linville, speaking on behalf of the Royal Armouries Museum, Lucy Moore, an ex-IMS student herself and speaking for Leeds Museums and Art Galleries for whom she now works (and indeed used to blog about coins), Rhiannon Lawrence-Francis, on behalf of Special Collections in the University of Leeds itself, and Dr Marta Cobb speaking for the International Medieval Congress, which among its other good works also provides a paid internship for one of our graduate students a year. We tend to have collaborative projects running with the Armouries because we have two staff members who work on, and supervise students in, medieval warfare, and so that was all very clear; we don’t have as much to do with the Museums and Art Galleries because they are cruelly overloaded, and indeed I was even then struggling to put something together with Lucy myself, but watch this space all the same, things are now afoot; and about some of the ways a medievalist might get working with Special Collections you have already heard. So all that made sense and was good and impressive.

‘Collaborations and Projects’ was more like normal paper presentations, so I’ll do it with the now-traditional bullet arrangement:

  • Rene Hernandez Vera and Mike Spence, ‘Digitising the Monastic Past’: this was a report on a project then just winding up to test the possibilities for digitising the very substantial archive of Fountains Abbey, which was the richest Cistercian abbey in England, which would be documents from 1146 till the 1300s, including both originals and their registrations in various record books. To me that sounded like the most interesting bit, the possibility of comparing the originals to what people thought worth preserving, but then I am a colossal charter geek as we know, and it may be that such a database would also serve people who just want to know more about Cistercian land management or the economic structures of pious intercession and so on, and of course of those we do have some famous ones
  • Romina Westphal, ‘Shedding Light on a New Science in the 12th Century: an iconographic study of the Hildesheim candlesticks’: this was a project on two small but intriguing candlesticks that now live in the Hildesheim Domschule. One of them is adorned with images of the three continents (as were then known) and the other with philosophical personifications. At this point Romina and her project boss, Dr Eva Frojmovic, had only just got hold of decent images of the objects and had from that managed to work out that the latter was indeed that, and not as it was previously thought to be images of the medieval school curriculum, the trivium, and further progress was soon expected.
  • Sophie Harwood and Iason Tzouriadis, ‘Leeds Postgraduate Culture and War Conference’: this was more of an advert than a paper, as the conference was then about to happen: entirely postgraduate-organised, but fully academic in its speakers, it’s now heading for its second iteration and is one of the more impressive things we do, I think, though it’s now bigger than just us.

Then there was tea and biscuits, because we are a civilised institution, and then it was the last part of the programme, which broke down like this:

  • Jonathan Jarrett, ‘Low Down and Edgy: Frontier and Settler Societies in Medieval Iberia and Beyond’
  • Pietro Delcorno, ‘Crossing the Alps with Dante: Preaching the Commedia in Fifteenth-Century Europe’
  • Venetia Bridges, ‘Interpreting Alexander the Great in the Middle Ages: Medieval and Modern Challenges’
  • Three speakers from three different schools in the University—while the IMS is in institutional terms part of the School of History, it was born as a more genuinely interdisciplinary cluster and it still has extensive collaborations with other schools. Thus, I spoke for History, as it were, Pietro for Languages (and specifically Italian) and Venetia for English. Long-term readers here may not struggle to guess what I was talking about, though you may justly wonder how I squeezed what was here five long blog posts into ten minutes’ talking; for those without that memory or time to read the blog posts, I basically suggested that all our current models for how medieval frontier societies developed have problems when used as generalisations and that we needed way more case-study data before we tried to develop decent new models, and I asked for people’s help. Pietro had been searching for evidence of people using Dante’s Divine Comedy in preaching, which it turns out is a thing that happened, but it happened especially in a sermon collection he’d found in which a pilgrim with a guardian angel followed Dante’s track and learned preaching points along the way, and of which he had found 15 manuscripts in total, making it a quite important way in which Dante came to be known across the Alps. Dante is quoted and cited in the gloss, so it was not an effort to appropriate; it was genuine use of him for spiritual understanding, which given how weird he is I found quite surprising. Lastly, Venetia described to us her then-forthcoming book on the various medieval romances about the fictionalised adventures of Alexander the Great, and since there is now a book you can read her publisher’s blurb, but it sounded like fun.

The Darial Gorge , on the border between modern Russia and Georgia

This at least links two of the papers? It is the Darial Gorge, on the border between modern Russia and Georgia, one of the places where it has been suggested were once the Iron Gates which texts like Venetia’s suggest that Alexander built to keep the monstrous peoples who lived beyond them away from civilisation. Not necessarily true, but impressive! “Darial-Gorge” by Original uploader was Not home at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

I think that looking back on this the thing that now strikes me is how dynamic the IMS’s population has been in the time I’ve been there already. Of the speakers who spoke for the IMS on this occasion, only Marta, Michael Spence and myself are still there. OK, Marta and I are permanent staff and it’s three years plus on from the event, so that’s not surprising really, but it still strikes me. Rene Hernandez is now at the Universidad San Tomas in Colombia; Sophie Harwood is now teaching English in Berlin and still publishing; Romina taught for me one year and got an ongoing job in a museum in Germany just before the end of that; Iason was one of my postgraduate advisees, passed his doctorate in very good standing and is now “the assistant archivist and assistant curator for the Worshipful Company of Gold and Silver Wyre Drawers”, already; Pietro but lately flew from us to Central European University; and Venetia went to Bristol and is now at Durham. (Links are given above for all of them if you want them.) As I sat in the Le Patourel Room that day I thought I was watching a display of the department’s research power, but I think now that I was actually watching its potential as a professional springboard, and mostly these papers were the first small jump the diver takes to flex the board before making the big plunge…

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Leeds 2012 Report 3

Part of me would like to see what I can only really call the abuse for the previous one of these posts as a challenge, and try and make it even duller, but part of me would also have to admit that it could have probably been more exciting, and the rest of me is somewhere between amused and grateful at the extra traffic the link has brought me. None of these feelings are strong enough to overcome my wish to clear my backlog, though, so here’s another one. Please, however, don’t miss the notice of this year’s IMC blogger’s meet-up that I posted just beforehand.

Reims Bibliothèque municipale Ms. 385, fo. 1

Images relevant to Hincmar of Rheims are difficult to find, as I’ve said before, but this has to be the one for this blog, the first page of a manuscript he once owned that includes the various writings used to refute the heretic Bishop Felix of Urgell. Proof that Hincmar cared about Catalonia! It is Reims, Bibliothèque municipale, MS 385.

The third day of the International Medieval Congress 2012 was of course the day of Hincmar of Rheims, and there was no way I was going to get through the whole day without getting sucked in. In fact all the sessions in that strand I went to had people on the floor because the seats were all full, which was kind of usual for sessions on the early Middle Ages in that building but still a good sign for the study of this most verbose of Carolingian churchmen. Magistra has already covered the sessions, however, as might be expected, and so I don’t actually plan to do more with them than say firstly how much fun they were, and secondly that I actually felt rather kindlier disposed to Hincmar afterwards than before, as I now had a better sense of the various pressures he was under as he worked to produce the answers his masters and he wanted. It became a plausible case to me that where Hincmar had views, he more or less stuck to them in his writings, and that where we find him inconsistent were the areas where he didn’t really know what the answer was, and was prepared (in the literal sense) to provide the one that was temporarily politically expedient while he found his way. None of this exempts him at all from the charge of being a two-faced self-important schemer, but at least he seems a more human one now. Anyway, that gives you most of what I might have said about the papers, but I will at least list the ones I went to and tag for their authors and remind you that further details of what they all said can be had at Magistra’s place.

1009. Hincmar’s 9th Century, I: the History of Hincmar

  • Jinty Nelson, “The Bearing of Hincmar’s Life on his Historical Writing”
  • Marie-Celine Isaia, “Hagiography and Rules: Hincmar and his Vita S. Remigii
  • Letha Böhringer, “Hero or Villain? Master Narratives of Hincmar in the 19th or 20th Centuries”
  • This was where my day began, and though each paper was interesting, the last of these seemed to get the most discussion, I think because it touched on what even the non-Hincmarians in the audience do because of discussing historians’ over-involvement and over-identification with their material. There’s a continual tension here of course; we are encouraged to make our work ‘relevant’ and of course we do it in the first place because it means something to us; even if objectivity were possible, it’s not clear that it would make very exciting reading. That doesn’t remove the problem of our subjectivity, however, and I guess all we can do is make it clear why we are interested up front.

From there, however, I went back to ground, if you see what I mean, and if you don’t you soon will.

1105. Christian Burial: rites and realities

  • Adrián Maldonado, “Iron Age Christianity: early medieval monastic burial in Scotland”
    The title of this paper hit straight at a problem with some of the scholarship on early medieval northern Britain and Ireland, both of which zones are often said to have Iron Age characteristics; the problem is of course that these zones were substantially Christian for much of the early Middle Ages, which doesn’t just change the implied thought-world but also brings a considerable change in the material culture of the areas and what their inhabitants thought of as display and splendour. Burial, where that display was often made manifest in grave-goods that a typical Christian pattern wouldn’t have involved, as it’s usually theorised, illustrates this problem especially sharply. Goods are rare in Scotland, in fact, but Dr Maldonado ran through some of the things that scientific chronology does for other old ideas about change in burial coinciding with Christianization: coincide it does, but not cleanly, with the shift to inhumation rather than cremation afoot well beforehand, and extended supine east-west burial likewise. Some things did change in the sample Dr Maldonado had, however: most interestingly, the sites he had to work tended to only include male burial till c. 650, at about which point some burials (and only some) also seem to have been given markers. Wooden coffins, some, weirdly, padlocked, also arrive in the record over the seventh century. This applies to the Isle of May and to Inchmarnock, both of which are known to have housed monasteries, and of course a similar burial population at Portmahomack was used to clinch the identification of that site as another monastery, but at Whithorn no such pattern was clear. Even in the earlier phases of those other sites, though, `pattern’ would be too strong a word, variation in location, position and even orientation was common, and so he invoked the work of Howard Williams to wonder if the early cosmology here was a sort of mirror of the ascetic idea of managing without the body as much as possible, so that physical remains were judged unimportant compared to the state of one’s soul. As he put it, “Christianity was being invented here”. I did like this paper, as you can probably tell by the coverage I’ve given it, and I enjoyed a chat with Dr Maldonado afterwards, but it was not alone in raising these issues.
  • Courtney Buchanan, “Furnished Burials in Christian Cemeteries: pagan, Christian, or something else?”
    This paper dealt with so-called ‘Viking’ burials in the Christian cemeteries of England in the wake of the Danish settlements, and concluded that they only involved the very top tiers of society, usually featured weaponry and more or less coincided with the distribution of so-called ‘hogback’ monuments, which is also to say, only at the edges of Viking polities. The speaker tentatively theorised this as a means of expressing a new identity in what they called a ‘third space’,1 but I wonder whether the older idea isn’t still viable here, that people whose identity or value system is under threat or erosion by, for example, being on a frontier against other more coherent and better-established identities, wouldn’t seek ways to emphasise their belonging to one side or other in ways that wouldn’t be necessary at the centre of such a zone.2
  • Anne Paton, “Leprosy and Hagiography in Medieval Ireland”
    This paper got the most attention of the three, perhaps understandably given its subject matter. It had a simple aim, a pathfinder survey of archæological evidence for leprosy in medieval Ireland compared to the way it turns up in literary sources, where it usually seems more like psoriasis or chicken-pox, the latter because highly infectious but the former because primarily a disease of the skin with quite drawn-out development of symptoms. The rather grim observation that lepers’ bodies, which can be identified by the damage the disease does to bones, do generally turn up most often in leper cemeteries but are far from all of the bodies there, was only made slightly more comforting by the suggestion that if diagnosis was good enough it might have caught them before the disease got bad enough to leave traces. If so, though, it suggests that something else killed the sufferers pretty sharpish once they got to the hospital. However, as it transpired, very little of this can be made to apply to Ireland, where only two known medieval leper graves have so far been identified, both very late. If this suggests anything, it suggests that lepers in an earlier period were not isolated, and that infection from them was therefore not feared, but only more data will make things any clearer.

Then after that and after lunch, which was slightly more of a challenge than it might have been after such a session, it was back to Hincmar and so I will once again be brief.

1209. Hincmar’s 9th Century, III: Hincmar and Frankish Rulers

  • Elina Screen, “An Unfortunate Necessity? Hincmar’s Relationship with Lothar I (843-55)”
    The thing I took from this with most interest was that even Lothar, so often represented as the villain of the Carolingian civil wars of the 840s, could worry about the possibility of things happening to him and his kingdom because of God’s disfavour. I wish Elina would finish her book on the man, it is badly needed.3
  • Clémentine Bernard-Valette, “‘We are between the hammer and the anvil’: Hincmar of Rheims and West Frankish Bishops in Front of Louis, King of Germany, 875”
    What do you do the second time your king’s brother comes to invade your kingdom? Less than you could first time, apparently, if you’re Hincmar…
  • Margaret McCarthy, “Hincmar’s Influence during Louis the Stammerer’s Reign”
    In fact, just generally the 870s were a bit of a downward slide for the old bishop’s influence, it seems, though as Margaret said in questions, it is always possible that he was deliberately stepping back a bit as he was, you know, quite old.
  • If so, however, it was not necessarily down to a waning of his powers, as one of the reasons he is usually supposed still to have been hungry for power is his manual on palace government that followed a few years later, which seems to have his ideal job description in it, and as Pauline Stafford observed in discussion his work in the crisis of 875 promulgates doctrines and thinking that could be seen as the roots of the Peace of God as well as theorising consent to kingship, with the seal of ancient authority on each of his innovations. What panic and urgency can bring out of the tired intellectual, hey? Perhaps that’s how our whole enterprise survives…

1309. Hincmar’s 9th Century, IV: Hincmar and socio-political culture

  • Sylvie Joye, “Family Order and Kingship According to Hincmar”
  • Rachel Stone, “Hincmar and the Nun: Carolingian gender order at the Synod of Douzy, 874”
    This was promoted to us on the basis of featuring a topless nun, which, by implication, it indeed did, but I find that what I’ve marked in my notes rather than that is the quote, “Patriarchy doesn’t need to be coherent to be effective”, which is altogether too true not to be put on the Internet.
  • Christine Kleinjung, “‘To Fight with Words’: the case of Hincmar of Laon in the Annals of St-Bertin
    An obvious point, but worth making again because rarely do we see it so clearly: in Hincmar’s jurisdictional battle as metropolitan of Rheims with his nephew of the same name, bishop of Laon, since our only detailed source is the former’s own account, we don’t have the full story. This is presumably not just that Hincmar didn’t want to broadcast the truth, even if he could perceive it impartially which seems unlikely as suggested above, but also that, since he was largely writing the Annals in question for himself by this stage, he didn’t need to; he already knew, so we don’t.
  • Charles West, “Extremely Good Advice: Hincmar’s view of the parish and its priests”
    As will perhaps be clear the ways that priests got involved in their local communities and how other people used them to reach those communities is a keen interest of mine just now, and Charles did what I would do in his shoes by way of getting at some of those issues, took a well-documented microcosm and built up from it, as Hincmar laid down an ancient past and Patristic authority for a parish that in this case was probably of very recent creation, even if he didn’t know that.
  • This turned into an argument in questions between Charles, myself and Geoff Koziol about whether places and communities got put in a parish or might instead have opted into one of a range of available ones, which is part of a wider question about whether territories and jurisdictions were geographically coherent or not in this period, but it also showed that tendency that Hincmar’s thought seems to have had, which is to reimagine the rule on a case-by-case basis. And again, in this sphere too he may not have needed to be coherent to be effective, indeed it’s easy to see how an adaptable way of thinking would work better in local reorganisation when existing local organisations could be so various. Systematization may not always be the answer! Who said Hincmar had nothing to teach us? Well: none of the presenters in this strand, that’s for sure…

However, my Leeds day didn’t end there: against my habit, I went to one of the evening round-tables, and various things will probably explain why when I describe it.

1403. The Staffordshire Hoard: interpretation and display – a Round Table discussion

    In theory this was a Round Table, but actually what happened was a series of people gave short talks and there there wasn’t very much time for questions, so how not to call it a regular session in a much larger room isn’t very clear. The people were Leslie Webster, who explained how the research project had been set up, none of other than Morn Capper explaining what the public contact with the Hoard and the displays had been like, what questions they had and how happily similar those questions seemed to be to what the archæologists want to know—how is it being looked after, what’s in it, who put it there and why, and so on. She also observed a number of interesting but disconnected things: the tools needed to make the Hoard items must have been flipping tiny, many of the objects are quite worn, and more significantly, it is about the furthest north-west of any Anglo-Saxon treasure so far found, so there’s a great any ways it has to be thought of as an outlier. Then Dr Webster spoke again, wondering about ways we might think round the obvious paradox of the hoard, a few apparently religious items among a mass of wargear-fittings, and in the course of this identified the famous lettered strip as part of a cross decoration on something like a house-shrine, which was news to me. They also have a mystery item which she tentatively identified as a fitting from an episcopal headdress modelled on a Jewish high-priest’s depicted in a Wearmouth-Jarrow manuscript, which raises even more interesting questions. Then lastly Alex Woolf spoke, professing ignorance (and also penury) and as usual coming up with gems of insight anyway, seeing the Hoard as a craftsman’s store (including pointing out that it was deposited near Hammerwich…), doubting that it could ever have been deposited secretly, and wondering if the decoration, which is of a loosely-coherent style despite the various ages of the bits, might have been an identifiable branding that had to be taken off things their owner intended to give to someone else. All of that merits consideration, some of it fits with the ideas I myself find more plausible about the hoard, and after it there wasn’t very much time left for discussion…

And then I must have made it to the dance, because I remember talking to people animatedly afterwards, but apparently I didn’t do myself too much damage because my notes for the next morning’s sessions start coherently. So that would be another and final post, which will follow shortly! Feel free to rate this one for tedium in comments…


1. The name checked here was Honi Bhabha, unknown to me at that point but whose The Location of Culture (Abingdon 2004) I should apparently read!

2. My pet cite here is Gloria Anzáldua, Borderlands: the new mestiza (San Francisco 1987) but this again is something I know rather than have read, and the time I have spent flicking through it has led me to wonder what else there might be that did the same work in a way I could borrow more easily. Any suggestions welcomed!

3. Should you be unable to wait, however, I can at least promise you E. Screen, “Lothar I in Italy, 834-40: charters and authority”, in Jonathan Jarrett & Allan Scott McKinley (edd.), Problems and Possibilities of Early Medieval Charters, International Medieval Research 19 (Turnhout in press), rather sooner!

Name in Lights IV

While I attempt to get Internet, domesticity and teaching schedules all arranged into a balanced and survivable fashion, can I placate you at least slightly with some links to new aspects of my work on the Internet?

    Reverse of a copper halfpenny token of Thomas Spence, 1790s

  • Firstly, just before I left the Fitzwilliam Museum we threw my last virtual exhibition open. As with the last one, it’s not even slightly medieval, but if you like engraving, pre-Marxian socialism, revolutionary rhetoric, robust Georgian satire oh yeah and some coin-like objects you should have a look. T’anta Wawa, if you’re reading, this might be the single numismatic exhibition you’ll ever be interested in.
  • Obverse of Temple-type denier of Louis the Pious; modern fake with icing shell, sponge flan

  • Secondly, on the occasion of leaving the museum, someone else put me online and preceded this favour with some quite brilliant numismatic bakery. Yes, you read that right. Rarely has the word ‘flan’ been so overloaded. Thankyou, Magistra!
  • Me sans facial hair

  • Also, in these here parts I some days ago finished, for now, my web-page revision, although now of course I have to add in the new Virtual Exhibition. This has seen a bit of pruning of dead links in the Resources section here. They’re still a useless jumble here, however, so you may find the rather more organised static presentation at my main webpages more useful.
  • Cover of Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: Care and Use

  • Lastly, after some effort and quite a lot of failure to get onto the case, that booklet I wrote a couple of years ago about coin collections, Coins in Collections: care and use, about which people enquired here, is now purchaseable in the Museum Shop for the very reasonable sum of five British pounds, should you have responsibility for a coin collection anywhere. It’s not yet in the online shop but I’ll pursue that.

Now, back to the house-graft…

Two lots of Anglo-saxon antiquities, a grammatical mummy and a book of Wulfstan’s (plus Anglo-Saxon news)

Of recent weeks I seem to have been visiting other people’s museums a lot. I suppose it is predictable, given my period interests and that I was in the UK, that this would develop an Anglo-Saxon theme, but it does seem to be a good time for Anglo-Saxon studies just now for a range of reasons. I thought I’d post about it all, anyway.

Saxon bronze-gilt great square-headed brooch, MAA 1948.1553

Anglo-Saxon great square-headed brooch,from Linton Heath, Cambs., grave 32; MAA 1948.1553

First of the exhibitions was the archaeological gallery of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. To my great shame I’d never been there before, but I went with T’anta Wawa, despite the which, we didn’t have time to do the anthropological collection. There was quite enough archaeology. A lot of it appears to have been on display for a long time, or at least the cases look seventies vintage. The prehistoric stuff is very comprehensive, but with labels that only a professional could follow, geological terms used in cold blood and so forth. The historic stuff, Roman and Celtic onwards, is much friendlier to the casual enquirer, though I suspect that my workplace have got most of the best Roman and Greek. The particular attraction of the MAA is that a great deal of its collections were actually found locally, so you can look at a Saxon funerary urn or whatever and suddenly realise that it came from just down the road. And their Saxon display is very splendid, because there just were a lot of burials with grave-goods in the general area. So that started me off well for medieval bling. I wish I could show you more, but their catalogue has no pictures in it; the pictures that there are, meanwhile, don’t have any object data, but I’m pretty sure I’ve shown you the only Saxon thing on their highlights page. Plenty to see if you’re there for real, though, and we only did half of it.

Funerary urn from the Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery under Girton College, Cambridge

Funerary urn from the Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery under Girton College, Cambridge

Two days later I was lucky enough, because of the job, to be among a small crowd invited to an opening of a much smaller museum at Girton College in Cambridge. This was the first women’s college in Cambridge, and though it is now co-ed it has a long tradition of fiery female dons and academic interests in the `other half’ of society in a range of different ways. It was built some distance out of town, in what was then fairly rural surroundings (and they still are very leafy) but early work for the foundations quickly revealed that they were not the first to dig holes here and they wound up calling in help to clear out an Anglo-Saxon cremation cemetery at high speed in advance of the foundations. (They also found two Roman graves, but despite suggestions in the college publicity that this makes it a continuously-occupied site from Rome to Anglo-Saxons there is a big gap in the finds between second and fifth centuries.) Only what was necessary to build the college was removed, meaning that probably plenty more remains to be unearthed, but what there was was formed into a collection and after a while a room was built to house these and other antiquities, very largely from Egypt but obviously with a fair Anglo-Saxon component. This, the Lawrence Room, has just been revamped and was now being opened up to visitors.

Hermione, Egyptian portrait mummy at Girton College

Hermione, Egyptian portrait mummy at Girton College


However, chief among the antiquities is Hermione, an Egyptian mummy given to the college by William Flinders Petrie. She has her portrait on her wrappings, and X-ray analysis has revealed that within the wrappings, indeed, are the remains a young girl whose face has been reconstructed digitally and looks not dissimilar. But the name is the excitement, and why Petrie gave her to Girton: she is named “Hermionê Grammatikê”, ‘Hermione the literary lady’, which makes her a fairly unusual first-century female scholar, or at least, student. And, though the odds are heavy against, there is apparently a scrap of papyrus in a Leipzig collection, on which is preserved a writing exercise to her teacher by one Hermione, in Greek, of roughly the same date (i. e., to within a century, gods bless radio-carbon). Wouldn’t it be nice to think, and so on… There are also shed-loads of Egyptian shabtis and even a few pieces of fabric, and because it is usually kept in darkness because the room is as much storage as display, they felt that they could have the lights up for the brief time we were viewing the artefacts. I can’t stress how much difference this makes. One could be forgiven for leaving the Fitzwilliam’s fabulous Egyptian display, or many of our others, with the impression that the ancients lived entirely in a dim half-light in which everything appears brown. Those are permanent displays which have to be lit all day, and light damages fabric and pigments like nothing else, so the light has to be kept down. But here the original colours could briefly be allowed to shine, bright coral, lapis lazuli and ochre, and for once it felt like the owners of these objects might have enjoyed them. The curators were very happy to tells us how they’d worked hard on the lighting so that when standing at the cases lights above them made what you were looking at visible without casting everything at the bottom into shadow; this is not a simple thing and it has been done very well.

The Lawrence Room, Girton College

The Lawrence Room, Girton College

The college collections that are kept in the Lawrence Room are currently being fully catalogued so as to go online. I’m told that this will happen midway through next year. The collection is only accessible by appointment with at least 24 hours’ notice, and is primarily intended for teaching and research within the college, but it’s really very nicely done and I hope they can make it more of a thing to visit.

Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

Carpet page from the Lindisfarne Gospels

Then two days after that, again with the redoutable T’anta Wawa and a medievalist friend of hers plus entourage, I finally visited the Treasures of the British Library exhibition. I realise that this is a stupid thing not to have done, but as I don’t live in London my visits to the BL tend to be for pressing needs of books, and there isn’t time to play tourist. I’m glad I finally did though, because the things that are there! They are tremendous and splendid. They start you off gently, with mere autographs of Samuel Johnson and Jane Austen, Mozart and Hadyn (among others), but by the time you’ve been along the Shakespeare case and then made it into the sacred texts, and find you’re looking at the Codex Sinaiticus, which is quite like the oldest surviving text of the Bible, you begin to realise that things have got a bit heavy. And then it just piled on: the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Harley Psalter, the Gutenberg Bible, Textus Roffensis, and most especially a manuscript that others will be able to place better than I now can, containing a text of the laws of King Edgar probably glossed by Archbishop Wulfstan I of York, no less. I realise that wasn’t the most special thing there but I felt more of a connection to it because of having occasionally wrestled with Wulfstan’s legacy in the past. And of course there’s one of the BL’s two 1215 copies of Magna Carta, along with the Articles of the Barons, the papal bull repealing the Charter and one of the 1225 copies that got onto the Statute Book, and these have a room to themselves, where a ‘virtual creator’ will tell you all about them. She is cued from a touch-screen display with a list of questions, but it’s not at all clear that that’s what’s going to happen when you touch it, and in the hush of the rest of the exhibition it was actually quite startling. In fact this was a sign of something larger, which is that the people who set this exhibition up don’t seem to have spent much time looking at it. Lights, again. The manuscripts need protecting, but one can hardly see them; one certainly can’t, what is sort of crucial to their purpose, read them in many cases. And what light there is is arranged to shine from behind you, so that if you move close to the case, you block the light out. This probably wouldn’t have struck me without the contrast of the Lawrence Room two days before. More could be done with that, come the next revamp. Anyway, we’d all got a bit full up with marvel and had to take a break before we got to the gorgeously painted Far Eastern stuff, so I imagine I’ll be back, but I shall be fiercely tempted to bring a torch. Meanwhile, ironically, actually the BL’s tremendous virtual exhibitions of its material, like the Lindisfarne Gospel where you can virtually turn the pages, is actually giving you much better access to some of the treasures that they have on physical display.

Cover for BBC History Magazine, May 2009

Cover for BBC History Magazine, May 2009

Wulfstan has to be in there to connect the theme, anyway, but even back at work it’s been clear that Anglo-Saxons are the new black this month, as this cover of the BBC History Magazine for May shows. Two articles, one on Sutton Hoo’s importance now by Alex Burghart, whom I believe has now got a real job and is thus a sad loss to the field, and the other article is a rehashed one by Michael Wood about Athelstan and the unification of Britain (and Brunanburh). And if this prominence of matters Anglo-Saxon weren’t enough I see also that the Naked Philologist, who may or may not be happy to see Wulfstan mentioned, has also returned to the blogosphere. Though she’s temporarily moved later, it seems, and therefore deserves to be celebrated rather in an entry also noting the return to the blogosphere (and Kalamazoo) of Geoffrey Chaucer. But I don’t have one of those coming, so they will both have to be here and some day soon I’ll have something of my own to add, hey?

`Anglo-Saxon Art in the Round’ Virtual Exhibition

Silver early penny, Series Q, East Anglia. Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1903-2007, De Wit Collection

Silver early penny, Series Q, East Anglia. Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1903-2007, De Wit Collection

It was now a considerable time ago that Nicola Griffith posted a notice at Gemæcca expressing her excitement about the exhibition at the Fitzwilliam Museum, where I earn my crust, entitled Anglo-Saxon Art in the Round. That exhibition opened on 23rd May 2008, and its purpose was to celebrate the fact that we’d just been able to get hold of a stunning collection of early Anglo-Saxon pennies (also known as sceattas, though we deprecate this term). It ran till September 2008 and was fairly well-received. I did the enlargements which, because of the tiny size of the coins, were a big feature of it, and I also did the virtual exhibition to go alongside it, using the text from the physical case labels and so forth to try and mimic the physical layout on the web.

A Merovingian gold tremissis struck in the Toul area, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.10720, Grierson Collection

A Merovingian gold tremissis struck in the Toul area, Fitzwilliam Museum PG.10720, Grierson Collection

You will have noticed that I didn’t mention the virtual exhibition here. This was partly because it wasn’t finished when the physical exhibition opened because someone sent me to Madrid at short notice; but it was finished a week after that. All the same, you can see that I was still promising it to Michelle of Heavenfield just after Christmas that year. It still wasn’t live by the time we closed the physical exhibition and packed it off to Norwich Castle Museum. In January 2009 they too dismantled it and sent it to Ipswich Town Hall Galleries, where it is on display till September 2009. For all of this time what I can only describe as circumstances beyond my control have kept our virtual companion to the physical displays offline. We did at least have a podcast by my boss put up, which has now been linked into the virtual exhibition. At last, however, all has been finalised and sent live to the web, and I would be very pleased if you found time to give it a look. It’s quite informative and full of pictures of wild and wonderful early Saxon art in metal. I hope you like it. (Michelle, our Oswald’s Raven or whatever it is is on the third page.) Go on. Cheer this fellow up!

Silver early penny, series Z, c. 715-20, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1614-2007, De Wit Collection

Silver early penny, series Z, c. 715-20, Fitzwilliam Museum CM.1614-2007, De Wit Collection

N. B. coins not to scale…

UK museum use survey: is the money they give us making no difference?

I realise that museums are only medievally-relevant by coincidence, but in turn I expect you understand why I take an interest in the ‘industry’ that provides my daily bread, and so won’t mind too much if I advertise briefly a rather worrying little factoid that’s emerged from University College London, where Dr Susanne Keene has been carrying out research, using user surveys and staff surveys at around 200 museums across the UK. They’ve been analysing visitor numbers, what is being done to raise visitor numbers and how effective it’s being. This survey only covers stored collections, that is items not on public display, but since that’s basically the principle on which my department operates, partly because coins can only be displayed one side up and mainly because researchers tend to need lots of the same sort of thing whereas we tend to display a range, this concerns me directly.

The McClean Room, Department of Coins & Medals, in use for study

The McClean Room, Department of Coins & Medals, Fitzwilliam Museum, where I work, in use for study

The report is 84 pages long, and although an awful lot of that is headings and illustrations I still haven’t gone through it in detail. If we spent the time that it would take to read the bumph that comes out of the Museums and Libraries Association on so doing, we wouldn’t have enough left to do the work for which they fund us, is my candid opinion, followed by questions I’d like to ask about the time they take generating it and what else they could do with that, but leave that aside. This was someone’s project, and that someone, since she is now a consultant, presumably got paid, but all the same she has some experience and the findings are interesting and apparently rigorous, in as much as she’s checked her findings with alternative tests on the data and so on. Now, my interest in all this is whether my job is secure, which has been uncertain ever since the organisation that provides most of my funding, via an intermediary organisation set up to show that we’re using it wisely, went into a reorganisation chrysalis in the middle of the year, with no real idea of what would emerge. So someone with this kind of data is in a position to either reassure or worry me.

Screen capture of a record from the Fitzwilliam Museum's OPAC catalogue

Screen capture of a record from the Fitzwilliam Museum's OPAC catalogue

Vexingly, she has both good news and bad news. The good news is predictable: the public want more of museums’ collections to be listed online so that they can find out what there is that they’re not seeing! Huzzah, that’s basically what my job is, I’m safe! Except. The bad news she has is that putting more stuff online does not in fact significantly increase visitor numbers. Lots of museums put an increase in visitor numbers down to such factors, and visitors surveyed also said that online resources made them more likely to come to the museums. The actual numbers however don’t support either case: attendance is up everywhere (though since 80% of the museums involved were looking at figures of less than 100 visitors accessing the collections a year, this may not be very significant) and it’s not significantly correlated with online records or their increase. Much more worryingly, neither is it correlated with museums holding grants to increase their access, i. e. exactly the sort of money that funds my job. Of course putting stuff online may mean that people can avoid actually having to come and see it, and to match this survey we’d need another one analysing changes in web traffic, but the initial impression one gets from this survey is that all the money (such as it has been) that the UK government is pouring into the heritage sector is producing no more (or even less!) results than doing absolutely nothing would have done… I do hope that isn’t the impression the government gets! And meanwhile, come on public, what goes on?


The report is Suzanne Keene, Collections for people: museums’ stored collections as a public resource (London 2008), online here. The images used in this post are from a forthcoming pamphlet, Jonathan Jarrett, Coins in Collections: care and use (Cambridge forthcoming) and are copyright the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, even in these grotty low-colour versions that are all I have to hand.

Museum digitisation spam vs. undersea visualisation software

I get spam about lists of museum professionals; now, I start to get spam about digitisation in museums. This one was actually relevant enough for me to follow the link and be faintly interested in the report they are trying to sell me:

The study presents data from more than 100 library and museum digitization programs from academic, public and special libraries in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, the UK and other countries.

Until I read the summary and found that it’s basically quantifying averages. It’s of no use to me to know how many people other places have involved in digitisation, though it is faintly interesting how many places are attempting it with no extra funding/with outside help. All the same. It might interest my non-line-manager, but I’m already shunting a load of EU stuff from Vienna about how our website should look onto him.

Undersea mapping submersible in use by the University of Hull

Undersea mapping submersible in use by the University of Hull

Why don’t I get spam about this instead? This is a desktop application for exploring sunken wrecks that have been digitised that’s been developed at the University of Hull.

Dr Paul Chapman, a computer scientist at the University of Hull, said that it was aimed at creating a permanent record of the wrecks. “Because of activities like trawling, these archaeological sites get destroyed,” he said. “What we have been focusing on with the Venus project is how to generate a permanent database or record of these sites.”

Underwater archaeological sites have also been damaged by divers taking souvenirs. “Our job has been to develop a virtual reality diving simulator that allows the user to dive down and experience the site first hand,” Chapman added.

One advantage of the simulator is that researchers can add in elements that are no longer there, for example even if the wooden frame of the ship is partially or completely destroyed it can be superimposed on the remains of the cargo that are still there.

“We can also animate the disintegration of the wreck over time,” said Chapman.

Perhaps no spam is needed; sounds like this should sell itself…