Monday, 5 May 2014

The Emperor's New Clothes: the heritage cult ― 1. Museums

Ashanti bracelet made of Ageri beads
with gold emblems between each bead.
Wolseley Collection, Glenbow Museum,
Calgary, Alberta, Canada
© Glenbow Museum
For most people, the non-public aspect of a museum is a black box. You will have heard the phrase, "This belongs in a museum". My wife was marking papers for an instructor and when the instructor came to our house to pick them up, she looked at my small collection of Celtic antiquities and Coriosolite coins in a display case in the living room and (officiously) said "These should be in a museum". A couple of years later she actually became a curator of the coin department at a university museum.   It was a short-lived position: after sending out many of   the ancient Greek coins to be polished   ― apparently because she thought the public would prefer to see them bright and shiny, she was replaced.

In the early seventies, I was hired, in a local initiatives project, to be part of a team inventorying the collection   of the Glenbow Museum. We finished the inventory before the allotted funding ran out and were put to work as cataloguers in a new cataloguing system which soon achieved international recognition for its high standards.   I was given (to my delight) to the Military Department under the auspices of its curator Lew Burke. It might have been my experience in antiques that got me this posting. I worked on several collections: Black Watch badges, The Riel Rebellion, and the personal effects of Field Marshal Viscount Wolseley. In fact, I catalogued the Ashanti bracelet shown here.

Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry,
in Korea, 1953
© Glenbow Museum
The interests of the curators varied. Lew Burke was a stickler for details: he told me, "We should be able to build another one from your verbal description". I once described a Black Watch badge as being "bronze". Lew read my description and said, "Oh, so you've had it tested then?" I soon learned the phrase, "what appears to be"!

Everything I learned about cataloguing was from Lew. He was not an academic, but his knowledge was encyclopaedic. He had been a career-soldier serving in Korea, and as a dyed-in-the-wool sergeant major, never exhibited a "that will do" attitude. Things had to be perfect.

It was his attention to detail that was instrumental in my catalogue of Coriosolite coins, which has been described as the most detailed for any Celtic coinage, and it might also be true for any coinage at all. They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. This is nonsense, people do not always see what they are looking at. Also, when you actually describe something in detail, you get to understand it to a far greater degree than by merely looking at it. I acknowledged my debt to Lew in my book.

My catalogue worksheet for the Ashanti bracelet got me called into the office of the curator of collections, who told me that I had spent far too much time on it. I had described each of the beads and the gold ornaments. His interests were in having the entire museum collection recatalogued before the money ran out. I think, though, that F.M. Viscount Wolseley would have approved of my description. Like Lew, for Wolseley, everything had to be done properly. Lew also told me that his military title of Field Marshal took precedent above all other titles.

Perhaps, if you are familiar with the history, you might imagine that Wolseley obtained the bracelet when he was fighting the Ashanti, but it it was obtained some years after that. He might even have bought it in a London shop. History, for many, is just a set of prejudices.

Much has been said, in recent years about British 19th century colonialism and its "looting" and oppression of other cultures, but history should be evaluated against its own time, and not ours. I attended a school that occupied the land in which Cecil Rhodes' house stood in London and it bore his name. The school badge depicted the columns of his house and its façade was preserved on the school grounds. In the iconography of the badge, each column of the house stood for a human virtue, but in recent years, Rhodes has been said to have possessed none of them! When I returned to England after a long absence, I was surprised to see that 19th century colonialism was being criticized on British television with exactly the same rhetorical style that had been used to praise Rhodes when I was at school. The only difference was that those same virtues were now placed on modern Britain, and people such as Rhodes were said to have had none of them. I gained greater respect for George Orwell as I watched the television show.

The first "ingredient" of the heritage cult is indoctrination, and I will have much more to say about that tomorrow.

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