Curator’s Advent. Day 4. Entry form

Wheel, East Pool Mine, National Trust. Not sure what this object's mission is and it probably doesn't have an entry form.

Wheel, East Pool Mine, National Trust. Not sure what this object’s mission is and it probably doesn’t have an entry form.

The birth certificate of the museum object, its proof of purchase. The entry form marks the start of an artefact’s rite of passage from prop, trinket or reject to sacred relic on a mission.

Curator’s Advent. Day 3. Moths

Butterflies on display at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro. Not moths but you get the idea.

Butterflies on display at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro. Not moths but you get the idea.

Moths and other creepy pests are The Enemy of the curator (unless they are already dead and desirable specimens, pinned and catalogued). If you see a furrowed brow and haunted look, a struggle with sticky pheromone-fueled patches, spare a thought. We are saving museums from the very real peril of textiles and taxidermy annihilation. No one wants to see a naval rating’s uniform with holes in its unmentionables.

Curator’s Advent. Day 2. The label

Luray Vallery Museum, Virginia, USA. This curator liked this exhibit and label very much.

Luray Vallery Museum, Virginia, USA. This curator liked this exhibit and label very much.

The art of a well-tempered label is a museum’s greatest gift to humanity. As selector and interpreter, the label is an opportunity for the curator to display her prowess. Curators believe in facts not opinions. The label contains up to 50 learned words. One idea per sentence (we prefer facts). Reading age: 12. Sans serif all the way.

Curator’s Advent. Day 1. Please do not touch

Curator’s Advent is a little idea I’ve been toying around with to explore some of my beliefs and values as a curator and playfully challenge some myths about what ‘curator-types’ are like. Every day in the run up to Christmas I’ll be playing around with curatorship in a series of mini posts and pics. You may not necessarily know whether I am being serious.

In this scene I examine a finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli. In the next scene, the custodian of the stores tried it on and asked if it suited her (not pictured).

In this scene I examine a finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli. In the next scene, the custodian of the stores tried it on and asked if it suited her (not pictured).

Day 1. Please do not touch

Everyone knows curators are born with a special ability to handle museum objects. When you are ordained to be a curator you will receive a signal that you are a chosen one. Begloved, the curator lifts her precious treasure ve-ery slowly from the acid-free paper draped altar. Stay a safe distance away for any disturbance of the air between the beholder and the beheld may cause a small part of the object to die. When an artefact travels through the corridors of time and straight into a museum the curator has nourished it upon the elixir of eternal life with a monastic devotion. Anything less and you might just think you’re in an old junk or pawn shop. And that won’t do.

#100museumhours

#100museumhours logo

  • 2 years
  • 100 chats on 100 subjects
  • Two Hosts: @tehm and @sospot
  • 46 Guest Hosts
  • 22.1K Tweets (all time)
  • 130-140K Impressions per month
  • 4-5K Impressions per day
  • ~25-100 Engagements per Tweet

It’s a very simple enterprise, light weight but high energy and without any constrictions of institutionalism or stakeholder expectation. It’s free and for all-comers.

Follow: @museumhour
Mondays 20:00 UK time
Hashtag: #museumhour

In October 2014, I wrote about the idea of #museumhour, a (yet another) Twitter movement following the model of weekly, fortnightly and monthly chat forums. Today we celebrate museumhour’s second birthday and our 100th #museumhour.

It was Sophie Ballinger’s tweet from the Eureka! Museum account back in May 2014 that I found a couple of months later (wondering if anyone had started up a regular museum slot on Twitter) that started it all off.

Over the last two years and 100 museumhours things have evolved but not a huge amount. I thought it would be useful to outline museumhour’s current philosophy and how it works. It’s a very simple enterprise, light weight but high energy and without any constrictions of institutionalism or stakeholder expectation. It’s free and for all-comers.

Our philosophy

To provide a regular, open forum for the discussion of museum issues. It is for anyone with an interest in museums, not just museum workers. You don’t have to participate to benefit from it.

Free from influence. Museumhour is run entirely on a voluntary basis, week in week out with occasional breaks. We don’t receive any funding or in-kind support beyond our own resources.

Platform for communication, not broadcast. There are very few rules that govern museumhour. All we ask is that the topics that are suggested to us are broad enough to encourage as wide an audience as possible. However we also welcome specialist topics that don’t often get public airplay.

We will not accept themes that are solely for the promotion of one initiative, project or organisation. It’s fine for your thing to be used as an anchor for debate but prompts, cues and links must range broadly. The best museumhours are those where the host engages with a range of the responses tweeted in return – it’s not always easy though when it gets very frenetic!

It’s also ok to use the #museumhour hashtag to help promote and plug your events and activities but when you’re hosting you must be mindful not to broadcast but to exchange and communicate.

Why Twitter?

Twitter is a relentless quick-fire ‘of the moment’ forum for rapid exchange. That’s why we chose it – or rather it chose us.

Managed well, Twitter also promotes the sense of an open and diverse community that we need for museumhour to work and provides a healthy and productive environment for people to share their views and information without fear of thinking they or what they have to say isn’t important enough or might be subject to sneers, reprisal or other puerile behaviour.

The other benefit of Twitter, over, say, Facebook, is that it is open for everyone to see, not just those who have an account and are logged in. This way anyone with access to the internet can head on over to twitter.com/museumhour and see the discussions, or, follow using the saved hashtag #museumhour.

Museumhour only exists on Twitter and that’s where it is staying. We do not maintain separate channels such as website, enewsletter or other social networks. We or our Guest Hosts will occasionally Storify museumhour debates or include content in their own Storify account or other work which is great.

Featured

Museumhour benefits from occasional blogging by us and others. We’ve been really pleased to be featured by the Ministry of Curiosity, Fran Taylor, and others, as well as featuring in museum articles such as Museum Practice.

Our 46 Guest Hosts have also done a brilliant job using their websites, blogs and social media channels to promote the subjects of their museumhours.

We do want to take part in the big debates and issues facing museums and have played a role in helping other organisations with hosting sessions whose results have fed into research, for example, AIM’s work on museum charging, and the MA’s work on workforce professional development.

Is this a good format for museumhour for the foreseeable future? And can you suggest changes to refresh the experience? Do you want to join our team?

What next?

Our format is simple. After the first couple of weeks of museumhour we realised that the big wide open world of topics made it difficult for people to engage meaningfully with each other so we started to introduce themes.

We or our Guest Host comes up with a range of prompts, cues and links to information prior to (usually) and most importantly during the hour – approximately one every 5-10 minutes. Some of these are in the form of questions, others are statements that are responded to.

Museumhour happens and then it ends. We move on to organising the next week.

Is this a good format for museumhour for the foreseeable future? And can you suggest changes to refresh the experience? Do you want to join our team?

Two years of relentless weekly organisation is bound to take a toll on the schedules and lives of its two founders. Two people who haven’t even met each other in the flesh but who have somehow made this thing work.

Tribute

I would like to pay tribute to my co-founder Sophie Ballinger for being a brilliant colleague and friend making the museumhour enterprise both fulfilling and fun! We seem to fill each other’s gaps naturally and with minimum fuss. That can be quite a rare quality in a team.

But museumhour isn’t all about us. We have prided ourselves on taking a back seat and gently herding from behind. We think it is about time our team expanded. We are therefore shortly going to be advertising for new members of our small team. If you have read this and feel excited about museumhour please stay in touch.

What Cornish National Minority Status means for Museums (and Arts and Culture organisations)

Cornish pasty (c) Tehmina Goskar

The decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish.

Barely a ripple ran through the cultural sector nationally or here in Cornwall when, on 24 April 2014, then Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander, announced that “the proud history, unique culture, and distinctive language of Cornwall will be fully recognised under European rules for the protection of national minorities.”

Currently researching diversity issues, in rural contexts in particular, and working in Cornwall, I couldn’t understand why museums and the cultural sector here seemed ambivalent to this historic development. I have therefore been formally and informally advocating for greater consideration and awareness of Cornish National Minority Status in my work and to my peers, both here and nationally.

Thanks to an invitation by Cornwall Museums Partnership, I gave a keynote presentation on what National Minority Status means, how its governed and what features of Cornish identity museums could better embrace in their make-up and their work.

I have also advocated to the Museums Association in my capacity as regional representative for the South West. It was also a significant factor in my representations to English Heritage about their new interpretive treatment of Tintagel Castle.

Given the systemic inequality and unintentional bias that has been proven to exist in the museum sector (and in culture more generally), now is absolutely the right time for responsible institutions and individuals to better understand what Cornish National Minority Status means for them and their audiences.

Equality without prejudice

“The decision to recognise the unique identity of the Cornish, now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. For the first time the government has recognised the distinctive culture and history of the Cornish.”

“It is without prejudice as to whether the Cornish meet the definition of “racial group” under the Equality Act 2010.”

So the UK Government press release qualified this excellent news. It should also be pointed out that oversight of Cornish National Minority Status has fallen to the Department for Communities and Local Government.

In the UK, the Equality Act 2010 contains the diversity themes that dominate discourse around equality and social justice for those participating and working in museums, culture, arts and heritage and concern discrimination and systemic inequality against nine protected characteristics.

Under the act, National Minority status is not currently a protected characteristic but it is implied, with colour, ethnicity, national origins and citizenship under race. However, it has been made incumbent upon a successful case of discrimination being prosecuted before the Cornish would be considered a race in the same way as the English, Scots, Welsh and Irish are. Interestingly none of those groups have been made to prosecute a successful case to provide their identity – they can bypass this process by virtue of their “national origins.”

What is a National Minority?

“to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.”

Bretons in Penzance, Cornwall (c) Tehmina Goskar.

Bretons in Penzance, Cornwall.

No definition of a National Minority is provided by the Council of Europe or present in the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

The Council of Europe is not part of the EU. It is based on Strasbourg. It comprises 47 member states of which 28 are in the EU. Founded in a post-WW2 world, along similar lines to the UN, in 1949. Its particular responsibility is “to promote democracy and protect human rights and the rule of law in Europe.” It is responsible for:

  • European Convention on Human Rights
  • Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities
  • Other charters and commissions: European Social Charter, European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages and European Commission against Racism and Intolerance.

About the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities

  • Instituted in February 1995
  • UK ratified the convention 1998
  • Contains 32 articles
  • Member states have to report back periodically on request of the Committee of Ministers (UK submitted 4 to date)
  • Does not define a national minority
  • Each member state decides
  • The right to ‘self-identify’ important
  • Must be based on objective criteria connected with their identity, such as their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.

Articles in the Convention with resonance to the museum and cultural sector

My emphasis.

Article 5:

“The Parties undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.

Without prejudice to measures taken in pursuance of their general integration policy, the Parties shall refrain from policies or practices aimed at assimilation of persons belonging to national minorities against their will and shall protect these persons from any action aimed at such assimilation.”

Article 6:

“The Parties shall encourage a spirit of tolerance and intercultural dialogue and take effective measures to promote mutual respect and understanding and co-operation among all persons living on their territory, irrespective of those persons’ ethnic, cultural, linguistic or religious identity, in particular in the fields of education, culture and the media.”

Article 12:

“The Parties shall, where appropriate, take measures in the fields of education and research to foster knowledge of the culture, history, language and religion of their national minorities and of the majority.”

Article 20 has be criticised by some as a kind of get-out clause i.e. there will always been a reason, if increased consideration and recognition of a National Minority is considered politically unappetising, this clause may be invoked. Decide for yourself:

Article 20:

“In the exercise of the rights and freedoms flowing from the principles enshrined in the present framework Convention, any person belonging to a national minority shall respect the national legislation and the rights of others, in particular those of persons belonging to the majority or to other national minorities.”

How did the Cornish prove their case?

“It is an anomaly – some say an injustice – in a society that extols the merits of equality and tolerance, for the identity of the Cornish, the People at the heart of this long and proud story to remain unrecognised, unequal and uncounted, at the outset of the 21st century.”

What features of Cornish identity were put forward when campaigning for minority status?

This milestone is the result of a long and sustained campaign with a long history in the modern era for official recognition of the distinctiveness of the Cornish, rooted in a historical past, and Cornwall as a territory with particular characteristics that distinguish it from the “English counties.” A modern political consciousness of Cornish separateness goes at least back into the 19th century and dissent and rebellion against English rules goes back even further than that.

Evidence was gathered in at least two influential reports (see sources below):

The 2011 report by Ian Saltern on behalf of the Cornish Gorsedh, was the most hard-hitting in terms of evidence gathered and the strength of the case put forward, for example:

“It is an anomaly – some say an injustice – in a society that extols the merits of equality and tolerance, for the identity of the Cornish, the People at the heart of this long and proud story to remain unrecognised, unequal and uncounted, at the outset of the 21st century.”

The case was also built on a positive vision of what official recognition could bring to Cornish and British society as a whole:

“National minority status will enable the Cornish to play a full and active part in British society, contributing to the diversity of the United Kingdom.”

Led by Cornwall Council and its predecessors, with a large collaboration of others the case for National Minority Status was based on:

  • Self-identification
  • Religion
  • Language
  • Traditions
  • History and Cultural heritage
  • Long-term association with a specific territory

The need was based on barriers to: “Maintaining, celebrating and asserting a distinct identity.”

Self-identification is a particularly important feature of Cornish identity, measured through the Census – and thereby addressing Cornish people outside Cornwall and also the Pupil Level Annual Schools Census (PLASC) as a barometer of the growing consciousness of Cornish identity among young people: 37% in 2011 up to 48% in 2014.

Not England

Welcome to Penzance sign (c) Tehmina Goskar.

The aspect of Cornish identity I find most compelling is that based on historical territorial integrity and resistance against England and English assimilation – something museums need to be acutely aware of, for example:

  • Kernow—suggested in use for “at least 2000 years” (unknown sources)
  • Early Anglo-Saxon references to Corn wealh – peninsula of foreigners
  • West Wales
  • River Tamar as border with West Saxon kingdom since 10th c (no source given probably referring to a later 12th reference in William of Malmesbury including expulsion from Exeter—use of medieval history is needs more rigour)
  • Norman Conquest – creation of Earldom in 1068
  • Creation of Royal Duchy in 1337
  • Stannary Parliament and Courts
  • Laws of England intermittently applied to ‘Anglia et Cornubia’ into the 16th century
  • Foreshore Case arbitration case held between 1854 and 1858 between British Crown and Duchy of Cornwall over mineral rights.
  • Bona Vacantia – intestate property in Cornwall goes to Duke of Cornwall’s private estates, not to the Treasury via the Crown.

International recognition of Cornwall in over 30 languages as a separate entity to England is a hard-hitting fact that is difficult to refute, and formed part of the case made for national distinctiveness. This is not afforded to other English counties which is why many Cornish people will rail against designations of Cornwall being in England.

Sources and reports

Cornish National Minority Report 2, 2011: http://www.gorsedhkernow.org.uk/archivedsite/english/downloads/cornish_minority_report_2.pdf

Why should the Cornish be recognised as a National Minority within the UK, 2014: https://www.cornwall.gov.uk/media/7326793/FINAL-Cornish-Minority-Report-2014-pr7.pdf

See also: Cornish Gorsedh, Case for Cornwall, Devolution Deal for Cornwall, Cornish Culture Association, Bewnans Kernow—Partnership of Cornish Cultural Associations.

Call to action for museums

the dignity of visibility.

The 2011 report makes direct reference to how Cornish culture and heritage should be treated by institutions with Cornish collections:

“National minority status will confer upon the Cornish the dignity of visibility. It will acknowledge that Cornish language, culture and heritage are the products of Cornish people – a group with historic national origins no less deserving of official recognition than the Welsh or the Scottish.”

No museum or archive collections were used as examples of Cornish distinctiveness and museums do not feature in the heritage and culture Case for Cornwall, March 2015 (relating to devolution powers to Cornwall Council).

It also directly challenges museums who abide by the Museums Association Code of Ethics which states a museum’s important position of trust in relation to, amongst others,  source communities. 

Ways museums, culture and arts organisations can reflect Cornish diversity

  1. Embrace it! Don’t ignore it.
  2. Look at your governance – ask yourself who makes the decisions?
  3. Do you have a Diversity Policy or Action Plan? Do you state your commitment to the Cornish National Minority and Protected Characteristics?
  4. Look at your programmes – what are the themes of your collections, exhibitions, learning programmes and events?
  5. Partnerships: Who do you tend to work with? Who else could you work with?
  6. What is the make up of your community (not just local area)?
  7. Which audiences do you tend to aim for repeatedly, who isn’t joining in?
  8. Be authentic and be careful of stereotypes.

What next for this research?

  1. Cornish heritage in conflict case-studies e.g. Tintagel Controversy
  2. Develop a toolkit to help you apply the principles of Diversity in a Cornish Context to your work—funds permitting
  3. Explore Welsh, Irish and Scottish contexts
  4. European comparisons – minorities and under-represented
  5. International comparisons – minorities and under-represented
  6. Open dialogue with national agencies to raise awareness of the view from Cornwall and suggest how it can be brought to bear on their policies
  7. Looking for interview subjects
  8. Organise outreach and education programme and set up Rural Diversity Network using Cornwall for action research–funds permitting.

If you work in or use cultural services like museums and art galleries, or you are a practitioner with an interest in diversity in a Cornish context, please get in touch. I’d love to hear from you.

What are rural museums anyway?

Cornwall is categorised as a rural region.

Cornwall is categorised as a rural region.

On 13 June #museumhour debated rural museums, or museums in rural regions. It didn’t take long for the farm jokes to start. The debate was guest-hosted by Cornwall Museums Partnership and Highland Museums Partnership and mainly involved questions about the challenges of working in museums in rural places and the benefits they provide to their communities.

We were also reminded that rural museums also exist in cities (lots of contributions from Museum of English Rural Life in Reading), bringing the whole urban v rural debate a new dimension.

It still bothers me as to what different people mean when they talk about rural museums and what kinds of preconceptions exist about them amongst policy makers, pundits and practitioners when they discuss rurality.

Cornwall is categorised as a rural region and certainly there aren’t the big cities that exist elsewhere and its undeveloped transport system means it definitely feels like it is rural and remote here but there are still a surprising number of towns here with their own urban communities and heritage–some of which are served by their civic museums.

I’d like to explore this more, especially in the context of what civic museums are.

You can read some of the debate on Storify but, as ever, a number of side discussions and points were made that are worthwhile recording too so the ideas can be shared and debated further. It was particularly good to get contributions from Australia and the USA.

Here is a list of thoughts made by me and a couple of others in the debate:

  1. Working in a rural context seems to be 10x harder.
  2. There’s growing discussion of ‪civic museums amongst policy makers but rarely defined. What about civicness in ‪rural regions?
  3. There are hundreds of towns and urban centres in ‪rural regions. Countryside and rurality are relative.
  4. In US, many, many museums are ‪rural museums, in location, coll, or both. Represent important record of life in those areas (Tracey Berg-Fulton, USA).
  5. Largest no. of Accredited museums in UK run by ‪@nationaltrust in mainly ‪rural areas? ‪
  6. I think voices from museums in ‪#rural regions esp in big debates such as ‪diversity tend to be forgotten.
  7. Many cope on budgets that would be laughed at elsewhere, doing great stuff ‪(Mary O Toole).
  8. They are, alas, often the most vulnerable (funding, staffing, facilities). The loss of rural museums =devastating loss of memory ‪(Tracey Berg-Fulton, USA).
  9. Does quality more than quantity of engagement matter more for ‘small’ museums in ‪rural places? ‪
  10. It’s so important to challenge the assumptions inherent in categorisation. ‪
  11. What does everyone think about the idea that museums need to reflect national ‪diversity in some cases rather than regional? From report on ‪diversity in museum workforce esp in specialist roles.
  12. Huge retired population here [Cornwall] so no shortage of people with skills and interest. 37% of pop volunteer (not just museums).
  13. Retired population certainly helps, volunteers who join enjoy it immensely as its counteracts rural isolation (Helston Museum).
  14. Some bonza Aussie rural museums: QANTAS Founders Museum @qfom, Stockmans Hall of Fame @ASHOFAustralia, Carnamah Museum @carnamah (Heritage People, Hobart).
  15. Also problem of categorisation – such as what to do with industrial structures in rural areas (Dr. James Lattin).
  16. Ought to bring ‪coastal perspectives into a future ‪#museumhour debate on regional differences.
  17. Being connected online is a massive antidote to isolation often encountered working in ‪rural regions.

Please join in! Leave a comment and remember you can join #museumhour any time by following the hashtag.

Authority, authenticity and interpretation at Tintagel

Panorama from the headland of Tintagel island, with new sculpture in mid-ground.

Panorama from the headland of Tintagel island, with new sculpture in mid-ground.

Summary

This week my opinion article “Cornwall, Authenticity and the Dark Ages: Controversy at Tintagel Castle” was published by History & Policy. Following my visit to Tintagel on 30 April, it is an attempt to bring perspective to the key issues that have caused considerable upset and concern amongst Cornish communities, medieval historians and English Heritage.

The hope is that the airing of these issues in a systematic, question-driven way will help everyone learn from the problems with new interpretation at Tintagel Castle. The key issues I raise are summarised below.

They are apposite not just to the situation at Tintagel but more widely concern methods of interpretation of Cornish history, medieval history, and the ways in which sites with multiple protective designations are treated by heritage agencies. I expand on these issues below (with pictures!)

  1. Tintagel Castle and its setting are part of a site with multiple designations: Scheduled Ancient Monument, SSSI, AONB amongst others. English Heritage as property manager has asserted its dominance over the site with its recent and future planned interventions – why?
  2. Tintagel Castle’s early medieval history as the seat of Cornish Dumnonian kings/leaders is over-shadowed by a Victorian populist idea of King Arthur whose links with Tintagel are no more significant than the literary/historical figure’s links with many other sites in Britain and Europe. Why is Tintagel used to propagate this myth?
  3. Tintagel’s early medieval period is branded as the Dark Ages. Dark Ages is an obsolete, value-laden term, not even used by school teachers anymore. For this period in Cornish history some of the richest and most numerous archaeological finds have emerged – so why call it the Dark Ages?
  4. Why were monumental artistic interventions chosen as a method of interpretation? Would English Heritage countenance similar interventions at Stonehenge or at other multipli-designated sites they manage? If not, why at Tintagel?
  5. Why is the indoor exhibition centre so small and the space devoted to the Cornish history of the site under-stated when the shop areas are so large?
  6. Is the occasional use of the Cornish language enough to signal the site’s Cornish distinctiveness?
  7. Inviting audiences to ‘Step into England’s Story’ goes counter to the un-English history of the Cornish and Cornwall. How can English Heritage justify its use at the Cornish heritage sites it manages, and online, especially in the light of Articles 5, 6 and 12 of the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities?
  8. Given the disappointment in the pop Arthuriana presented at Tintagel back in 2010 (see below) who are the audiences for Tintagel Castle? As English Heritage’s fifth most visited heritage site is it being used as a cash cow and therefore privileging the undiscerning tourist over Cornish communities and other communities of interest? How is ‘popularity’ understood and is this a valid measure of success?
  9. What audience development and research consultation were undertaken to inform the new interpretation, including the decision to make several artistic interventions on this multipli-designated site? How are the responses to new interpretation being recorded?
  10. What can be done to improve or mitigate the concerns raised above and those by other professionals and members of the community?

Authority

Tintagel is special. The historic complex that comprises Tintagel Castle is part of a rich geological, archaeological and natural landscape that is protected by a number of designations. It is a Scheduled Ancient Monument monitored by Historic England. It is set in an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) with Tintagel’s cliffs designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) both monitored by Natural England. Cornwall Council has selected Tintagel as an Area of Great Historic Value in its Local Plan. The island part of the site is owned by the Duchy of Cornwall.

Tintagel Castle itself is one of several historic sites in Cornwall actively managed by English Heritage Trust (now an independent charity licensed to manage the “national heritage collection” on license from Historic England). Many are free to roam/enter while a few are paid entry, such as Tintagel Castle, Chysauster Ancient Village and Pendennis Castle–larger complexes looked after by property managers or seasonal custodians offering visitors a more mediated experience.

As such, there are competing designations at Tintagel and different authorities that have a duty to protect its precious distinctiveness and those same authorities with reciprocal duties towards its communities.

The Home Nations, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, have enjoyed autonomy over their historic environments and how it is interpreted for decades and given the spirit of Cornwall’s (first) Devolution Deal, and the context of Cornish National Minority Status, it seems to be an anomaly that Historic England and English Heritage continue to govern and make decisions on Cornwall’s historic environment (where decisions take place mainly outside Cornwall) without due care to include Cornish communities in decision-making and planning.

While Cornwall Council are currently planning to address the devolution of discussion and decision-making on the historic environment to Cornwall, in the form of a Board and Forum called “Heritage Kernow,” the set-up of this new group is yet to be publicised and its remit and constituents largely unknown.

An ongoing Parliamentary consultation of oral and written evidence called Countries of Culture is questioning how culture and heritage is supported, funded and how services are delivered, with a particular focus on the work of Arts Council England (responsible for central government funding for museums, archives and libraries and arts organisations) which has come under scrutiny for bias towards London, big cities and certain types of culture that may inadvertently be serving a minority elite.

Given the problematic context of other un-devolved English agencies, the challenges facing Cornish heritage and its expression become even more complex.

King Arthur's Great Halls, Tintagel village.

King Arthur’s Great Halls, Tintagel village.

Authenticity

The approach to Tintagel is long and winding. We now arrive at Tintagel the wrong way round as this place was created to face the ocean. As you get to Slaughterbridge on the village outskirts brown signs confidently point you to the Arthurian Centre, an exhibition experience dedicated to Arthur afficioados, and so the seduction begins. From King Arthur’s Great Halls to Spriggans Cove, a mini Glastonbury awaits you.

IMG_8727

“Whilst the Arthurian legends are accessible and well-known, the public does not ‘know’ a Tintagel beyond imagination, myth-making and marketing.”

Tintagel village renamed itself/was renamed (apparently for postal reasons) from its Cornish name Trevena and has been identifying with its cultish fame ever since the Victorian poet Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote Idylls of the King and the Great Western Railway started to provide easy access for pleasure tourists to Cornwall.

Hilary Orange and Patrick Laviolette conducted an ethnographic study of tourists to Tintagel in 2010, commenting on the interpretation of the time, “Whilst the Arthurian legends are accessible and well-known, the public does not ‘know’ a Tintagel beyond imagination, myth-making and marketing.”

What, if anything, has changed in the most recent reinterpretation at Tintagel? If visitors were “left disappointed by the lack of authoritative on-site narrative” what is offered today?

Where history sits uncomfortably with legend, new interpretation at Tintagel Castle.

Where history sits uncomfortably with legend, new interpretation at Tintagel Castle.

Interpretation

This interpretation review is measured against the following factors:

  1. My expectations and prejudices
  2. The call to action: From what starting point or philosophy does the interpreter begin?
  3. What expectations are raised before the visit?
  4. What are the key messages?
  5. How much interpretive space is devoted to them?
  6. Who are the audiences?

1. Caveat emptor – Buyer beware

This is not a neutral descriptive review of what you can expect to find at Tintagel Castle but an an analysis of how new interpretation may impact on impressions of Cornish history and heritage.

My concerns as an heritage interpreter and medieval historian were raised before my recent visit following press coverage of new on-site sculptural interpretation, discussions with Cornish campaigners and groups and correspondence with English Heritage regarding their approaches to interpretation at Tintagel Castle.

It was important that I visited to see for myself to what extent the new interpretation enhanced or adversely affected the integrity of the site. I undertook this site visit at my own cost and in my own time.

2. Call to action – England’s story

English Heritage has reinvented its reason for being and marketing is playing a big role in bringing cohesion to its portfolio of 400+ historic sites in the national heritage collection (in England including Cornwall). That cohesion is represented by their strategic priority and call to action to, “Step into England’s Story.

English Heritage is open about its vision and values:

Our work is informed by enduring values of authenticity, quality, imagination, responsibility and fun. Our vision is that people will experience the story of England where it really happened.

I am particularly struck by their commitment to authenticity:

We seek to be true to the story of the places and artefacts that we look after and present.  We don’t exaggerate or make things up for entertainment’s sake. Instead, through careful research, we separate fact from fiction and bring fascinating truth to light.

You have to dig deeply to find out about English Heritage’s attitudes towards community participation. The audience emphasis is on “the service we provide to our visitors.”

Anna Eavis, Curatorial Director says, “Whether on a famous battlefield, in the heart of a medieval castle, among the ruins of a once-great abbey or in the kitchen of a country house, the voices of our ancestors will sing out.” Whose ancestors is not clear, and as we shall see, the feeling of disconnection from local communities is felt keenly at Tintagel Castle.

The Story of England as a strategic interpretive aim of English Heritage is repeated in its manifesto called Our Priorities which includes: “We will create engaging and memorable experiences based on the story of England.” On involving others they say, “We will include the wider community in our work.”

Given the demonstrable upset caused by new interpretation at Tintagel amongst Cornish communities, and wider groups of interest, it is not clear what the extent of community consultation or feedback was, beyond the design consultation for the proposed new footbridge where candidate entries were displayed in the village.

However, the jury that chose the final design did not include any representatives from Cornish groups except for author Philip Marsden who is a trustee of the Royal Institution of Cornwall.

The problem with such admirable ideals is that they can often mask actions which do not match but it remains relatively difficult to call them to account.

Having demonstrated above the growing official recognition of distinctiveness in Cornish identity, culture and heritage, Cornwall’s story does not easily fit into England’s story so what impact is this having on the Cornish historic sites, and their audiences? Is an Anglo-centric approach appropriate?

3. I blow my nose at you, so-called ‘Arthur King’, you and all your silly English K-nig-hts*

I picked up the latest free tourist brochure about Tintagel on the way–the type of literature a large number of the 200,000+ visitors a year are likely to also pick up–to find out some tit-bits of information, trivia, taxi numbers, restaurants and a place for local businesses to advertise.

On page 7 there is a half page advertisement from English Heritage headlined “The Legend Lives On. Explore the myth and mystery of King Arthur in breathtaking surroundings.” The graphic shows a gigantic fantasy sword plunged into an image of Tintagel island. Heritage marketing has improved so much in its authenticity in the last few years. This is seriously disappointing from a national heritage agency which ought to know better.

“Get swept up in the history of Tintagel with new eye-catching outdoor interpretation across the site, including the Sword in the Stone and the centrepiece bronze statue of King Arthur; both perfect photo opportunities. Can you also spot Merlin’s face carved into the rocks near his cave on the beach?”

English Heritage advertisement in local tourist guide of TIntagel 2016

English Heritage’s leaflet on its principal Cornish sites, entitled, “Castles of Cornwall” with Cornish language sub-title “Kastylli Kernow” and footer slogan “Step into England’s Story” highlights “New for 2016” features at Tintagel: “Get swept up in the history of Tintagel with new eye-catching outdoor interpretation across the site, including the Sword in the Stone and the centrepiece bronze statue of King Arthur; both perfect photo opportunities. Can you also spot Merlin’s face carved into the rocks near his cave on the beach?”

English Heritage leaflet of Cornish properties, 2016

It is extremely hard to refute English Heritage’s clear bias towards pulling visitors to Tintagel Castle because of its tenuous Arthurian connections or question the agency’s desire to capitalise on the populism of Arthurian fantasy. By this point I was rerunning Monty Python’s Holy Grail in my head.*Gratitude to the Pythons for inspiring this bit of my review.

This is in spite of the rest of the village and other places mentioned already catering well for consumers of New Age Arthuriana. The only mention of anything else is “Dark Age settlements” and “Find out what inspired Richard, Earl of Cornwall, to build his castle here.”

The Cornishness of the experience is entirely absent in pre-visit marketing if you exclude the use of Cornish language sub-titles.

4. Imagined Arthur and Cornish history

Tintagel Castle, and indeed the broader cultural landscape that stretches beyond it, is widely acknowledged as a 5th-7th century (likely earlier and a bit later) seat of post-Roman kings who ruled over the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia taking up most of the large South Western peninsular of Britain, including today’s Cornwall, large parts of Devon and parts of Somerset. Tintagel represents considerable continuity in power structures, contacts and legitimacy in early medieval Britain.

After the consolidation of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the 10th century, the rump of this kingdom retained its territorial integrity up to today with its border with England consolidated along the River Tamar but the territory was not absorbed and pretty much left as a kind of protectorate and retained its specific constitutional status when the territory was retained as an earldom and then a Duchy in the 14th century.

The archaeological evidence, much of which still remains unexcavated, overwhelmingly supports the paradigm that Tintagel was a seat of power based on international maritime commerce that connected western Britain with the Mediterranean world in a big way.

This is a hugely significant story for Cornish communities and for scholars of early medieval culture but also for anyone wanting a better understanding of how different the topographies of Britain, Europe and the Mediterranean were in this period.

It is also extremely exciting history for any heritage interpreter to get their teeth into and for local and visiting audiences to learn about. It is unique to Tintagel and cannot be adequately told elsewhere. The popular stories of King Arthur can be told elsewhere.

The nature of publication in archaeology is hard-to-access and expensive so the social imperative of heritage interpreters must be to do as much as possible to convey the extent and distinctiveness of a site and its material culture to wide and diverse audiences and bring that scholarship to bear.

The tiny number of finds displayed in the exhibition centre do not do justice to the vast site archive that has been uncovered over the decades that Tintagel has been investigated. (Not sure where the remaining “several thousand pieces of pottery” and other site finds are.)

Display on Tintagel in the Cornish Dumnonian period (5th-7th centuries).

Display on Tintagel in the Cornish Dumnonian period (5th-7th centuries).

In my opinion, this part of Tintagel Castle’s story should lead the key messages. At present it plays only a supporting role in the interpretation presented in the small exhibition centre and is further denigrated by being branded under the banner of the Dark Ages.

Further, there are back references to Arthur in the interpretation, particularly in the interpretation of the so-called “Artognou Stone” presenting this period as part of an inevitable teleology leading to the more comfortable realms of Arthurian fantasy that continues in the section of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s 13th century castle and Victorian re-imaginings in the 19th century.

The 3D model with unusual projections showing the contrast between early medieval and 13th-century Tintagel (era of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s castle) did attract the eye but it was hard to understand the passage of time being presented unless you also had half an eye on the flashing images surrounding the model. I did feel however that here was some effort to convey messages that were firmly rooted in the archaeology of the site and not in an imagined version of it, like we find outside.

Merlin carving created in 2016 as part of new interpretation at Tintagel

Outside the small exhibition centre and on-site the privileging of a neo-Gothic version of King Arthur is undeniable.

English Heritage spokespeople were quick to point out that the carving of Merlin’s face into the SSSI-designated cliffs of Tintagel was really very small and admittedly it is very hard to find.

But then what is the point of it? If it is an activity to engage visitors especially families with young kids to search for Merlin’s face, what is the lasting imprint on that visit meant to be? And why does Merlin look like that? Surely the most popular depiction of Merlin in the modern day was that represented in the eponymous BBC fantasy drama.

Since my visit a bit of the nose of Merlin either fell off or was deliberately chipped off. Sadly the immediate reaction was that it was the responsibility of someone who didn’t like EH’s new interventions. However it may equally have been caused by someone wanting a souvenir, from natural causes, or by someone wanting to cause mischief with no sense of the controversy surrounding its creation. Whichever reason, it would seem disingenuous for this to be considered an ‘act of vandalism’ when the original carving may also be considered destructive because of the protected designation of the cliffs.

Already, the controversy surrounding this item of interpretation has started to remove people from its intentions and from representing Tintagel authentically. With Merlin’s Cave (a name for the beach only dating from the 19th century Victorian imagination) just below, was it really necessary to damage the cliff face to create a corporately-approved anthropomorphic image of Merlin? Was there another way to pique people’s own imaginations?

Bronze statue of King Arthur or other figure.

Bronze statue of King Arthur or other figure.

any king or leader using Tintagel as a seat of power would certainly not have his back to the sea

The statue of King Arthur or the figure it’s meant to represent in audience imaginations is an attempt to create a photo opportunity for visitors.  The figure is 8 feet high and looms awkwardly on the headland. Sculptural interventions at ancient and historic sites will divide opinions in taste and how in-keeping or proportional it is with surroundings. In this already spectacular environment with imagination-provoking remains what is the interpretive purpose of this statue?

King Arthur’s association with Tintagel in legend principally concerns his conception and the machinations of Uther Pendragon as presented in the stories of 12th-century Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. He bears a close resemblance to Gandalf in the recent film adaptations of Lord of the Rings. King Arthur as an old wisdom-figure does not have associations with Tintagel in medieval tales.

The legend of Tristan and Iseult (Eselt in its Cornish form) with its associations with Tintagel could have provided an opportunity to gender-balance interpretation, at least of legend, at Tintagel which, as it stands, is distinctly male.

In an interview with the Financial Times Jeremy Ashbee of English Heritage asserts the importance of balancing historical and legendary aspects of an historic site such as Tintagel. This is true and a challenge for any heritage interpreter. However, the authenticity of the figure is questionable, even when privileging the Arthurian legend of Tintagel over the site’s other histories.

Why does Tintagel need such visual focuses when, for example, Stonehenge does not? Who is making these value judgements?

If, as has also been suggested, that the statue could even represent the presence of Cornish kings from the post-Roman Dumnonian period when England did not yet exist and borders and frontiers were fluid and fought over, why is he represented like this?

Any king or leader using Tintagel as a seat of power would certainly not have his back to the sea–the source of contact, connections and wealth that is represented spectacularly by the archaeological finds from the site.

Overall this statue can only serve to reinforce populist acceptance of a Victorian version of King Arthur. It lacks the interpretive power to make any of the subtle points that perhaps the interpreters may have hoped it could make.

It is rooted in a fundamental lack of understanding or interest in the audiences and communities English Heritage has a responsibility to serve through its custodianship of monuments in our national heritage. Still less does it serve the Cornish stories of Arthur or the Cornish history of the site.

Part of curtain walls of Richard, Earl of Cornwall's castle at Tintagel.

Part of curtain walls of Richard, Earl of Cornwall’s castle at Tintagel.

Amongst the Arthurian interventions the most prominent remains at Tintagel Castle are those of the 13th-centry symbolic castle built on the orders of Richard, Earl of Cornwall. Herein lies an exceptionally important milestone in the history of Cornwall. A most significant omission in interpretation is the castle’s potentially continued symbolic importance as a place of ancient legitimacy and power not just for Cornwall but for Britain and Europe.

The caption for a small illumination from a medieval manuscript showing the Black Prince being made Duke of Cornwall (an elevation from Earl) by his father Edward III in 1337 does not make the connection between this key date and the creation of the Duchy of Cornwall in the same year. By this date the Ricardian castle was already in a ruinous state but was clearly still important enough as a place of power to have a third phase of building in the 1340s.

Cornwall’s constitutional status was cemented as being different from the rest of England with the creation of the Duchy of Cornwall to directly benefit the first born male heir to the throne. The Duchy of Cornwall, and not the Crown, still owns the land at Tintagel Castle. The current Duke of Cornwall is Prince Charles and he remains a major landowner in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, originating from this period.

We are told in the exhibition centre that Richard chose the site at Tintagel for his symbolic castle because of its associations with King Arthur and to place himself in the “long tradition of Cornish kings, demonstrating his power over the Cornish people.” While the subject of the Cornish kings remains contentious because of partial and fleeting documentation, the lack of explanation as to why Richard would want to demonstrate his dominance over Cornwall, and how this led to the institution of the Duchy of Cornwall as a territory distinct from England in 1337 is a missed opportunity to emphasise the site’s importance in Cornish history.

Illustration on outdoor interpretive slab showing Edward, the Black Prince being made Duke of Cornwall.

Illustration on outdoor interpretive slab showing Edward, the Black Prince being made Duke of Cornwall.

In another post I outline problems with the interpretation of the early medieval period at Tintagel Castle, particularly its categorisation as the Dark Ages. They do no need re-stating  except to reiterate that heritage interpreters must be careful of using value judgements in their presentation of historical subjects.

By and large the textual interpretation at Tintagel is even and un-provocative; this is in sharp contrast to the sculptural interventions outside which are provocative. The use of the headline term Dark Ages is provocative and generally degrades a modern understanding of this well-studied site for which there exists much historical and archaeological commentary. From a Cornish perspective, some historians have argued that it was more of a Golden Age for Cornwall than a dark one.

Choices in interpretive delivery are crucial here and wide research and audience understanding are needed to make those choices as well as possible within the resources available. For example, not even in the school curriculum is the term Dark Ages used to teach children about the early medieval period stretching from the end of Roman rule to the 11th century. Perhaps local schools are not a key target audience for EH at Tintagel?

The accompanying guidebook is really a post-visit souvenir. I would not recommend using it (as it recommends you do) while you clamber around the rocks and steep stair cases at Tintagel or you will fall over and do yourself an injury.

The key messages in the guidebook and the website are broadly reflective of what you find on site with Arthurian connections dominating the narratives that are presented, the presence of some Cornish history but not much, and the emphasis of Cornwall’s distinctive chronology, as compared with “England” assumed but not stated.

5. Interpretive value

Currently, the entire back wall of the exhibition centre currently serves to display different words in English and Kernewek–lending an air of Cornish authenticity that is not rooted in the history of the place and has low interpretive value except to suggest some distinctiveness to the place in which the visitors find themselves. What was the logic behind this? There is no call to action.

A version of the Cornish language in use today was certainly spoken throughout the medieval period here. The common language of the aristocracy in the 13th and 14th century of Richard Earl of Cornwall’s period and after was medieval French. Cornish is a protected minority language today and while it is good to see it in use at heritage sites it would have been more powerful to make this connection overt.

Wasted space? A large part of the Tintagel exhibition centre shows low interpretive value.

Wasted space? A large part of the Tintagel exhibition centre shows low interpretive value.

The displays in the exhibition centre are roughly equally balanced to reflect different phases of Tintagel Castle’s history. While a tiny display serves the early medieval period of the site from where there certainly hails the largest amount of evidence in terms of artefacts, when compared with the exhibits used to illustrate the 19th century, there could have been the opportunity here to create the centre around these more prominently, and more widely, and an opportunity to diversify the range of interpretation currently on offer–particularly when it comes to the role of women in the early medieval period of the site.

I am sure there were lots of logistical problems for English Heritage undertaking this, not least negotiating loans and organising their mounting and care, but I can’t help but feel that this was a lost opportunity to use this space more specifically to emphasise the huge number and range of evidence found in archaeological investigations at the site, even if they were exhibited in surrogate form. Perhaps this could be part of a future refurbishment of the centre together with some opportunities for audience interaction?

Outside the interpretive value of the artistic interventions have been stated above. There is not a huge amount more to say on this except that the choices that were made have monumentally privileged an inauthentic narrative over the chance of a more authentic one.

Generic English Heritage branded medieval souvenirs in one of the Tintagel Castle shops.

Generic English Heritage branded medieval souvenirs in one of the Tintagel Castle shops.

Perhaps the greatest concern I have about interpretive value at the site is the space devoted to merchandising and shopping opportunities, raising the stakes on the claim that Tintagel is being used as a cash-cow to finance other aspects of English Heritage’s work. The English Heritage branded goods and medieval souvenirs are generic and I could find none relating specifically to Tintagel.

This shop could be anywhere and serves to reduce the site’s distinctiveness in place. There is a lack of access to reference works to buy in the shop where a visitor could, if they wished, read more about Tintagel and its related history and archaeology.

I am a big museum shop aficionado. Museum shops are great opportunities to continue interpretation and permit visitors to take some of the authenticity of the place they have visited home. I would be interested to see what future lines emerge and whether they will default to the kind of Arthuriana you can already find in the rest of the village.

6. Audiences and communities

Many of the problems I have highlighted above contravene the rights of the Cornish National Minority to have a say in how their heritage is presented and used.

Everything I have described above has at its root the diverse audiences and communities that historical sites, museums and others with authority are entrusted by society to serve.

The interpretation at Tintagel Castle does not feel like it is rooted in the community nor a result of good audience development work. Orange and Laviolette highlighted the problem of disappointment in their ethnography of Tintagel in 2010 (see above) and yet in 2016 after a new interpretive effort we are left with a similar feeling of disillusionment about not really being able to “know” a Tintagel beyond the imagination, myth-making and marketing.

Where exactly is Tintagel’s place in the histories of Cornwall, Britain and Europe and how can the communities that are connected to those histories better relate to the site in their lives and world views?

Tour group at Tintagel.

Tour group at Tintagel.

While visiting there were not many other visitors except for a large group of mixed-nationality students. They were being guided by a tour-guide who was presenting some questionable history to the audience. I would have loved to have surveyed the group afterwards to see what impression of Tintagel and Cornwall they left with.

Authority is certainly asserted by the tone and finish of the interpretive work at Tintagel Castle which leaves very little room for what different audiences, especially local ones, can bring. How is the new interpretation at Tintagel relevant to Cornish communities? Why is the tourist leisure family audience privileged, and if the new interventions were for their sake to drive more of them through the turnstiles, what impressions of Cornish heritage will be left with them?

What of the programming at Tintagel? Activity at historic sites, while potentially more expensive, can be a far better tool for interpretation than words on boards.

In 2014 the unique identity of the Cornish was officially recognised by the UK Government  under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (Council of Europe, not EU) affording them the same right to officially self-identity as as the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish, amongst others.

A significant part of the protection of the Cornish National Minority concerns the State’s (UK Government) undertaking to “undertake to promote the conditions necessary for persons belonging to national minorities to maintain and develop their culture, and to preserve the essential elements of their identity, namely their religion, language, traditions and cultural heritage.” (Article 5).

Articles 6 and 12 contain further obligations that are relevant to all public bodies who have responsibility for cultural heritage in Cornwall.

Many of the problems I have highlighted above contravene the rights of the Cornish National Minority to have a say in how their heritage is presented and used. As English Heritage is de facto an arm of the state via license from Historic England, these responsibilities are particularly incumbent upon them.

But this is not about recriminations and blame, it’s about needing to open up lines of communication that are honest and transparent between all communities of interest so that the best result (there is no perfect) can be achieved. Having a say is important even if the point being made may be misguided. Agencies like English Heritage have a responsibility to listen and take action accordingly.

The growing need to mainstream diversity in our culture is apposite to this argument. A lack of consciousness of, or ignoring, the diversity in our communities will lead to poorer interpretation and a lack of engagement with heritage. We all want that not to be the case.

In conclusion, I should like to reiterate that a site as special as Tintagel, meaningful to Cornish people, meaningful to the millions that visit Cornwall every year, meaningful to those that have the privilege of being custodians, and meaningful to those with a love for good history, ought to have been treated with more loving care and respect in its interpretation that is currently evidenced.

I have presented Tintagel Castle as a case-study of Cornish heritage in conflict. There are others and it is about time we debated openly about why this kind of thing happens and how we can improve the situation. Can we expect better at other Cornish heritage sites, those run by English Heritage and those that are in the care of others?

Museums Association visits Cornwall

On 12 May the Museums Association visited Cornwall for the annual Members Meeting in the South West. I’d like to extend my appreciation to MA colleagues for making the long journey from London but also emphasise the importance of such visits to show it is a fully inclusive and diverse-led organisation that is interested in views from everywhere.

Big debates and discussions in the museum sector tend to happen in big cities. It’s good for them to happen in large rural regions like Cornwall too. Cornwall and the South West suffer from a lack of representation and voice in national organisations and perhaps we are not good at sharing our great work and good practice outside our local areas.

As MA Rep for the South West, I’d like to help, in whatever small way I can, to change that so the region becomes another default place to look to where great ideas are put into practice, particularly from small and tiny museums.

Museums Change Lives logo

Share your case-studies

The Museums Association is always looking for great case-studies and stories, invitations for review and features. Museums in the South West should be better represented in the case-studies of the MA’s flagship policy Museums Change Lives. Please consider submitting one. If you don’t know how, get in touch and I’ll help.

Read my review of the South West Museums Association Meeting.

English Heritage are in the Dark Ages at Tintagel

Tintogel, more famous for his antiquity than rewardable for his present estate, abutteth likewise on the sea; yet the ruins argue it to have been once no unworthy dwelling for the Cornish princes.

Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall, 1602

Not long before Shakespeare released Hamlet, Richard Carew had already published his Survey of Cornwall–a masterpiece of Elizabethan-era prose and one of the most important historical documents written about Cornwall. Tintagel Castle was in a not unfamiliar ruinous state than now and Carew devotes some space to discussing the site’s history and lore.

Carew cites a poem (originally in Latin) collected by William Camden which I read before I set off for Tintagel for my own survey a few weeks ago:

There is a place within the winding shore of Severn Sea
On midst of rock, about whose foot
The tide’s turn-keeping play:
A tow’ry topped castle here
Wide 
blasted over all,
Which Corineus ancient brood
Tindagel Castle call.

Corineus is a character likely based on an historical king of Cornwall (or at least a memory of Cornish kings), re-mythologised, just like King Arthur, by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain. Gildas and Nennius were already writing history and legend 600 and 400 years before. Old British kings have a habit of dissolving into myth, see also the second-century King Lucius.

Memory of Tintagel as a seat of real Cornish kings long pre-dated the Victorian Arthurisation of the post-Roman and early medieval history of the site, as shown by re-collections of Carew and others.

I knew that English Heritage had decided to brand the period of the Cornish kings as the Dark Ages and first raised this concern in my post on the Tintagel Controversy.

 This is live historiography and any student of medieval history should be keeping up! #stopthedarkages

In this post I reiterate my concerns from the point of view of a medieval historian and interpreter about the use of Dark Ages by English Heritage to brand such a crucial period in Cornish history.

English Heritage base their national timeline 'The Story of England' on a substantial period of confusion and lack of knowledge they call the Dark Ages (c410-1066) #stopthedarkages

English Heritage base their national timeline ‘The Story of England’ on a substantial period of apparent confusion and lack of knowledge they call the Dark Ages (c410-1066) #stopthedarkages

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cornwall and the Story of England

English Heritage’s national timeline “The Story of England” is committed to the Dark Ages and presents a strange narrative in which both the Middle Ages and Cornwall sit very uncomfortably.

Apart from the anachronism that Dark Ages represents (casting modern determinist values on the past) the fact that it is used commonly as a derogatory and denigrating term must surely have given English Heritage pause for thought?

Since then a large and vocal cohort of fellow medievalists joined the #stopthedarkages cause and have expertly deconstructed the term from their own perspectives as being value-based, anachronistic and misleading.

Stop the Dark Ages #stopthedarkages

Dr. Leonie Hicks rallied fellow medievalists not just in the UK but abroad as well and is documenting the #stopthedarkages debate on Storify. This is live historiography and any student of medieval history should be keeping up!

A Clerk of Oxford thinks English Heritage is making a partisan value judgement about historical change between Anglo-Saxon and Norman. Kate Miles called the use of Dark Ages by English Heritage an “outdated stereotype” in History Today.

Dr. Charles West commented, “isn’t it patronising to suppose that this public would be baffled or put off by describing a period of time as early medieval, the obvious alternative?” Going on to highlight that Historic Scotland have no such qualms about the intelligence of their audiences and eschew the term completely.

Dark Age apologists

On 5 May English Heritage issued a defence, a kind of apology, to those of us who were vocalising our objection to their use of Dark Ages not just as a term to describe a period from the 5th century to 1066 but also because it was unnecessarily loaded and judgemental.

Dr Hicks’s surgical demolition of the national heritage agency’s defence of the Dark Ages does not need re-stating by me.

The contents of this apology were not new to me as they had been emailed to me, almost verbatim, by one of the historians who had reinterpreted Tintagel. But at least they did leave it open at the end for us to suggest alternatives so long as it is “short, generally valid for the period c.400 – 1066 and crucially, must be understandable to the wider public.”

Are English Heritage interpreters using best practice when thinking about their communities–are they thinking about them at all?

Although the apology obliquely referenced the problematic use of “Anglo-Saxon” in Cornwall it completely missed the point of the damaging effect of using Dark Ages on the audiences and communities of Cornish heritage–and indeed the heritage of others.

Early Medieval is not considered good enough because “we have found that these terms are popularly associated with the period around 1066 and the Normans.”

The mystery amongst heritage interpreters and commentators remain – who at English Heritage has interviewed and canvassed its audiences (including professional practitioners and academics) to find out whether this is true?

Are English Heritage interpreters using best practice when thinking about their communities–are they thinking about them at all?

The get-out clause with the apologists seems to be the specific period of the 5th to 7th centuries for which the Dark Ages seemed to them most apposite. Ken Dark’s ‘Back to the ‘Dark Ages’? Terminology and Preconception in the Archaeology of fifth- to seventh-century Celtic Britain’ published in Journal of Celtic Studies 4, pp. 193-200, is cited as being influential (although literally no one I knew had heard of it). Ken Dark had back in the 1980s studied some of the Mediterranean pottery from Tintagel from a Byzantinist’s perspective so how a scholar could sabotage his own evidence of super-highway Atlantic seaboard trade by calling this period the Dark Ages is bewildering.

Ian Mortimer chastises English Heritage for dropping the “professional bar too low” with the blanket use of Dark Ages to describe the “later Saxon period” after the turn of the 8th century (700) but absolutely defends its use for the 300 or so years before hand which, with a flourish, are described as a “violent culture.”

Prof. Howard Williams has also got tied up in knots about periodisation in the early Middle Ages  but does not get to the Dark Ages, albeit on Twitter did ask why Dark Ages wasn’t OK for Cornwall in the 5-7th centuries (see below).

I spent an awfully long time ruminating on categories and labels when studying for my PhD on early medieval southern Italy and the Mediterranean. I called the entire period I worked on early medieval, echoing my peers and mentors – several of whom had produced new revisionist work on the early Middle Ages.

If you can’t explain it, don’t use it. If you have to apologise for it, don’t use it.

I am an advocate of describing change by other means such as economic, technological or political. I have curated several exhibitions, including those on medieval topics and have never received any feedback outlining confusion about the use of the terms medieval, early medieval or simply the use of a date. For me, this works because it is not casting a value judgement on my sources.

All other descriptors need to be authentic to the place and chronology of the archaeology or documentary record you are examining. If you can’t explain it, don’t use it. If you have to apologise for it, don’t use it.

Narrative choices

My serious contention is that English Heritage has branded a really significant period in Cornish history that has produced a huge amount of evidence as the Dark Ages.

It is misleading. If, on the one hand, 5-7th century Tintagel is presented as the seat of kings (English Heritage interpretation describes it as “high status”) how, then, can you call such a period dark, as in unknowable, sinister, shady, obscure, even calamitous?

Arguably, inhabitants of the British Isles, particularly Cornwall and the wider South West peninsula, have never lived in a more internationalist period as they did in the first centuries of the early Middle Ages as Roman infrastructure broke up and large communities migrated long distances to find new homes, new alliances were made, new trade and movement deals struck.

It was exactly in this period that a lesser known migration of people from the ancient kingdom of Dumnonia (“Greater Cornwall”) in South West Britain took place to settle in the region of Brittany taking language and culture with them.

The fact is we know a lot about this period. Like all medieval sources, whether texts or material culture, they take time and skill to decode, compare and place in context.

Or, is English Heritage keen to achieve a harmonious “Story of England” across all of the sites it manages and therefore is it more convenient to relegate early medieval Tintagel as it just doesn’t fit the narrative of the blossoming of a London-centric England?

Hiding the evidence

The Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999 by Barrowman, Batey and Morris  is the most recent collection of archaeological reports about the early medieval site. The authors from the University of Glasgow, were commissioned by the old English Heritage, to conduct fieldwork and research to re-examine the extensive earlier excavations by Ralegh Radford in the 1930s.

Artognou stone demonstrating Dumnonian literacy and culture, not Arthur.

Artognou stone demonstrating Dumnonian literacy and culture, not Arthur.

Nowhere in the pages of this book does the term Dark Ages appear and the Arthurian claims are calmly refuted. You would not be any the less wise for their absence.

Speaking on the discovery of the ‘Artognou stone’, displayed in the exhibition centre: “Despite media speculation, the latter is not ‘Arthur’, although the stone itself is dramatic testimony to the cultural and literary milieu of high-status Dumnonian society in the post-Roman period.”

The description of the slate in the exhibition centre slightly skews the evidence for literacy at the site and reintroduces Arthurian possibility, “Although similar to Arthur, this does not prove his existence.” And then rather weakly continues, “The slate does show that the people who lived here continued to write in Latin, proving the high status of the settlement.”

If anything is going to confuse an audience it is going to be the concomitant use of terms such as “high status” and “Dark Ages.” The point here isn’t just about the Latin inscription (and no cross-reference is made to the inscriptions on nearby stones, for example in the churchyard) but the fact it was written – yes in the “Dark Ages” they could write at Tintagel !

Tintagel, an ancient powerhouse.

Tintagel, an ancient powerhouse.

Continuing to describe the 5th-7th century settlement (thought previously by Ralegh Radford to be a ‘Celtic monastery’) the authors conclude that the new archaeology, “has demonstrated the iconic importance of the site from the post-Roman period, not just in Dumnonia, but in the wider world of western and northern Britain and Ireland and the economy of the late Antique and Byzantine world.”

Put simply, early medieval Tintagel was an ancient powerhouse. After the breakdown of Roman rule, Tintagel remained part of an international political, cultural and economic network. Because of this longevity and continued success Tintagel became imbued with symbolic importance as a place of legitimacy and power.

From an historiographical point of view, English Heritage does not have a leg to stand on so it’s time for them and anyone who continues to use this discriminatory term to #stopthedarkages now.

Instead English Heritage have chosen to represent this period as the Dark Ages and provide a rather watered down and awkward version of the sheer range and richness of the evidence from the site–you don’t get any of the impact of the sheer scale of finds in the visitor centre.

While some attempt is made to represent the significance of the site it really does not come through, and its importance in Cornish history is hidden altogether.

The teleological back referencing to Arthur in the exhibition, on site and in the guidebook, can only serve to reinforce a sense that the interpreters have chosen to privilege populist conceits over real history and archaeology. The additional outdoor interpretation around the early medieval sections will sadly reinforce these messages.

It is a worrying trend that national agencies are actively choosing to use terms such as Dark Ages at any historical site. They should be providing an example to others in the way they manage and interpret their heritage.

From an historiographical point of view, English Heritage does not have a leg to stand on so it’s time for them and anyone who continues to use this discriminatory term to #stopthedarkages now.

Places of power, denigrated by English Heritage as Dark Age at Tintagel.

Places of power, denigrated by English Heritage as Dark Age at Tintagel.

References:

Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall 1602, with a new introduction by Paul White 2000 (Launceston: Tor Mark Press).

David J. Knight, King Lucius of Britain, 2008 (Stroud: Tempus).

Rachel C. Barrowman, Colleen E. Batey, Christopher D. Morris, Excavations at Tintagel Castle, Cornwall, 1990-1999, 2007 (Reports of the Research Committee of the Society of Antiquaries of London).