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Carew had already published his Survey of Cornwall–a masterpiece of Elizabethan-era prose and one of the most important historical documents written about Cornwall.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).

Diversity in the Nation

The phrase “increasing diversity” occurs regularly in discussions about culture but what do we mean? What does diversity look like?  Is diversity in the context of equality the same as diversity in the context of inclusion?

Diversity is on every major cultural agenda. I have been taking a keen interest in how diversity is represented and expressed by museums and other heritage institutions as I have been a long-time advocate and producer of community-focused programming as a mainstream rather than fringe strategy for survival.

Achieving resilience in your museum or cultural organisation has to have at its heart a commitment to diversify audiences. The reason is that if you want your organisation to survive, and be loved, your communities and communities of interest (not just the obvious stakeholders) need to understand why you are important to them.

At the Museums Association conference 2015, Sir Peter Luff, the Chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund gave a stirring keynote speech where skills, diversity and young people were firmly and unequivocally put on the agenda and HLF is changing its funding schemes to reflect these priorities.

Arts Council England is also centralising diversity in its agenda, particularly to support the Creative Case for ‘diverse-led’ arts and culture. The emphasis is also on diversifying the range of people and organisations which apply for arts funding from them, and to ensure that at least 75% of its funding is invested outside London. ACE’s Chair Sir Peter Bazalgette said that arts and cultural organisations must reflect the diverse communities they serve. A report by the Museum Consultancy presents research findings on the state of diversity in the museum workforce.

The much-vaunted UK Government’s Culture White Paper, published in March, “sets out the government’s ambition and strategy for the cultural sectors.” The paper jars heavily with the austerity-led narrative that dominates the cultural sector at the moment. There is a sense that the White Paper was born from a Whitehall Office out of touch with the reality of people’s joys and woes as producers and consumers of arts, heritage and culture. Nevertheless, diversity is mentioned 18 times in its 72 pages.

Diversity has also been much debated in discussions on #museumhour.

The UK Parliament’s Countries of Culture enquiry is ongoing and no doubt several of the oral and written submissions will express concern about a lack of diversity in funded art and culture.

I am less familiar with the culture and diversity landscapes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and internationally, but I look forward to doing a bit of asking around and reporting back.

The phrase “increasing diversity” occurs regularly in discussions about culture but what do we mean? What does diversity look like? Is diversity in the context of equality the same as diversity in the context of inclusion? How does workforce diversity differ from audience diversity?

The debate took place at the Goldsmith's Centre, London.

The debate took place at the Goldsmith’s Centre, London.

Big debates

On 16 March I attended the Museums Association’s Diversity: A State of the Nation Debate in my capacity as the Regional Representative for the South West. At this point, I’d like to extend my thanks to the MA for sponsoring my travel from deepest Cornwall to London enabling me to attend.

This event took place not long after the MA’s Big Debate on Diversity at the annual conference in Birmingham in November 2015 which I also attended. This was followed by an informal and therapeutic meeting of the Museum Detox network, a very loose group of museum professionals from BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds.

I find these debates deeply stimulating as they make me question my own understanding and beliefs about people and their identities, and in particular how complex self-indentifying is, and how poorly we express and understand it.

However, there were also some concerning features apparent and unacknowledged at both these debates and indeed in the majority of discussion about diversity and what diversity looks like.

What’s missing from the debate. Who is missing? Where do they take place?

Big City types

Both Birmingham and London debates took place in corporate boxes. This is not a slur, just an observation as I believe that place is a fundamental, if unarticulated, component in understanding diversity.

The main proponents of the debates were also from London or large urban metropolitan areas whose perspectives on their own communities are shaped by the people and places they live and work in everyday. Sharon Heal, Director of the MA, spoke fondly of her everyday diversity where she lives in Bethnal Green.

When they think about diversity in museums, for example, do museums from large swathes of the UK that are politically and economically defined as rural, figure in their minds: the South West of Britain, the Highlands of Scotland, most of Northern Ireland, or North Wales?

Beyond the Protected Characteristics

The diversity themes that dominate discourse are around equality and social justice for those participating and working in museums, culture, arts and heritage that concern discrimination and systemic inequality against nine protected characteristics:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

Of these race, disability and sex and to a lesser extent religion, were of most interest to those participating in the Museums Association debates. Put crudely, there are more women than men in the museum workforce but few women occupy leadership and governance roles; disability remains poorly represented and catered for, more so a problem for those with hidden disabilities; working and participating in museums remains unattractive to those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

Geographic exclusion, Cornwall and the South West

During the several round-table discussions, we talked about other major factors that present barriers to diversifying the workforce, audiences and programmes.

A top consideration at my table was geography and geographic discrimination or exclusion.

I live and work in the far west of Cornwall. It took me over 5 hours and an overnight stay to be able to take part in both Birmingham and London debates. Cornwall is politically and economically part of the South West even though culturally and perhaps socially too Cornwall and the Cornish are distinct from its South West neighbours on many levels, evidenced by international recognition of its indigenous language, Kernewek, UK Government-ratified National Minority Status and through the devolution of (some) powers to its unitary authority. Note that Nationality is not currently a protected characteristic under Equality legislation but is included, with colour and citizenship under race.

Even beyond Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, with nearly 2500 inhabitants can feel that the UK mainland is a world away. For much of the year you can only fly there (if the weather is right).

I live and work in a highly fragmented region with hundreds of mainly small urban centres and large numbers of rural (isolated) places that are all defined in the context of London and other major metropolitan areas. Large parts of our region are unable to regularly participate in and access the big issues of our time (perhaps with the exception of Bristol), whether that’s diversity, austerity or other matters high on political agendas.

Consequently voices from the region, and especially Cornwall, tend to get muffled or ignored or simply deemed too far and too remote and not plentiful enough to engage with. Within this situation, what hope do minority people have in finding a voice?

Class psychology and professionalisation

The other theme of discrimination and diversity we discussed was class. I felt this was not particularly well-articulated by anyone. I am uncomfortable with the idea that low economic productivity directly leads to low participation in arts and culture. And football tickets are so expensive.

After all, many, many museum and arts jobs are amongst the lowest paid and least stable in terms of security and benefits of all professions. One of our table cited the professionalisation of our sector as a serious factor in the lack of class diversity, e.g. job competitions requiring sometimes not one but two degrees.

I think there’s a separate debate to be had about that as I do not agree that professional qualifications which give people the know-how to take care of our collections and make them accessible to our audiences is blanketly a bad thing. But at the same time not all museum jobs need a degree to do them. And, there still remain fewer jobs than there are people who want them–as I said it’s a related but separate issue.

Perhaps more broadly, class is a psychological barrier that encompasses upbringing, education, comprehension and articulation–do some sectors of UK society lack the social and cultural language to participate in culture? What can museums do about that, especially when they talk about the “hard to reach?”

More cultural organisations are aware of their obligations to serve diverse audiences but the same institutions are still not doing anything strategic about it. Diversity is addressed in short-term ‘nice to have’ community engagement projects but not addressed in organisational governance, mainstream programming or the workforce.

How do we develop long-term programmes and activities that are more attractive to those not currently engaged (however you want to define that)? What about those not engaged that face practical barriers to participation such as the “Time-poor dreamers” representing in 2010, approximately 4% of the adult population, a higher than average proportion from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds and most under the age of 44.

There was a sense from the room that diversity, as imperfect as expressions of it are, is now more mainstream than 15 years ago. More cultural organisations are aware of their obligations to serve diverse audiences but the same institutions are still not doing anything strategic about it. Diversity is addressed in short-term ‘nice to have’ community engagement projects but not addressed in organisational governance, mainstream programming or the workforce.

Democracy and power

Other features from my table’s discussion that I felt strongly about was democracy and power.  I was surprised no one brought up these fundamental features of social and cultural demography that we all take for granted. This led to a debate about the usefulness of techniques used in peace and reconciliation in post-conflict zones such as deep listening and developmental evaluation.

We didn’t get a chance to discuss these in detail but I think the principle of mutual education through listening is a fundamental challenge in our sector, as evidenced in the Tintagel Controversy.

We need to keep debates about diversity going, both formally and informally. They need to take place in more diverse places and more diverse people need to be invited to take part in them. I am only seeing the usual suspects time and again.

Diversity doesn’t look like anything. It’s a philosophy and a commitment to trusting the idea that embracing difference is a good thing that will lead to better-governed and more accessible and successful institutions and activities.

New Code of Ethics and what is a museum?

Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.

Museums Association definition of a museum.

Update: The Museums Association has just issued Additional Guidance for the new Code of Ethics.

At the last AGM of the Museums Association in November 2015 in Birmingham, we (the membership delegation) voted to formally adopt the new Code of Ethics.

This revision follows several revisions since the launch of a UK-wide code of practice and conduct in 1977. Previous updates happened in 1987, 1991, 2002 and 2007, each responding to the changing social, economic and cultural contexts of museums of all shapes and sizes.

The MA’s working definition of a museum, or what a museum should be, has not changed but the emphasis on how it should behave (this is not about prescribing a set of activities or audiences) has transformed by raising the stakes on community involvement and public benefit and this is raised to headlining the Code:

Museums and those who work in and with them should:

• provide and generate accurate information for and with the public

• support freedom of speech and debate

• treat everyone equally, with honesty and respect

• actively engage and work in partnership with existing audiences and reach out to new and diverse audiences

• use collections for public benefit – for learning, inspiration and enjoyment

Read in full the New Code of Ethics, 2015.

This increased emphasis has raised some cynicism and protest from those who are uncomfortable about museums’ social function being as important as core functions (albeit they are often not defined). This MA LinkedIn debate is worth reading.

For me, the MA’s Code of Ethics is the no. 1 reason I remain a member and volunteer (as Regional Representative for the South West) for the MA. Without a sense of purpose museums are just activity centres or cafe, event and shop businesses with a gallery or two tagged on.

Collections and their stewardship for and on behalf of society is what makes a museum a museum (rather than (just) an arts venue).

As an independent consultant, supplier and contractor the Code of Ethics gives me the strength I sometimes (often) need to challenge shady, lazy or misguided goings-on in the museum world.

At the same time I challenge pejorative, if well-meaning, comments that “people are more important than objects in museums.” Such beliefs can skew the fundamental philosophy and meaning behind what a museum is.

Without a starting point of collections, and their good care, research and dissemination, you are doing a disservice to the very people you aim to engage in your museum.

The emphasis on diverse communities being fully engaged in your museum is important and is one of the fundamental standards for any museum to dispense its ‘in trust for society’ functions.

Think about it this way, if your communities and audiences grow to love your museum because they feel a sense of ownership over the collections, and the exhibitions and activities which breathe life into them, the Code of Ethics is a philosophy to guide you in that purpose.