Community and Diversity Cornish Heritage Exhibitions History Medieval

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.


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?


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.


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.


“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.


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?

Community and Diversity Cornish Heritage History Medieval

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
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.


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).

Cornish Heritage History

The Tintagel Controversy

“Disneyfication, Myth, Britain, Vandalism and Medieval Civilisation have been made uncomfortable bed-fellows.”

In recent weeks the ancient site of Tintagel in North Cornwall has been the subject of controversy. The conflict is between the re-interpretation of the site by English Heritage and Cornish groups and individuals who say that the Cornish history of this major heritage site has been sidelined or ignored in favour of the mythos of King Arthur which has become synonymous with the site and attracts many a tourist to visit this part of the world.

The controversy is a great shame and may have been avoided if Cornish stakeholders had been more involved in the re-interpretation process from the beginning. Artistic interpretations of Merlin (a representation of his face carved into the hallowed rocks), a proposed giant sculpture of Arthur and other artistic representations from Arthurian Legend (Round Table, Sword in the Stone) have been the focus of conflict but so have other forms of interpretation and narratives presented at the site. The bridge (apparently representing Excalibur) has probably been the least controversial and most exciting part of the new developments.

Tintagel is English Heritage’s fifth most popular heritage site. Even before the former English Heritage split into Historic England (who now take care of the statutory and academic duties) and English Heritage (now an historic property charitable trust) EH was not best known for novelty in interpretation or presenting visitors with anything other than well-preserved ruins. It was EH’s style to remain faithful to the state in which they found and preserved an ancient site or property, perhaps maintaining a well-manicured lawn to set off the old stones or walls.

It is therefore easy to see how a breath of fresh air into this enigmatic site was both desirable and overdue. The castle’s visitor centre houses several of the archaeological finds from the site and has been recently redisplayed. Now sights are turned to the ancient monument and landscape themselves including the famed rock, hard to access by foot owing to erosion of the old land bridge (cue: Excalibur). Principally led by Kernow Matters to Us, but also supported by Cornwall Association of Local Historians and some Cornish politicians and other knowledgeable individuals, the frustration and anger at the changes to the site have made headline news.

The national press like competitions for bridges and they like a bit of historical controversy so the combination ensured that words such as Disneyfication, Myth, Britain, Vandalism and Medieval Civilisation have been made uncomfortable bed-fellows—to the detriment of the real issues that the Tintagel Controversy represent. Following the protestations against the new additions (some of which are already in place) and also the nature of the new interpretation at the site, various parties have come out in favour of the changes, not least the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones, an art critic who occasionally lapses into historical comment.

…a challenge to Jones’s view on Tintagel, and indeed his knowledge of Cornwall, medieval history, the history of Tintagel and his belittling of Cornish historians.

In a piece written last week in response to the points made by those who are against the new additions to the site, Jones rallied his readers to revel in English Heritage’s changes at Tintagel to keep “Britain’s greatest legend alive.” (Read the full article.)

Those who follow me on Twitter saw that I got angry enough to provide a challenge to Jones’s view on Tintagel, and indeed his knowledge of Cornwall, medieval history, the history of Tintagel and his belittling of Cornish historians. It’s always difficult to do this without bringing even more attention to a pretty poor article. Even if it was intended to provoke a reaction, it is so full of holes that it would be wrong for this to stay on the internet without some kind of retort so those that are interested enough in the subject may have an alternative viewpoint to reference.

So here’s an essay of responses to everything that is questionable about Jones’s piece on Tintagel, medieval history and Cornish historians:

He said: “King Arthur forged our Britain.”

Not really. The medieval British Isles were fragmented, politically and culturally, and even if you did believe there was an historical King Arthur his efforts to create Britain can’t have been very effective. However, King Arthur has been a foundation figure in European literature since the early Middle Ages and a powerful persona set up in opposition to invading and settling forces including Anglo-Saxons and Normans—arguably more instrumental in forging the Britain we know (or at least the England we know today).

He said (image caption): “Tintagel in Cornwall, birthplace of Arthur – and mythic seat of England.”

England did not exist when Arthur was reputed to have been born some time in the fifth century (400s) (Cornwall did, though, known as Dumnonia). England did not start taking shape until the mid-tenth century when the fractious Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and fiefdoms were variously united under one king since the reign of Athelstan (924-27).

He said: “What’s wrong with carving Merlin’s face into a rock? Nothing, if you care about keeping Britain’s greatest legend alive.”

Would you carve a random Druid’s face into Stonehenge? Or a dinosaur into Dorset’s Jurassic coast? Probably not. Arthur’s legend has been doing quite nicely without needing a Merlin to stare out of Tintagel’s rock. But this kind of thing is always going to divide opinion, and as the artist Peter Graham commented, it is a “temporary intervention” as the wind will eventually erode it away. That’s my opinion as a heritage interpreter. Interpretive sculptures date quickly, add to the monumentalisation of historic sites, can detract from authenticity and often do not provide the kind of wow factor many assume they will. I am more in favour of using programming to bring drama to an historic site i.e. live interpreters, theatre, plays, performing artists.

He said: “Tintagel is a real medieval castle, ruined but spectacularly posed over the sea – but the main reason most people would make the trek there is a fascination with King Arthur.”

Tintagel Castle has a fabulous (and real) history beyond its literary associations with King Arthur just as other sites related to the Arthur myth such as Glastonbury (Avalon) do. Tintagel was for a time the seat of or at least strategically important to Cornish leaders, some of whom have been attributed as kings. In Late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages the idea of kingship varied enormously and powerful kings were tolerated (loyal) petty kings of places that were not politically sensitive to them (the Isle of Man had kings at least in title until the role was absorbed into the Crown. Now Elizabeth II is also Lord of Mann).

The early 13th century was a significant time for Cornwall as wealth grew from trade and commerce and cultural life prospered as ecclesiastical intellectual centres such as Glasney College were founded (1216)—nodes connected to other major centres of thought, politics and culture when Cornwall was not an insular extremity of England

The current castle ruins relate to the period of Richard, 1st Earl of Cornwall, in the 1230s. Richard was the second son of King John (of Magna Carta fame) and courted legitimacy that mattered in royal European circles (he later became King of the Romans or Germans) and Christian immortality (he went on the Barons Crusade in the 1240s). You certainly get some of this history through EH’s new interpretation on slate blocks around the site and the addition of Kernewek (Cornish language) titles is a nice touch.

New interpretive slab at Tintagel (c) S. Greaney
New interpretive slab at Tintagel (c) S. Greaney

Tintagel would be the most obvious Cornish historical site to introduce the Kings of Cornwall to Cornish and non-Cornish visitors.

The gaining popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 12th-century retelling of the Arthur Story in his History of the Kings of Britain brought Tintagel to Richard’s attention and proved an alluring prospect full of the symbolism that excited him and would help him authenticate his dominion in Cornwall–a century later cemented by the formation of the Duchy in 1337.

The early 13th century was a significant time for Cornwall as wealth continued to grow from trade and commerce and cultural life prospered as ecclesiastical intellectual centres such as Glasney College in Penryn were founded (1265)—nodes connected to other major centres of thought, politics and culture when Cornwall was not an insular extremity of England but one with social and cultural networks stretching—by sea—to mainland Europe and beyond (some amazing archaeological late antique/early medieval finds from Spain and the Mediterranean at Tintagel corroborate this view).

Some of the Cornish kings themselves are shrouded in myth such as King Mark (uncle of Tristan of the great romance with Iseult) but others seem to have more historicity attached to them depending on your attitude to the contemporary sources that contain reference to them, from mid-fifth century Erbin ap Constantine recorded in the Welsh annals to King Geraint attributed to the early eighth century in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and contemporary ecclesiastical letters. A thorough shake down of our sources for this period is probably long overdue, but not for now. Nevertheless, Tintagel would be the most obvious Cornish historical site to introduce the Kings of Cornwall to Cornish and non-Cornish visitors. Come on, this is more than the story of grain stores and lime mortar that Jones jests about later in his piece.

He said: “I am impressed that Cornwall can boast 200 historians – the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus must be huge – but come off it.”

Here Jones refers to the Cornwall Association of Local Historians (CALH) but assumes for some unknown reason that the only historians worth taking notice of must work for the University of Exeter’s Penryn campus. Well you’ll be hard pushed to find more than those than you can count on one hand there, but beyond, there are a huge number of people who have studied, researched and written on Cornish history and even professional historians outside Cornwall who might count themselves in their number. I am not a member of CALH nor an employee of Exeter but I do have two degrees in History and have studied and analysed more medieval charters than most–so me included.

He said: “Arthur was already famous when Britain was just a minor island off the shore of medieval Europe.”

Yeah well. Go back to school. These were not the Dark Ages and while Geoffrey of Monmouth’s literary weavings definitely did launch the Arthur myth into medieval courtly circles Britain was definitely not a minor island off mainland Europe. See above, the English monarchy was deeply entwined with those of France and Germany. All the aristocracy, even the Cornish aristocracy of the 12th-14th centuries spoke French—you did if you wanted to get on in life. There was no fog on the horizon of the English Channel or Atlantic seaboard and people and ideas in mainland Europe and Britain were more connected then—by constant sea travel—than in many ways they are now. They went on Crusades together. They went on pilgrimages thousands of miles long together.

A note on the Dark Ages: Medieval historiography has eschewed this outdated term for 30 years or more. It is therefore disappointing that EH has carved it into a slate slab at the site. This is not good interpretation as it is going to perpetuate a very outmoded and unsubstantiated view of the past.

Romantic literature and dodgy undated woodcuts ≠ cultural history.


Dark Ages--an outmoded and inaccurate term to describe the early medieval period (c) S. Greaney
Dark Ages–an outmoded and inaccurate term to describe the early medieval period (c) S. Greaney

He said: “These historians who say English Heritage should tell the real story of Tintagel rather than focus on the “mythical fantasies” of King Arthur fail to grasp the nature of cultural history.”

I think it’s fair to say who here has failed to grasp the nature of cultural history. Romantic literature and dodgy undated woodcuts ≠ cultural history.

He said: “In many ways, the myth of Arthur created medieval civilisation.”

This is definitely a go back to (a good) school moment. There is no such thing as “medieval civilisation.” Medieval historians and archaeologists and art and literary historians have spent decades debunking the teleological and pejorative, origin of nations, 19th century view of the Middle Ages.

I highly recommend Prof. Patrick Geary’s seminal (and bloody good read) book, The Myth of Nations: The Medieval Origins of Europe if you want a decent understanding of how medieval history was later (ab)used to influence popular perceptions of the period. However if you want to talk about medieval cultural history in Cornwall in the Middle Ages there is no shortage of sources if you look hard enough, from unicorns at St Buryan and beast-headed Evangelists at Gulval to the mystery plays written in Cornish contained in the late 14th-century Ordinalia.

He said: “The British may have invented Arthur, but Arthur in turn legitimated the idea of Britain as a great nation.”

See above. Anachronistic.

He said: “Arthur is woven into the landscape and identity of Britain, and we’re very lucky to have such a great global myth written into our rocks. People visit Greece to see the land of the Greek gods; in just the same way this is the land of Arthur.”

Yes, there are many claims to different stations in Arthur’s life around Britain—almost as many as lay claim to Jane Austen. Here is a pretty long list of locations associated with Arthurian Legend both in Britain and abroad.

I haven’t yet come across anyone who has travelled to Greece for work or play who has done so to experience the land of the gods—I think it exists better in the imagination and on film. Certainly if that is what people come to Cornwall for, we are not short of some of our own fabulous and rich stories of fairies, giants, monsters and other-worldly folk that make some of the Arthurian stuff seem a bit pedestrian. Go and find the giant’s heart at St Michael’s Mount.

He said: “English Heritage is evidently aiming its Arthurian reboot at families, and doing its bit to keep the mystery of the grail alive in the 21st century. I think anyone who really loves history, and wants a new generation to love it, should applaud their efforts.”

From an interpretive point of view, there is no better site to explore Cornwall’s post-Roman and early medieval history and archaeology than Tintagel. Who should have the final say in how this site is presented to the public whether they come as families, school visits or otherwise? English Heritage and other custodians have a duty and responsibility to treat the site and its communities with sensitivity and respect, and that means respecting and presenting the Cornish narratives of Tintagel (which also include plenty of Arthurian intrigue).

Archaeologists have already pointed out which elements of the developments at the site may or will be detrimental to the site’s archaeology. If this happens future discoveries may be lost to future generations of Cornish communities and visitors. English Heritage’s official PR and communications refer constantly to their visitors but there is little or no reference to their local communities. Ironic, considering the pledges and posturing currently contained in the UK Government White Paper and those of other stakeholders such as Arts Council England and Heritage Lottery Fund that claim diversity, reflecting the communities they serve and working better for young people should be at the heart of all culture.

Cornish communities must be better consulted by those who are responsible for conserving and interpreting their heritage, and interpreters must do better to swot up on real Cornish history, legend and culture.

Did you know, the Cornish have been officially recognised as a National Minority in the same way as Welsh, Scots and Irish (and English in Scotland) since 2014, by the UK Government and in Europe? Public bodies have a moral and ethical responsibility not to ignore this. Cornish communities must be better consulted by those who are responsible for conserving and interpreting their heritage, and interpreters must do better to swot up on real Cornish history, legend and culture.

Consultation is a process of mutual education and ‘deep listening’ not a tick-box exercise singed [burnt] with cynicism. This is more than just showing pictures of different bridges to see what the very local population would like to see. These are hard and difficult conversations but they have to be had and resources to act upon them need to be made available to make these conversations meaningful, constructive and long-lasting.

The persistent erosion of public funding to support good research and expertise in heritage is squarely in the frame for blame here.

But, and it’s a big but, as a heritage professional that has developed interpretation and exhibitions for various subjects and sites over the last 16 years I know that you cannot please all of your audiences all of the time and that at some point some stories will take prominence over others to achieve coherence. A paucity of resources, manpower, expertise and time mean that you are often on your own trying to make sense of a story based on history or evidence that are hard to navigate and difficult to access to tough deadlines. The persistent erosion of public funding to support good research and expertise in heritage is squarely in the frame for blame here. In addition, protestations can sometimes be born from false information or base-less assertions that are hard to counter and very soon the situation gets toxic.

Involving communities of interest early will ensure that a broad church of ambassadors feel they have a stake in the stories that are told. This can only lead to better history and better interpretation.

Developing a narrative or set of narratives within the constraints of interpretive toolkits (word counts, artistic impressions where contemporary imagery is not available, signage, lack of provenance…) is quite a stressful process so I have sympathy with those that have ended up bearing the brunt of this conflict as it can make exceptional professionals lose confidence and faith in their abilities.

I hope that lessons have been learned and that in particular those national agencies that have a responsibility to interpret culture and heritage in Cornwall do so in the future with adequate consultation with their Cornish communities and with an acute awareness and respect for those narratives. Involving communities of interest early will ensure that a broad church of ambassadors feel they have a stake in the stories that are told. This can only lead to better history and better interpretation.


Boaty McBoatface, Bligh and the Beagle

NERC's new flagship awaiting its name (c) NERC (modified in good humour without permission by me)
NERC’s new flagship awaiting its name (c) NERC (modified in good humour without permission by me)

On 17 March NERC, the Natural Environment Research Council opened an online  competition and poll to name their latest, state of the art research vessel that will ply polar waters carrying 90 researchers to the Arctic and Antarctic, hashtag #nameourship.

The newspapers and online media are full of risible delight that the current frontrunner is Boaty McBoatface, which it has to be said, cannot fail to raise a titter, but which has launched this superb maritime research endeavour into the popular spotlight.

NERC said, “We’re looking for an inspirational name that exemplifies the work it will do.The ship could be named after a local historical figure, movement, or landmark – or a famous polar explorer or scientist.”

As soon as this story broke, I wanted to find out more about the ship and its projects straight away–a great entry into an otherwise closed and difficult world for the general public to penetrate. I also wanted to find out what other names had been put forward. Boat and ship naming (I’m amazed that I haven’t found more comments claiming it’s a ship, not a boat, and therefore perhaps ought to be Shippy McShipface–don’t say that quickly–update: damn you Jeremy Vine for getting there just before I published this) have been imbued with symbolism and feeling as long as people have been naming their vessels. Usually referred to in the third person as “she” I wonder whether Boaty is a good female name? If the ship is named after a person I bet it will be a man.

But I couldn’t penetrate the website, it keeps timing out and isn’t displaying any sensible content at the moment.

It was NERC’s own Comms Manager James Hand who was announcing the competition that gave birth to this friendly, Mr Man-image inducing name and the eager masses of the internet have proclaimed this name as a triumph, sort of like the sectors of society who follow the Jedi religion.

This article from the Independent has generated a slew of comments in the last 2 hours, such as:

“This is ridiculous. Anyone who doesn’t believe that we are turning like Americans is wrong.”

“It’s a great name and will probably attract far more public attention and interest in the ship’s research and exploits than the proposed “serious” names. But, sadly, I suspect the ship will be given a boring name.”

“I do a bit of sailing and find the best boat names are the ones that are both easy to pronounce and come across clear on the radio.  This certainly ticks both boxes.”

What’s in a name?

Historically, Britain has led a fine tradition of scientific voyages on the seven seas. James Cook and Endeavour, HMS Challenger–giving rise to modern oceanography and deep sea exploration. These ships have lived on in maritime history and the history of science not because of their egregious names but because of the deeds that were conducted by their crews.

A Bounty chocolate bar (Wikimedia Commons)
A Bounty chocolate bar (Wikimedia Commons)

Let’s take HMS Bounty for example. Who even remembers that this scientific voyage originally set out to find breadfruit in Tahiti? Captained by supreme navigator and Cornishman William Bligh, Bounty is better remembered for a mutiny and a string of pretty dodgy films that barely acknowledged its original lofty scientific purpose. Or in modern times, perhaps more well known as a coconut flavoured chocolate bar (do you prefer milk or dark?) Incidentally Bligh went on to captain more successful scientific voyages on equally wistfully-named ships such as Providence and Assistant and Director.

A beagle (Pixabay)
A beagle (c) Pixabay

And then there’s Charles Darwin and his voyage on HMS Beagle. Yes, as in the dog. But who cares now? Darwin and the Beagle is almost a rallying cry for every thing that is wondrous and fascinating about the history of science, maritime exploration and the quest for knowledge. It doesn’t conjure up images of the beardy scientist with an unemployed fox hound.

So RRS Boaty Mcboatface may have an illustrious future in front of it, sending us news of the effects of climate change, survival in frozen waters and more but it’s not going to be successful because it has a suitably establishment name but because its scientists will be brilliant. The rest is up to NERC to make sure its messages are spread to the public as well as the scientific community.

However, NERC may get a head start if it went with public opinion. I think that the world will await news from the research vessel with great delight and who knows, may actually act on some of the most pressing and difficult environmental issues our society faces.

It would be a great exercise in public engagement if NERC honoured its massive exercise to garner public opinion about naming its flagship. I’m not the only one saying this but I expect that when NERC name the ship something a bit more – well – boring the ship’s achievements will lose something of the power it could have had. But it will still be a great ship going on some phenomenal missions.

Now, NERC, fix your website so we can find out about the real business of your amazing ship!

History Material Culture

Mediterranean material culture from prehistory to now

Back in March my chapter on material culture for the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Mediterranean History came out.

It was a challenging exercise to condense into 8000 words the essence of the study of material culture in a Mediterranean geo-historical context and also to represent all periods of human history at the same time.

I have always been interested in the making and circulation of objects and this interest has never really obeyed traditional geographic or period boundaries. I feel as comfortable analysing an inventory of a 12th-century monastic treasury as I do trawling through 19th century order books. I know my way around early medieval metalwork as much as I do modern souvenirs in social history collections.

My background in museology has without doubt influenced my points of view and perceptions. As someone professionally involved in the presentation and interpretation of artefacts I am responsible for finding out what stories objects can tell, while also presenting a lens on the world through human creativity and productivity.

Finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century (credit: Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli).
Finger ring, reusing a late Roman agate seal, from southern Italy, late 7th century (credit: Museo Nazionale Archeologico di Napoli).

This attitude towards historical material culture and our sources for it is summed up in the first paragraph of my chapter:

The creation and use of complex tools are distinguishing traits of the human animal. As such, material culture is intrinsic to the humanities, whether approached through archaeology, anthropology, history, art or museology.

Fundamentally this chapter attempts to blow apart academic tendencies to narrow down–but this doesn’t mean that it eschews detail and depth. It provides food for thought on how we understand people’s relationships with things, with production and with consumption. That the basic need for humans to have and exchange commodities is as crucial to life as food and water. Most studies of material culture tend to speak in non-human terms, are clinical and distant from experience, or otherwise concerned with artistic conceits.

Ore procurement book from Grenfell and Co. copper company (credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Aylesbury).
Ore procurement book of Grenfell and Co. copper company (credit: Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Aylesbury).

I was inspired in part by Fernand Braudel’s approach to studying and comparing economic and material life, and in part the seminal work edited by Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things. The abstract to my chapter explains its contents.

This chapter explores how the study of material culture illuminates Mediterranean history in new ways. Early discoveries in the Mediterranean influenced the development of material culture studies from archaeological classification to the phenomenon of making collections of classical artefacts during the Grand Tour which formed the basis of modern museums. Taking inspiration from Braudel’s other paradigm on the inter-relationship between economic and material life, this chapter then presents a series of vignettes on the materiality of eating, sitting and sleeping, which address how and why Mediterranean object cultures should be perceived in a globally-comparative context. There follow three epochal studies that apply Braudel’s global approach as well as object biography and documentary reconstruction to provide new perspectives on the prehistoric, ancient, medieval, early modern, modern and contemporary Mediterranean, taking examples from ceramics, the copper industry, the consumption of silk, textile conservation, souvenirs and mass craft manufacturing.

History Women's History

The Aftermath of Suffrage – New for Reviews in History

My review of an important volume of essays on the impact of the Suffrage Movement on British politics after 1918 has just come out in the Institute of Historical Research’s Reviews in History.

I was delighted that one of the editors Julie Gottlieb had the opportunity to respond.

Should we be returning to women’s history and is there scope for getting women’s history “out of the ghetto” and into the mainstream?

Read the review and the response.

The Aftermath of Suffrage: Women, Gender, and Politics in Britain, 1918-1945
edited by: Julie Gottlieb, Richard Toye
Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, ISBN: 9781137015341; 268pp.; Price: £19.99.

Aftermath of Suffrage cover (Palgrave Macmillan)



History Material Culture

A Companion to Mediterranean History out now

(credit: Wiley Blackwell)
(credit: Wiley Blackwell)

A Companion to Mediterranean History, part of Wiley Blackwell’s acclaimed Companions to History series has just been published.

The book project, led by editors Peregrine Horden and Sharon Kinoshita, is a culmination of at least three years’ work and a coming together of 29 contributors from across the world.

Each contributor is a specialist in their field, but we are united by an interest, for some a vocation, in testing the Mediterranean paradigm as a way of interrogating the history of the region (including the sea itself) in a meaningful and coherent way.

From climate to nautical technology, and cave dwelling to language, this volume is trailblaizes themes in history unfettered by the conventional parameters of the accepted canons of period, place and politics, or indeed disciplinary expectations.

It is a great credit to the editors that they have succeeded in bringing together such diverse scholars of varying experience, approaches and opinions and produced a coherent and thought-provoking book that will surely be argued over (we hope) by scholars and students alike.

My contribution was the chapter on material culture from prehistory to now, on which I will be writing a separate blog post.

About the book

Mediterranean history has never been more widely debated or practised, yet there remains no consensus about precisely how this history should be written, the definition of its parameters, or the breadth of topics it should include. In summarising the latest scholarship and reappraising key concepts, contributors to this volume enable fruitful interdisciplinary dialogue on subjects ranging from climate and cartography to material culture and heritage politics. A Companion to Mediterranean History represents an invaluable guide to the current state of Mediterranean scholarship that will also help to redefine the field for a new generation.

Buy now from Amazon.


  • Hardcover: 498 pages
  • Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (12 Mar 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0470659017
  • ISBN-13: 978-0470659014
  • Product Dimensions: 24.6 x 17.6 x 2.8 cm
  • RRP £120 Hardcover, £99.99 Ebook.
History Industrial Heritage Material Culture

Made in metal: Writing the industrial background of Graham Sutherland’s war art

Graham-Sutherland-246x269Earlier in the year I spent some weeks in the summer researching and writing a survey of the links between Cornwall and South Wales, particularly those evidenced in the metal industries of copper, iron and steel, and tin.

It resulted in a wonderfully illustrated book called Graham Sutherland: From Darkness Into Light. War Paintings and Drawings, co-authored with Sally Moss and Paul Gough, and published by Sansom and Company.


Buy the book. RRP. £17.95.

Read Made in Metal in preprint version on my site.

it is not often that you will find modern art discussed in equal measure to the historical context of its subjects.

Cornish Heritage History Women's History

In defence of history by women

The visibility of the resurgence of women’s voices has launched into the stratosphere these last two weeks, from the triumph of the campaign to get a woman back on a UK banknote, to the rather seedy and distasteful rape and bombing threats aimed at women by anonymous so-called trolls.

But what is worse than all that is the society-sanctioned, media-fuelled defence of such revolting behaviour because ‘you can just ignore it’. I am assuming the same people who ignore such things probably in a past life also ignored the inhumanity of slavery – if you don’t want a slave just don’t have one! For there is no virtual world and real world. Twitter, Facebook and anything else online is the real world.

She’s rubbish because I don’t like her

So amongst the flurry of comment and opinion about all this I read the latest post on Prof. Mary Beard’s blog A Don’s Life reflecting on her latest TV programme about Caligula, the First Century Roman emperor. I must admit that I have not seen any of Mary Beard’s programmes but I have heard a lot of good things about them, and about her, and I have read some of her published work. I don’t have a TV but I do sneak the occasional fix well after the event on iPlayer etc. so maybe I will watch them some time.

In her post Mary was rather putting her own experience of being a woman on TV, and that too a woman presenting much of her own research, in a serious history programme, in the context of the overt and aggressive sexism experienced by so many women in their everyday lives both online and offline.

Distaste for her TV history manifested in a dislike of her and how she looks. But what really got her goat was the flippant accusation by someone who called her history like that of Wikipedia.


Now, there are two problems here. The first is that Wikipedia is not a source of original information, that is, first time published thought, argument or opinion. It is, if you remember them, meant to be like a set of encyclopaedias (-paediae??), and is entirely reliant on the sources the writer references as to how decent an encyclopaedic entry it is. So some are good and some are bad.

Mary Beard’s chagrin came from the fact that, albeit she is a Cambridge Don with over 40 years of experience in Caligulan history, she is still not taken seriously by those moved to damn her and her work by calling her ‘Wiki-lite’. The second is that if you find yourself not understanding what a historian means then they are not explaining it properly. This is not uncommon and many historians make a career out of being obtuse to dazzle their audience and get promoted in the process. On the opposite end of the spectrum if you find a ‘historian’ enthusiastically saying a lot but not saying very much then they probably don’t know their stuff.

So this post was shared on the Women For Cornwall group on Facebook and there has been a bit of debate about it and the problem women have in being, for want of a better term, taken seriously simply because they are female.

Part of the debate was also about how history is taught in schools. I’m going to blog again about this and the Govian view of school history so won’t dwell on it here. Someone brought up the old S-Level – remember them? I came at the tail end when they had just scrapped the examination but we went through the motions of it anyway. The idea was that those most able to grasp key concepts could spread their wings by inserting some original thought into debates and learn to construct their own arguments rather than clutching a knotted string of others’ opinions. Until this time, apparently, A-Level students were just taught ‘facts’ [those who have taught history undergrads in recent years may feel this comment still stands].

Why don’t you prove it?

I reflected on my own experience. Until GCSE I really did not get school history very much. I enjoyed it but it was not on top of my list. I was after all going to be a scientist of some sort. But I had a cracking GCSE and A-level teacher who did teach us to critique, challenge established facts, learn to understand historical opinion and find bias according to authorial origins. Even my fourth-year primary school (inner London comp) teacher (today’s Year 6) stopped a lesson one day and said, “why don’t you ask me to prove it?” I think we were talking about the troubles in Northern Ireland, no less. God bless you, Mr Hadfield.

That was a turning point in my understanding of the world. The interesting predicament Mary Beard finds herself in is that people’s dislike originates in the fact that she is damn good at both argument and backing it up with evidence – such as being a good historian entails unlike the Starkeys of this world. But saying they don’t agree would be putting the critics on the same level as her, whereas dismissing her as opposed to her arguments is much easier, it’s lazier but hey, it’s online and you can say anything and a few people will Like you for it.

So you think you’re a historian?

And I would like to have a continued go at people who think they are historians because they watch it on TV or cherry-pick information on the web or indeed osmotically absorb other people’s ideas and frankenregurgitate them as their own.

On two recent occasions I have had my own thoughts and ideas quoted back at me, and even ascribed to another speaker, following my giving a paper!

Good historians do argument and evidence very well. They compare. Then then explain by creating a narrative which can be followed. I have said in other fora that one of the main problems with the way that Cornish history is done is that it lacks comparison and lacks an audience in journals and books outside Cornwall, but that’s for yet another post. It is also unsurprising that the arch-narratives of Cornish history, the good and the bad (and there is an awful lot of bad), are all written by men. This has to change.

Would you have a hernia operation by someone who dabbled in a bit of Holby City and YouTube or someone who had studied abdominal surgery for many years? Sorry, in defence of my profession a bit. Especially those women who are in it.

Cornish Heritage History Women's History

History 51 and All Our Stories

History 51 logoIn November 2012 the Hypatia Trust was awarded £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s All Our Stories programme for a project entitled History 51: Unveiling Women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

History 51 has been designed as a community-led project  based on the Hypatia Trust’s Elizabeth Treffry Collection to trace the journeys, make things inspired by, and document and publish the life stories of historical Cornish and Scillonian women.

Why we applied

At the instigation of Hypatia Trust Founder-Chairman Melissa Hardie, I was commissioned to design the project and write the application. This was my first attempt at writing a funding application for someone or an organisation other than myself and so I was personally delighted that it was successful. However, on a more altruistic level, I was pleased that the subject of women’s history was deemed worthy enough to fund.

Is it really a niche or minority subject to study and promote the history of 51% of our population?

Part of the Judith Cook archive, Elizabeth Treffry Collection.
Part of the Judith Cook archive, Elizabeth Treffry Collection.

The small team that runs the Hypatia Trust has long lamented the seeming dearth of women’s history in history curricula across school, further and higher education. Many women’s history courses have been displaced by more theoretical programmes on gender history, which is not at all the same thing. Is it really a niche or minority subject to study and promote the history of 51% of our population?

With the recent appalling treatment of the Women’s Library in London we felt there was no better time to do our bit to raise public awareness about the importance of women’s history for everyone, women and men, old and young.

When I became Honorary Curator for the Hypatia Trust my immediate priority was to find a way to dramatically raise the profiles of the historical women that the Elizabeth Treffry Collection represents. This, in my view, was more important than immediately focusing inward on cataloguing the collection itself. Melissa Hardie and previous Hypatia volunteers had already undertaken significant work through the Trust’s publishing and indexing activities. What was needed now was a project that had the potential make a much wider impact.

History 51 and me

Cornwall is a deeply patriarchal part of the UK. This is reflected in our politics, media, industries and job market.

History 51 is also personal voyage of discovery. I have not undertaken women’s history, to speak of, for many years. However my curiosity and sense of duty have been peaked. Cornwall is a deeply patriarchal part of the UK. This is reflected in our politics, media, industries and job market.

That’s not to say women aren’t doing anything. They are, but their work is not recorded or noted in the same way as that of men. I want this HLF project to be the beginning of a radical new movement to raise the profile of women and women’s heritage.  Women are in the majority and yet the structures of traditional historical study do not allow for the subject to be considered as anything other than a marginal element of social history. This is wrong.

Designing History 51

We had two unique selling points. Firstly that our project would represent the biggest under-represented group in the UK, i.e. women, and secondly that it would advance the history of a currently marginalised aspect of British history, that of Cornwall and Scilly.

HLF’s All Our Stories programme (now closed) was a fantastic opportunity for many local groups, networks and societies to contribute to ‘grassroots’ or people’s history. It was pitched as part of Michael Wood and the BBC’s Great British Story which aired in 2012. In HLF’s words:

“From researching local historic landmarks, learning more about customs and traditions to delving into archives and finding out the origins of street and place names All Our Stories will give everyone the chance to explore their heritage and share what they learn with others.”

Early and formative discussions suggested very strongly that the project’s activities should allow participants to both contribute and discover. The classic platitudes of a funding application, you might say.

We had two unique selling points. Firstly that our project would represent the biggest under-represented group in the UK, i.e. women, and secondly that it would advance the history of a currently marginalised aspect of British history, that of Cornwall and Scilly. In addition, HLF South West identifies South East Cornwall as being one of its five priority areas.

Early and formative discussions suggested very strongly that the project’s activities should allow participants to both contribute and discover. The classic platitudes of a funding application, you might say. However for me this meant that the open sharing of information about women represented in the Elizabeth Treffry Collection, and elsewhere, was paramount. It also meant that we would emphasise the team, the network and the community that would produce the information as much as History 51 and Hypatia Trust themselves.

What we are promising

We want to make sure that HLF gets its money’s worth and that we aim for both high impact and sustainable deliverables that will also contribute to the long-term objectives of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection.

£10,000 is not a lot of money. However it is more than we started with. We want to make sure that HLF gets its money’s worth and that we aim for both high impact and sustainable deliverables that will also contribute to the long-term objectives of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection. This is what we are going to deliver:

  • Train volunteers to explore, research, catalogue and create information
  • Develop a Wikipedia-style Cornish Women’s Index that will create hundreds of free, publically accessible records of women
  • Hold six local community workshops on different women and themes in locations across Cornwall (and hopefully Scilly too).

What we are asking from contributors and correspondents

Information comes in many forms and it should be expressed in as many different ways as possible.

We do want well-researched, well-considered information to result from this project. However it is not intended as a scholarly study or library project. Information comes in many forms and it should be expressed in as many different ways as possible. So what we are asking of our contributors and correspondents is any of the following:

  • Researching the life stories of women who have lived, worked or come from Cornwall or Scilly
  • Photographing and scanning historical documents and artefacts
  • Producing transcripts of documentary sources
  • Creating art, music, poems or literature inspired by Cornish and Scillonian women
  • Conducting oral history interviews
  • Work on our social media channels and blog (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube)
  • Writing copy for short Wikipedia-style biographies
  • Entering information into the Cornish Women’s Index (a free online database of words and images)
  • Organising, leading or participating in informal and fun workshops scheduled for venues across Cornwall in 2013.

What the History 51 army can expect in return

Books of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection of the Hypatia Trust
Books of the Elizabeth Treffry Collection of the Hypatia Trust

… it is very easy to feel used and to feel absorbed into the corporatising identity of a heritage organisation or project.

I know from my own previous experience of working on ‘other people’s projects’ that it is very easy to feel used and to feel absorbed into the corporatising identity of a heritage organisation or project. I do not want this to happen to all those who have so warmly and enthusiastically already given of their time to History 51.

We stated in the application that we want History 51 contributors and correspondents to become ambassadors for women’s heritage in Cornwall and Scilly and so we, as the Hypatia Trust, have to provide the support they need in return. So this is what we have promised them:

  • Free training and ongoing support, including by email and online
  • Free access to the Elizabeth Treffry Collection and other resources at the Hypatia Trust
  • Access to equipment such as cameras, scanners, photocopier and laptop
  • Your name next to contributions on the Cornish Women’s Index and Elizabeth Treffry Collection website
  • Limited travel expenses for those who lead or help organise a History 51 workshop
  • VIP guest entry at the History 51 party in November 2013
  • A certificate of participation for those taking part as part of a qualification or undertaking CPD, which will outline the skills they have gained.

Promoting the project and recruiting interest

… we hope that the workshops, which are aimed at highlighting local women in their communities, will rebalance this and indeed we will be using all the methods we can to reach those who do not explore their past through digital heritage.

History 51 was officially announced at the end of November 2012. We started recruiting volunteers in December 2012, mainly via our website, where interested contributors could submit an expression of interest, and will be able to for the duration of the project.

The Cornishman newspaper, read by an estimated 75% of the west Penwith population, covered the project in a feature on 6 December. The story was also syndicated online which reaches a much wider audience. This considerably boosted our visibility and we received a number of requests for more information on the back of this.

The project was covered again on 31 January with the launch of a campaign to get Alice De Lisle officially recognised in Penzance. I have posted more about the Alice De Lisle Campaign on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog.

A steady stream of news and posts circulated on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog and its social media channels on Twitter and Facebook have seen a steady increase in interest, judged by the numbers of Likes and Shares we have been receiving. Nothing dramatic but visibility is certainly higher than it was when we launched the Elizabeth Treffry Collection website early last year.

To date we have approximately 20 people willing to be active contributors or correspondents. We are unashamedly embracing digital media and communication for this project so that we are not limiting ourselves to those who can physically get to Penzance to use the collection. So inevitably we are excluding people who are not online regularly. However, we hope that the workshops, which are aimed at highlighting local women in their communities, will rebalance this and indeed we will be using all the methods we can to reach those who do not explore their past through digital heritage.

Inaugurating History 51

I don’t think I have been in a room full of more articulate people in my life! And that includes the very many academic conferences I have attended and at which I have presented.

On 9 February we invited all those who had expressed an interest in the project to attend an open afternoon at the Hypatia Trust in Penzance. Several were not able to make it but we still had a room of about 18 people (all women) eager to share their passion, thoughts and ideas about how their own experiences could be brought to bear on this seminal project. I think everyone would agree that the local rug hookers really made our meeting, they turned up in force!

I don’t think I have been in a room full of more articulate people in my life! And that includes the very many academic conferences I have attended and at which I have presented. I will post about this on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection blog very soon.

Each person was given a folder with an information pack aimed at familiarising contributors and correspondents with History 51 and answering questions I predicted they may have. This pack will be emailed to all those who were not able to attend.

Next steps are to start recording who is interested in what and sharing this information amongst our group. The great thing about History 51 is that even those running the project are getting stuck into some new research and exploration.

The online database for the Cornish Women’s Index is being developed and will be due for testing early next month and then it will be time to organise some training. I am also contemplating using screencasts and Google Hangouts for live online training.

Our events co-ordinator, Jo Schofield, is currently scouting venues for our workshops. We already have one in Liskeard Museum confirmed and another almost confirmed in Fowey.

So for now I am occupied with buying the equipment we need, making sure that History 51 is regularly promoted online and in the press, and commissioning some quirky bookmarks or postcards to be widely distributed across Cornwall and Scilly, and beyond.

Switching between this project and my more usual exploits in industrial heritage is constantly challenging. Sometimes it is a downright pain to have to change modes so frequently. But it is all the more worthwhile because of that broad perspective you get when you don’t just plough one furrow but take a step back and contemplate the field, and the moors beyond.