On 13 June #museumhour debated rural museums, or museums in rural regions. It didn’t take long for the farm jokes to start. The debate was guest-hosted by Cornwall Museums Partnership and Highland Museums Partnership and mainly involved questions about the challenges of working in museums in rural places and the benefits they provide to their communities.
It still bothers me as to what different people mean when they talk about rural museums and what kinds of preconceptions exist about them amongst policy makers, pundits and practitioners when they discuss rurality.
Cornwall is categorised as a rural region and certainly there aren’t the big cities that exist elsewhere and its undeveloped transport system means it definitely feels like it is rural and remote here but there are still a surprising number of towns here with their own urban communities and heritage–some of which are served by their civic museums.
I’d like to explore this more, especially in the context of what civic museums are.
You can read some of the debate on Storify but, as ever, a number of side discussions and points were made that are worthwhile recording too so the ideas can be shared and debated further. It was particularly good to get contributions from Australia and the USA.
Here is a list of thoughts made by me and a couple of others in the debate:
Working in a rural context seems to be 10x harder.
There’s growing discussion of civic museums amongst policy makers but rarely defined. What about civicness in rural regions?
There are hundreds of towns and urban centres in rural regions. Countryside and rurality are relative.
In US, many, many museums are rural museums, in location, coll, or both. Represent important record of life in those areas (Tracey Berg-Fulton, USA).
Largest no. of Accredited museums in UK run by @nationaltrust in mainly rural areas?
I think voices from museums in #rural regions esp in big debates such as diversity tend to be forgotten.
Many cope on budgets that would be laughed at elsewhere, doing great stuff (Mary O Toole).
They are, alas, often the most vulnerable (funding, staffing, facilities). The loss of rural museums =devastating loss of memory (Tracey Berg-Fulton, USA).
Does quality more than quantity of engagement matter more for ‘small’ museums in rural places?
It’s so important to challenge the assumptions inherent in categorisation.
What does everyone think about the idea that museums need to reflect national diversity in some cases rather than regional? From report on diversity in museum workforce esp in specialist roles.
Huge retired population here [Cornwall] so no shortage of people with skills and interest. 37% of pop volunteer (not just museums).
Retired population certainly helps, volunteers who join enjoy it immensely as its counteracts rural isolation (Helston Museum).
Some bonza Aussie rural museums: QANTAS Founders Museum @qfom, Stockmans Hall of Fame @ASHOFAustralia, Carnamah Museum @carnamah (Heritage People, Hobart).
Also problem of categorisation – such as what to do with industrial structures in rural areas (Dr. James Lattin).
Ought to bring coastal perspectives into a future #museumhour debate on regional differences.
Being connected online is a massive antidote to isolation often encountered working in rural regions.
Please join in! Leave a comment and remember you can join #museumhour any time by following the hashtag.
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!)
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?
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?
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?
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?
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?
Is the occasional use of the Cornish language enough to signal the site’s Cornish distinctiveness?
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?
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?
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?
What can be done to improve or mitigate the concerns raised above and those by other professionals and members of the community?
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.
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 andthe 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?
This interpretation review is measured against the following factors:
My expectations and prejudices
The call to action: From what starting point or philosophy does the interpreter begin?
What expectations are raised before the visit?
What are the key messages?
How much interpretive space is devoted to them?
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.”
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’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?”
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.)
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
On 12 May the Museums Association visited Cornwall for the annual Members Meeting in the South West. I’d like to extend my appreciation to MA colleagues for making the long journey from London but also emphasise the importance of such visits to show it is a fully inclusive and diverse-led organisation that is interested in views from everywhere.
Big debates and discussions in the museum sector tend to happen in big cities. It’s good for them to happen in large rural regions like Cornwall too. Cornwall and the South West suffer from a lack of representation and voice in national organisations and perhaps we are not good at sharing our great work and good practice outside our local areas.
As MA Rep for the South West, I’d like to help, in whatever small way I can, to change that so the region becomes another default place to look to where great ideas are put into practice, particularly from small and tiny museums.
Share your case-studies
The Museums Association is always looking for great case-studies and stories, invitations for review and features. Museums in the South West should be better represented in the case-studies of the MA’s flagship policy Museums Change Lives. Please consider submitting one. If you don’t know how, get in touch and I’ll help.
Tintogel, more famous for his antiquity than rewardable for his present estate, abutteth likewise on the sea; yet the ruins argue it to have been once no unworthy dwelling for the Cornish princes.
Richard Carew’s Survey of Cornwall, 1602
Not long before Shakespeare released Hamlet, Richard Carew had already published his Survey of Cornwall–a masterpiece of Elizabethan-era prose and one of the most important historical documents written about Cornwall.Tintagel Castle was in a not unfamiliar ruinous state than now and Carew devotes some space to discussing the site’s history and lore.
Carew cites a poem (originally in Latin) collected by William Camden which I read before I set off for Tintagel for my own survey a few weeks ago:
There is a place within the winding shore of Severn Sea On midst of rock, about whose foot The tide’s turn-keeping play: A tow’ry topped castle here Wide blasted over all, Which Corineus ancient brood Tindagel Castle call.
Corineus is a character likely based on an historical king of Cornwall (or at least a memory of Cornish kings), re-mythologised, just like King Arthur, by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his 12th century History of the Kings of Britain. Gildas and Nennius were already writing history and legend 600 and 400 years before. Old British kings have a habit of dissolving into myth, see also the second-century King Lucius.
Memory of Tintagel as a seat of real Cornish kings long pre-dated the Victorian Arthurisation of the post-Roman and early medieval history of the site, as shown by re-collections of Carew and others.
I knew that English Heritage had decided to brand the period of the Cornish kings as the Dark Ages and first raised this concern in my post on the Tintagel Controversy.
This is live historiography and any student of medieval history should be keeping up! #stopthedarkages
In this post I reiterate my concerns from the point of view of a medieval historian and interpreter about the use of Dark Ages by English Heritage to brand such a crucial period in Cornish history.
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).
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.
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.
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 !
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.
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).
The phrase “increasing diversity” occurs regularly in discussions about culture but what do we mean? What does diversity look like? Is diversity in the context of equality the same as diversity in the context of inclusion?
Diversity is on every major cultural agenda. I have been taking a keen interest in how diversity is represented and expressed by museums and other heritage institutions as I have been a long-time advocate and producer of community-focused programming as a mainstream rather than fringe strategy for survival.
Achieving resilience in your museum or cultural organisation has to have at its heart a commitment to diversify audiences. The reason is that if you want your organisation to survive, and be loved, your communities and communities of interest (not just the obvious stakeholders) need to understand why you are important to them.
At the Museums Association conference 2015, Sir Peter Luff, the Chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund gave a stirring keynote speech where skills, diversity and young people were firmly and unequivocally put on the agenda and HLF is changing its funding schemes to reflect these priorities.
Arts Council England is also centralising diversity in its agenda, particularly to support the Creative Case for ‘diverse-led’ arts and culture. The emphasis is also on diversifying the range of people and organisations which apply for arts funding from them, and to ensure that at least 75% of its funding is invested outside London. ACE’s Chair Sir Peter Bazalgette said that arts and cultural organisations must reflect the diverse communities they serve. A report by the Museum Consultancy presents research findings on the state of diversity in the museum workforce.
The much-vaunted UK Government’s Culture White Paper, published in March, “sets out the government’s ambition and strategy for the cultural sectors.” The paper jars heavily with the austerity-led narrative that dominates the cultural sector at the moment. There is a sense that the White Paper was born from a Whitehall Office out of touch with the reality of people’s joys and woes as producers and consumers of arts, heritage and culture. Nevertheless, diversity is mentioned 18 times in its 72 pages.
Diversity has also been much debated in discussions on #museumhour.
The UK Parliament’s Countries of Culture enquiry is ongoing and no doubt several of the oral and written submissions will express concern about a lack of diversity in funded art and culture.
I am less familiar with the culture and diversity landscapes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and internationally, but I look forward to doing a bit of asking around and reporting back.
The phrase “increasing diversity” occurs regularly in discussions about culture but what do we mean? What does diversity look like? Is diversity in the context of equality the same as diversity in the context of inclusion? How does workforce diversity differ from audience diversity?
On 16 March I attended the Museums Association’s Diversity: A State of the Nation Debate in my capacity as the Regional Representative for the South West. At this point, I’d like to extend my thanks to the MA for sponsoring my travel from deepest Cornwall to London enabling me to attend.
This event took place not long after the MA’s Big Debate on Diversity at the annual conference in Birmingham in November 2015 which I also attended. This was followed by an informal and therapeutic meeting of the Museum Detox network, a very loose group of museum professionals from BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds.
I find these debates deeply stimulating as they make me question my own understanding and beliefs about people and their identities, and in particular how complex self-indentifying is, and how poorly we express and understand it.
However, there were also some concerning features apparent and unacknowledged at both these debates and indeed in the majority of discussion about diversity and what diversity looks like.
What’s missing from the debate. Who is missing? Where do they take place?
Big City types
Both Birmingham and London debates took place in corporate boxes. This is not a slur, just an observation as I believe that place is a fundamental, if unarticulated, component in understanding diversity.
The main proponents of the debates were also from London or large urban metropolitan areas whose perspectives on their own communities are shaped by the people and places they live and work in everyday. Sharon Heal, Director of the MA, spoke fondly of her everyday diversity where she lives in Bethnal Green.
When they think about diversity in museums, for example, do museums from large swathes of the UK that are politically and economically defined as rural, figure in their minds: the South West of Britain, the Highlands of Scotland, most of Northern Ireland, or North Wales?
Beyond the Protected Characteristics
The diversity themes that dominate discourse are around equality and social justice for those participating and working in museums, culture, arts and heritage that concern discrimination and systemic inequality against nine protected characteristics:
marriage and civil partnership
pregnancy and maternity
religion or belief
Of these race, disability and sex and to a lesser extent religion, were of most interest to those participating in the Museums Association debates. Put crudely, there are more women than men in the museum workforce but few women occupy leadership and governance roles; disability remains poorly represented and catered for, more so a problem for those with hidden disabilities; working and participating in museums remains unattractive to those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.
Geographic exclusion, Cornwall and the South West
During the several round-table discussions, we talked about other major factors that present barriers to diversifying the workforce, audiences and programmes.
A top consideration at my table was geography and geographic discrimination or exclusion.
I live and work in the far west of Cornwall. It took me over 5 hours and an overnight stay to be able to take part in both Birmingham and London debates. Cornwall is politically and economically part of the South West even though culturally and perhaps socially too Cornwall and the Cornish are distinct from its South West neighbours on many levels, evidenced by international recognition of its indigenous language, Kernewek, UK Government-ratified National Minority Status and through the devolution of (some) powers to its unitary authority. Note that Nationality is not currently a protected characteristic under Equality legislation but is included, with colour and citizenship underrace.
Even beyond Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, with nearly 2500 inhabitants can feel that the UK mainland is a world away. For much of the year you can only fly there (if the weather is right).
I live and work in a highly fragmented region with hundreds of mainly small urban centres and large numbers of rural (isolated) places that are all defined in the context of London and other major metropolitan areas. Large parts of our region are unable to regularly participate in and access the big issues of our time (perhaps with the exception of Bristol), whether that’s diversity, austerity or other matters high on political agendas.
Consequently voices from the region, and especially Cornwall, tend to get muffled or ignored or simply deemed too far and too remote and not plentiful enough to engage with. Within this situation, what hope do minority people have in finding a voice?
Class psychology and professionalisation
The other theme of discrimination and diversity we discussed was class. I felt this was not particularly well-articulated by anyone. I am uncomfortable with the idea that low economic productivity directly leads to low participation in arts and culture. And football tickets are so expensive.
After all, many, many museum and arts jobs are amongst the lowest paid and least stable in terms of security and benefits of all professions. One of our table cited the professionalisation of our sector as a serious factor in the lack of class diversity, e.g. job competitions requiring sometimes not one but two degrees.
I think there’s a separate debate to be had about that as I do not agree that professional qualifications which give people the know-how to take care of our collections and make them accessible to our audiences is blanketly a bad thing. But at the same time not all museum jobs need a degree to do them. And, there still remain fewer jobs than there are people who want them–as I said it’s a related but separate issue.
Perhaps more broadly, class is a psychological barrier that encompasses upbringing, education, comprehension and articulation–do some sectors of UK society lack the social and cultural language to participate in culture? What can museums do about that, especially when they talk about the “hard to reach?”
More cultural organisations are aware of their obligations to serve diverse audiences but the same institutions are still not doing anything strategic about it. Diversity is addressed in short-term ‘nice to have’ community engagement projects but not addressed in organisational governance, mainstream programming or the workforce.
How do we develop long-term programmes and activities that are more attractive to those not currently engaged (however you want to define that)? What about those not engaged that face practical barriers to participation such as the “Time-poor dreamers” representing in 2010, approximately 4% of the adult population, a higher than average proportion from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds and most under the age of 44.
There was a sense from the room that diversity, as imperfect as expressions of it are, is now more mainstream than 15 years ago. More cultural organisations are aware of their obligations to serve diverse audiences but the same institutions are still not doing anything strategic about it. Diversity is addressed in short-term ‘nice to have’ community engagement projects but not addressed in organisational governance, mainstream programming or the workforce.
Democracy and power
Other features from my table’s discussion that I felt strongly about was democracy and power. I was surprised no one brought up these fundamental features of social and cultural demography that we all take for granted. This led to a debate about the usefulness of techniques used in peace and reconciliation in post-conflict zones such as deep listening and developmental evaluation.
We didn’t get a chance to discuss these in detail but I think the principle of mutual education through listening is a fundamental challenge in our sector, as evidenced in the Tintagel Controversy.
We need to keep debates about diversity going, both formally and informally. They need to take place in more diverse places and more diverse people need to be invited to take part in them. I am only seeing the usual suspects time and again.
Diversity doesn’t look like anything. It’s a philosophy and a commitment to trusting the idea that embracing difference is a good thing that will lead to better-governed and more accessible and successful institutions and activities.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
Earlier 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.
In July 2013 I was contracted by the National Maritime Museum Cornwall to provide maternity cover for their exhibitions development role, and in particular to develop new shows for their small but multi-layered Quarterdeck gallery.
The first exhibition I was charged with installing From the Loft Floor (Sep 2013-Jan 2014). This show of reportage drawings by Anna Cattermole revealed the build of a traditional Scillonian pilot cutter by Luke Powell at his boatyard, Working Sail.
The thirteen drawings were interpreted in the artist’s words in accompanying captions. We complemented the artwork with a film by Steve Morris of Ideaplus, a display of authentic boatbuilding tools from the NMMC collection, a half model of a Falmouth pilot cutter, and a tactile display of tools on a workbench (sensitively secured to prevent over-excitement and caulking mallets getting the better of each other).
It was a joy to install–much credit to the previous work on the project by Anna Cattermole and the person whose role I am covering. An ideal show for the Autumn with its muted colours easy browsing layout. The artist also provided visitors with a free newspaper-style guide to her project. Anna’s drawings were started and completed on site, live. She did not use sketches or photographs to revisit them.
The opportunity to display objects from the museum’s collection was a particular highlight for someone like me who finds the act of object interpretation and display deeply satisfying. The half model of the Falmouth pilot cutter was a challenge to install owing to its age and size but it created beautiful lines and gave much needed height to the exhibition space.
The next show is a big one that is currently only partly developed in style and concept on smuggling during its heyday in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Time to get my historian’s hat on and also get inventive about how to make tax evasion an interesting subject.
Have you ever looked down when you’re walking about outside (do you walk about much)? We’re often encouraged to look up when we’re in the middle of towns and cities to admire the architecture of urbanisation above the modern, slightly jarring, signage of our high street shops.
But do you look down?
Local foundries made street ironmongery – that’s stuff like manhole covers, gutter grills, bollards, lamp-posts and railings. Here in Cornwall foundries were better known for building gigantic pumping and winding engines for the mining industry. Names like Harvey and Holman are household names, still.
Some of their iron and steel founding can be seen in our towns even though many have been replaced with less distinctive metalwork.
So next time you are out and about, take a look down, check out where that hydrant cover was made and by whom. I’m going to start collecting photographs of Cornish street ironmongery. If you want to add your own, just leave a comment or link us to your own images.
Last week I was in Truro which turned out to be a real find for Cornish ironwork. This gallery traces my route from Old County Hall to Truro Cathedral. Avondale Road was most interesting, the site of ironmongery from four different Cornish foundries.
Newlyn and Mousehole
Some additions from Newlyn and Mousehole, including an unusual triangular manhole cover. All made by local founders N. Holman, St Just.
Amongst other points he raises the issues of the tensions between preservation, environmental sustainability and economic gain; he also makes the point many of us have been thinking about not really articulating, that will this perceived economic boon really benefit the Cornish economy in terms of jobs, incomes and keeping a fair share of the profits? Considering the international consortium that is spear-heading the prospecting who is asking the right questions and seeking these assurances of local communities and Cornwall as a whole?
Surely our politicians can’t be so naïve to assume that any mining back in Cornwall is somehow a manna from heaven?
But that is not the point of this post. I have no quarrel with these excellent points.
Cllr Biscoe’s article begins with this sentence:
“Good news that Cornish tin has quickly become economic to mine. It is no shock to those who, like many Cornishmen all over the World, closely study the metals markets and geology. It offers an opportunity to rekindle skills and wealth generation and also to place Cornwall once again in the forefront of economic life – innovating, supplying, managing risk and prospecting.”
That such a statement could come so naturally, and be made without need for qualification in this day and age seems to me astonishing.
The Hypatia Trust recently commenced a project called History 51: Unveiling Women in Cornwall and Scilly. History 51 aims to rebalance Cornish narratives about the past by flooding public consciousness with information on the lives and achievements of women both in traditionally male industries and walks of life, as well as those dominated by women. The project is based on the Elizabeth Treffry Collection whose books, archives and reference material bring together just some of the work of and about women in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
Yesterday I attended an excellent field trip organised by the Royal Geological Society of Cornwall to Wheal Jane, Baldhu, near Truro. I later posted to the Elizabeth Treffry Collection’s Facebook group how heartening it was so see so many women working at Wheal Jane in internationally-important laboratories processing and analysing minerals and ore, and much more besides.
Cllr Biscoe’s starting sentence of course did not intend to be sexist but in the context of the above, what does it say about Cornish identity and heritage more generally? That such a statement could come so naturally, and be made without need for qualification in this day and age seems to me astonishing.
To me this highlights the great gulf between our public narrative, dominated by (small c) conservative politicians and the fear-mongering media, and reality. The irony here is that much of the management of Cornish heritage is under the care of women.
We clearly have a lot of work to do. The parlance of Cornish history, identity and heritage is entirely dominated by stories of men and a masculine take on the past.
You seldom read the words of women who have something to say about Cornwall and Cornishness.
You will note that women make up more than half of our population, always have done and always will–we are the 51%.
One commentator on Facebook said:
“A lecturer on Cornish mining told me (this century) that women didn’t use to work underground in Cornish mines because a Cornishman was too much of a genetleman [sic].”
Cornwall used to a hotbed for radicalism and thinking differently. Think about what Methodism and Non-Conformism used to be about?
This conscious and unconscious privileging of some occupations over others has just reinforced the partial narratives of our past. Why do we romanticise and get nostalgic about those at the rock face but not about our midwives? Why do we privilege ‘bread winning’ occupations over ‘bread making’ occupations?
Women are just as much to blame for maintaining the silence of their female ancestors because they loyally adhere to what they have been made to believe are the most ‘important’ aspects of their heritage.
The emphasis on Cousin Jacks in the parlance of the World Heritage Site is regrettable. This stems both from folklore and school education. It then enters our history books, then onto our heritage interpretation and then into the vocabulary of the marketeers and PR officers.
Cornwall used to a hotbed for radicalism and thinking differently. Think about what Methodism and Non-Conformism used to be about? I find it very frustrating that this has been displaced by a general feeling of apathy, lack of aspiration and fear. Its impact on girls and women, boys and men, is plain to see in almost every Cornish town.
If only both boys and girls in Cornwall were given the opportunity to learn more about the diversity in their heritage, things may start to change. But while we privilege the vocabulary and narratives of men we are a long way off.