“Lights, levels, labels… and action!”
The museum exhibition is the curator’s own art form. Stand aside.
“Lights, levels, labels… and action!”
The museum exhibition is the curator’s own art form. Stand aside.
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!)
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.
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?
This interpretation review is measured against the following factors:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Buy the book. RRP. £17.95.
it is not often that you will find modern art discussed in equal measure to the historical context of its subjects.
I thought about using Past Thinking as the place for exhibition and book reviews on museumy subjects that interest me, but instead I would like to contribute to content creation on Creative Spaces (National Museums Online Learning Project) particularly when the reviews related to items in the nine museum collections it hosts.
I have recently contributed two reviews, and added them to two groups I run. The first is a short response to Shah ‘Abbas at the British Museum and the second is in response to Byzantium at the Royal Academy.
Read response to Shah Abbas in the Iran and Persian Culture group.
Read response to Byzantium in the Medieval and Byzantine Objects group.
Please note: For some reason my paragraphing is not preserved and so the Byzantium review might be a little hard-going. If you happen to read it and would prefer to read it in a more sensible format, please leave a comment here, or on Creative Spaces.