A visit to the British Museum

This week’s blog is by Derbyshire Museums Manager, Ros Westwood.

Walking into the British Museum thrills me: from the lions lying watchfully at the north entrance, through the Death gallery where all the faces or masks and animals watch while you peer at items from all over the world, and into the huge space of the Central Court. Being Christmas, it did look a little like a shopping mall – but we all love to shop, and to sit and gossip, which so many people were doing. Looking up through Norman Foster’s domed roof, I could see blue sky and winter clouds.

I was visiting for two reasons. I wanted to see the Celts exhibition. This early period of our history is complicated by terminology such as the iron age (although the objects are bronze) and by the tramping boots of the Romans, whose written history is good at confusing the facts. Oh well, history is written by the victors!

Does Celtic history end with the Romans’ departure from Britain? Of course not, so I can now be confused by the Vikings, Angles, Saxons and Jutes, each with their own style. And to add to it all, in the 18th and 19th century the antiquarians re-interpreted the evidence, and the druids re-appear, as in this photograph by J W Jackson at Arbor Low in about 1927. Were the druids there at all? And are we actually still all Celts? Well, probably not. Were we ever?

lantern slide - druids.tif

Exhibitions like this bring together and juxtapose objects. The first object you see is Greek! So as a visitor you have to start to think. The projected timeline was useful, and beautiful, not too long that you felt uncomfortable watching it, but holding your attention with good information and images. The highlights for me were the gold and silver torcs, particularly those that have recently been found in Scotland. The metal working skills are awe-inspiring, drawing wire, twisting thin plates, even making hinges. I hasten to add that wearing them may have required some neck strengthening exercises, they looked so heavy. There were huge cauldrons used for feasting, decorated with their lively animals and scary creatures.  And the St Chad’s Bible, which has left Lichfield Cathedral where I last saw it when we visited during the Enlightenment! programme.

After two hours in the low gallery lighting, I then enjoyed the thrill of going behind the scenes at the museum. The doors to the department offices are imposingly tall, with shiny brass locks and handles, and they shut with a satisfying click. Before you are endless passages, stairs, bookshelves with the libraries neatly arranged, and offices which should be silent or filled with hushed debate, except that the dull drone of stone cleaning outside shatters the studious calm.

I was visiting the Department of Europe and Palaeontology to talk about the potential of returning some of the treasures of Derbyshire to the new gallery at Buxton. I had previously studied the online catalogue and knew that there are some interesting objects which might be released from the stores. The curators I met were keen to suggest potential items, from the early Neolithic to medieval times. They patiently answered some of my quite ridiculous questions, but if questions are not asked, we’ll never know the answer. And as we talked, new themes started to emerge.

It is early days yet, but arranging loans takes a long time. I have promised new colleagues images of weird items in the Buxton collections, such as these mace heads reputed to have been found at Arbor Low. In return, they are searching the stores for errant combs and chatting to conservators about whether objects are stable enough to travel. I already have a potential list of 50 items, which will need confirming.

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But I cannot forget that Buxton Museum already has amazing collections. Walking around the Celts exhibition I realised that they may not be gold, but bronze jewellery items from Thirst House and Poole’s cavern, with their strong dates and provenance are as good as some of what was on show. Early next year we need your help to suggest the star items for the new gallery: perhaps here are some of Buxton’s star objects? Come and tell us.

DERSB 3619

Dragonesque brooch from Thirst House cave, with red and blue enamel inlay, late 1st century to early 2nd century AD.

Trumpet brooch, 2nd century AD, Thirst House cave.

Trumpet brooch, 2nd century AD, Thirst House cave.

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