Posted by: aboutalbion | April 23, 2012

Curators and Historians

I’ve come to appreciate the idea that curators catalogue and take care of the artefacts of history in collections in museums, while historians interpret them.  And last night there was a television programme to illustrate this distinction.

 The programme visited the two museums in the Midlands who are working on the ‘Staffordshire hoard’ – a collection of over a thousand gold and silver items with precious stone decorations.  It is thought that the red garnets came from the Indian sub-continent.  Virtually all of the items are military, with no domestic ones.  The items are thought to be from the seventh century CE.  They were discovered in a field (in the middle of the Kingdom of Mercia) miles from any human settlement (present and past) – but near the old Watling Street (a road of around two hundred and fifty miles from Dover to Wroxeter – near present day Shrewsbury).

 Among all the items, there is only one written text.  This is a silver gilt strip that is inscribed with a (Latin) text from Numbers 10:35.  In the RSV translation, the text is: “Arise, O Lord, and let thy enemies be scattered; and let them that hate thee flee before thee.”  In context, this is a prayer of Moses when the Ark of the Covenant (where God was thought to be potently present) was moved.  In addition, there are two crosses in the hoard.

 The programme enabled curators to show the larger artefacts and the high quality of the craftsmanship.  The public displays of these collections have attracted large attendances.  And the story of how they were found in 2009 is inspirational for all owners of metal detectors.

 However, the historians were shown scratching their heads.  Because there is no context to the discovery, there is no consensus emerging among historians about how and why the hoard came to be where it was found.  How did all these items come to be buried together?  Who did they belong to?  Are they a royal treasury?  Is it a collection of trophies from a single battle?  Is it a military man’s personal collection from a long and successful career?  Was the hoard stolen, and then hidden for disposal in the future?

 To me, this programme is evidence for the idea that the artefacts of history do not speak for themselves.  With a precise research question, historians have the creative task of writing a narrative that does justice to the artefacts in the museums.  In the case of the ‘Staffordshire hoard’, among the 5.1kg of gold items and 1.4kg of silver items, there is only one written text consisting of fourteen words in Latin.  It seems that, in general terms, text can provide some context.  But in this case, the text is more of a hint than a context.

 In my view, historians are unable to write a narrative of a specific event in the past apart from a general context of the past.  Each needs evidence from the other.

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