Tag Archives: Roman Empire

On ‘saving’ the Crosby Garrett helmet

When it comes to the international trade in antiquities, the UK has for centuries enjoyed the status of net beneficiary. This happy fact is evident not only amid the airy echoing courts and endless lesser galleries of the British Museum, various far-flung corners of the V&A, the renovated treasure-houses of the Ashmolean and the Fitzwilliam, dozens of excellent regional and local collections, but equally so from the riches which private collectors and their trustees have chosen to share with the viewing public — these last ranging from a few marvellous cameos in the Royal Collection to the magnificent holdings of some of our more acquisitive aristocratic families, or, as far as that goes, intellectually stimulating displays at Sir John Soane’s house in Lincoln’s Inn Fields and Sigmund Freud’s house in Hampstead — as well as what’s there to be seen, all the year round, in the salerooms of our larger and smaller auction houses and in the galleries of commercial dealers in antiquities.

Britain is, in short, notably well-stocked with the material residue of other countries’ ancient civilisations. Other countries are, in contrast, rather less preoccupied with the material residue of Britain’s ancient civilisations. When it comes to the past, we import more than we export. Or to put it another way, without a lively and long-established progression of antiquities out of their far-flung places of origin and into Britain, some of our greatest museums, galleries, stately homes and smaller collections would be looking rather empty, at least from the point of view of anyone who cares about ancient history.

Should we regret this? Not entirely. As the previous examples ought to show, Britain’s vast holdings of other people’s cultural legacies stems as much from the stuff of cross-cultural curiosity, profound and productive scholarly engagement, aesthetic receptiveness, political stability and  peaceful exchange as it does from military or economic imperialism, exploitation or outright theft. Rather like our tail-wagging mongrel of a language, our ability to absorb all those various successive lapping waves of inward migration, our default tendency towards tolerance cross-cut with a strand of fairly gentle irony, Britain’s acquisitive regard for other countries’ ancient history says the sorts of things about our culture that, at least when couched in positive terms, most of us are only too anxious to believe.

None of which is to say that we shouldn’t stop and think carefully about where antiquities purchased today come from, how they came to be there, or the sort of incentives produced by their sale — or indeed, about whether repatriating those antiquities might now suit our moods and purposes better than retaining them. But it does suggest, surely, that we’re not in much of a position to complain when our own antiquities end up finding new homes abroad.

All that being the case, when, why should we strive to ‘save’ — i.e. to retain within the UK, in a public collection — that article of Roman cavalry parade armour now known as the Crosby Garrett helmet, due to be auctioned at Christie’s South Kensington on 7 October? Continue reading

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Blasting & Blessing: a long overdue edition

Hadrian's Wall, between Milecastle and Housesteads, summer 2010

So, that’s summer 2010 done, then. And while, over the past three months, there are plenty of things I’ve done — travelled as far afield as Haltwhistle, Bedford and Bracknell; refinished precisely one third of the staircase leading down to the kitchen; bruised a toenail while walking along Hadrian’s Wall; eaten a mulberry; bought a copy of World of Interiors; read a small book by Roger Scruton; sewed name-tapes onto school uniforms while listening to William Walton’s music for Henry V; daydreamed ineffectually about planting apple trees and harbouring rescue hens; cat-napped — there are also plenty of things that I haven’t done.

This latter category is, alas, both large and highly relevant to Fugitive Ink, including as it does not only writing and large-scale reading, but also engaging in sustained mental exertion of any sort, productive or otherwise. I suspect I’ve totally forgotten how to write. How better to encourage what’s left of my blogging skills to creak back into something resembling working condition than with a brief bout of blasting & blessing?

First of all, most obviously and urgently, let’s blast this whole William Hague business. As implied in at least one previous post, our present fascination with the details of our elected representatives’ expense claims, hiring policies and overall extra-curricular deportment seems to me as radically tiresome as it is fundamentally misguided. For heaven’s sake — if we’re forced to trust these wretched men and women to make serious decisions affecting virtually every aspect of our lives, as the current version of democracy seems to suggest we must, then do we really need to micro-manage every nuance of their public and private behaviour as well? Might it not be a better idea just to give them each a set sum of money — possibly a bit less for backbench MPs, a bit more for ministers — and then just let them get on with it, judging them ultimately not on the process of governing itself, but rather on results? For whether they choose to spend the money on duck houses or moats, expertise or companionship, baseball caps or worse, it’s still the same money being spent — and still the same irrelevance to the basic question of whether or not they deserve our confidence or, as far as that goes, our electoral support.

Finally, sentimentally fond though I am of Guido Fawkes, surely he shouldn’t be wasting his malice on obscurely under-qualified special advisors when real trophy targets like Andy Coulson are there for the taking? You know, Guido, the sort of targets who commit actual crime, not mere silliness? Just a thought …

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Filed under blasting & blessing, books, politics, Tory things

Amongst the ruins: Hadrian at the British Museum

Et quod vides perisse perditum ducas

Hadrian: Empire and Conflict is an exhibition so weirdly fragmentary, unfocused and inconclusive as to leave me wondering how far, exactly, I should go in reading it not only as a metaphor for the future of the British Museum, but for cultural life more generally.

The way into the exhibition — chaotic, diffuse, confusing — prefigures what we’ll take away from it. Bathed in the milky light and perpetual semi-muffled roar of Great Court, I was guided first by the woman who sold me my ticket, and then by various signs and portents, into a darkened tunnel where my bag was nodded at, rather than searched, before someone else failed to sell me an audio-guide and directed me into an even darker tunnel beyond, which in turn led into a cul-de-sac. Had I missed the exhibition? No, the entrance was in fact now behind me. Having thus discovered the correct, alternative darkened tunnel, I made my way up it, along a low sloping ramp.

Hadrian enthusiasts of more optimistic stripe will, perhaps, have already begun to construe this ramp as a reference, stunning in its subtlety, to Hadrian’s tomb, now the Castel Sant’ Angelo, in Rome. Well, maybe.

Instead, though, my attention was transfixed by the view along the tunnel, upwards and to the left. For there, a few yards above me, ran shelf after shelf of books — half-hidden in the gloom, three-quarters forgotten, surely now wholly inaccessible — a tactless reminder of the fact that the exhibition space, left over from the recent occupation by everyone’s favourite Terracotta Army, is built out over the old Reading Room of the British Library. In other words, where once there was research, independent enquiry, the insistent coursing after knowledge (useful or otherwise) amongst the thickets and savannahs of the canonical printed or written word, now there is something else, superimposed across the top of it: spectacle, crowds appraised quantitas quam qualitas, crass money-making schemes, in short the ponderous mechanics of yet another British Museum Blockbuster.

Now, like most of us when we come up against the resonant detritus that is all we now have left of what used to be called Antiquity, I’m more than willing to succumb to semi-enjoyable reflection regarding the irrecoverability of the past, hackneyed regret that everything man-made really does end up ruined or lost eventually, or even pointless and sentimental sub-animist pity for the flotsam of Time’s shipwreck. That’s Antiquity’s promise, isn’t it, in all its well-worn emotional banality?

Yet it’s an oddity of Hadrian: Empire and Conflict that I managed to feel all these things before entering the exhibition itself, when confronted with the ruins of the Reading Room. Thus I stood alone for a moment, revisiting memories of doctoral research carried out countless ages ago, which is to say, in the early 1990s — those bigs desks with their turquoise-blue leather surfaces burnished by a thousand now-decayed elbows, the companionable clanking of the book trolleys, the weight of those archaic leather-bound catalogues in which so many answers were once thought to repose — and then, with a sigh, moved on.

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