Now that spring is here — dark winter mornings driven away by dawns deafening with birdsong, that bout of pneumonia more or less gone, spindly primroses making a stalwart effort to flourish in unreliable sunshine, the 2010 general election finally underway — my son’s school holidays find us, with a degree of inevitability, spending yet another day exploring the British Museum.
The visit, it turns out, is more worthwhile than ever. At present, a handful of artifacts from the Staffordshire Hoard is on show at the British Museum (until 17 April 2010), after which they’ll return to the Midlands, following a successful appeal to retain these treasures, legacy of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, near the fields in which they were found last year. There’s also a handsome little booklet — £1 of the modest £4.99 purchase price goes to fund the appeal — setting out what little is known thusfar about this recent, remarkable discovery.
There’s something terribly moving about these tiny golden objects, the intricate intertwined forms and cloisonné settings still caked with the clay of their Staffordshire fields, blood-red garnets smeared with mud, crushed outlines not yet smoothed or rationalised — a riddle of riches and violence with its mystery still intact. How, one wonders, did more than 1,600 individual items, some of them absolute masterpieces of metalwork, come to be buried and found together? In truth, although ideas abound, no one is quite certain.
That there’s a provisional quality, however, to the presentation of this treasure does nothing to detract from its fascination. In mediating with impeccable professionalism between tidied-up past and infinitely messy present, museum displays can have the effect of making history look finished — literally done and dusted — reposing slightly outside our own experience. Whereas, the present display of the Staffordshire Hoard implies instead that under every nondescript field, scruffy building-site or suburban garden might lie something unsuspected, surprising, ancient, important, perhaps even staggeringly beautiful. The legacy of the past, in other words, may turn out to be closer than we think.
And indeed, this encouraging message could hardly have turned up at a better time, since the present is, at least at the level of public policy, under-performing to quite a remarkable degree. Is it just me, or is the 2010 general election coverage thusfar literally unwatchable? Continue reading