1 June 2017
For two days, we four pilgrims marched around London, preparing to begin our long trek to Canterbury. On the 29th (Anna’s birthday) we visited Westminster Abbey where Geoffrey Chaucer’s bones lie among the skeletons of poets, politicians and princes; more than 3000 people are buried there, including Handel, Newton and Darwin. We were there for several hours and stayed behind at closing to attend the evening vespers service so we could hear the choir. At the Red Lion, a classic English pub, we had meat pies for dinner followed by a very hearty rendition of “Happy Birthday to You,” with impressive harmonies from the congregation of diners.
We spent the next morning at the Victoria and Albert Museum, an important place in the history of museums, with roots in the Crystal Palace Exhibition of 1851, and then went to see “Twelfth Night” at the Globe Theatre. Along the way we visited “The George,” the last of the old medieval coaching inns. Next door was the site of the Tabard Inn, where Chaucer’s pilgrims gathered in the last decade of the 14th century.
At Oxford yesterday we went to the Pitt-Rivers Museum and will visit the Ashmolean today, two more keys to understanding the history of museums. We attended another vespers service, this time at the church of Christ College in Oxford, and we will head to Stratford this afternoon to see a production of “Julius Caesar” at the Royal Shakespeare Company. Whew!
We intend to attend as many choral performances as we can, as many Shakespeare plays as are being offered on our route, all Medieval Cathedrals that come within our ken, and walk along the ancient paths.
As a nod to my pilgrimage of 20 years ago, I’m including here something I wrote then about the power of objects. My thoughts on the relationship between people and things was just being developed then, and it continues to resonate with me as I ponder and write about the history of museums.
Top: My companions on the pilgrimage.
Bottom: The gallery of casts at the V&A. Everything here is a reproduction, including the statue of David, which had to be censored with a plaster leaf during Victoria’s day. (There were hooks embedded in David’s hips on which the leaf could hang.)
From May 1997: The Power of the Thing
I believe that objects have a power almost magical. It is not apparent in every object, though each holds the potential. The keys to the power are memory, imagination, and faith.
On my desk is a heavy glass prism. At one time it was probably clear, but long ago it took on a purple cast. A hundred years ago or more it was set into the deck of a ship. It has a flat surface that lay flush with the planking of the deck, and a six-sided point that reflected light down into the ship’s cabin. It was given to me by an old man in Maine who found it on a beach when he was a boy. At that time it was still embedded in a piece of wood, the last relic of an unidentified shipwreck.
This object is like a time capsule. It doesn’t matter to me that I know only the very last links in the specific chain of events that brought it from a glass factory to a shipyard, out to sea, crashing violently back to shore, and eventually onto my desk. It represents more than itself. Holding it in my hand, I can see schooners on the coast of Maine, cargos of lumber and rock and ice, great storms, ships lost, men afraid, women waiting with worry. I have read many accounts of the seafaring past—shipboard journals, business papers, historical analyses—but this thing has a power that makes it tangible. I touch the past when I hold it in my hands.
I have powerful talismans of my personal history as well; some are mementos of family and friends, many more are souvenirs of travel. Next to the prism on my desk are three rocks, one from the White Cliffs of Dover, one from the Brazos river in Texas, and one collected on my walk across England. I also have shells from the Irish beach at Inch, coral from Bequia in the Caribbean and from Taiji in Japan, a whale barnacle from the Oregon Coast, and a sand dollar from a beach in my home state of Washington. Each encapsulates the memory of when and where it was collected. For me, these are more powerful than photographs.
If I gave my collection of rocks and shells to someone else, they might have meaning as geological specimens, or as mementos of me, but the power that my memory gives them would be gone. If the prism went to someone else without the knowledge of the shipwreck, it would merely be a paperweight.
I am intrigued by the attachment we have to artifacts, enough so that I have worked in museums and as a history teacher for almost twenty years. My own area of research has been into the ethnological artifacts collected by American sailors in the Pacific Ocean in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. I began with an interest in the very different ways that two groups of people could look at the same artifact. The native producer or user saw the club, paddle, mask, or spoon as familiar and functional; the foreign collector saw it not only as exotic, but used it to represent his personal adventure. It was the difference between a group’s common perception and an individual’s personal memory. If the collector died without telling his story, then the artifact could only be interpreted as part of the culture that made it. And that is what happened to the vast majority of souvenirs brought back by American sailors. I wanted to recover their stories, if possible. Concentrating for over ten years on the collecting motives of a group made up almost entirely of teenage boys has its limitations, however. What was the cultural foundation of their desire to collect? How had they come to find the power of the artifact? And what is the connection between personal memory and group memory? I found my thoughts on the power of objects going back further in time and increasingly into the roles that faith and imagination, in addition to memory, play in determining their importance.
For Western Europeans, the concept that objects have power seems to have originated in the cult of religious relics. Morbid and gothic though it sounds, small bits of human corpses were so powerful in the Middle Ages that they drew people halfway around the world at a time when travel was difficult, tedious, and dangerous. I decided to further explore this interesting aspect of the past and consequently found myself one day in the middle of a field, in the middle of England, on my way—by foot—to Canterbury.
I’m not a religious person, but I was intrigued by the idea of making a pilgrimage of the sort that was popular in medieval times. The bones of saints, pieces of the true cross, holy roods, weeping statues, bloody towels, footsteps in stone, thorns and water, all called to the faithful to come and worship. At pilgrimage sites throughout Europe and the Middle East, holy objects were on exhibit so that common people might experience a physical connection to heaven. At some shrines, the bones could be fondled by the faithful; some tombs were built so that pilgrims could climb inside or under them for an ever closer physical proximity to the spiritual world.
In practice, it didn’t matter if the wood kissed by the pilgrim was really a piece of the true cross or a splinter from a chair. If it was believed to be the true cross, then the connection was made. The object transported the believer across the miles and years to Palestine and the crucifixion. The magic happened.