The past in their hands

July 8, 2005

Museums must nurture the young minds captivated by medieval artefacts, says Neil MacGregor

How and when did a massive medieval bronze ewer apparently promoting the political cause of Richard II come to be treasured at the court of the Asante kings of what is now Ghana? What do its badges and ambiguous inscription tell us, and how did this splendid piece of bronze casting resonate in England and in Africa?

What was the purpose of the Anglo-Saxon Franks casket carved to saturation point with dense runic texts and riddling images drawn from Germanic, classical and scriptural tradition? What meaning could this strange northern artefact have had for the barons who later chose to swear oaths of fealty on it at the medieval shrine of St Julian at Brioude in the Auvergne? And why could such an epitome of status and sanctity be bought on the open market in the mid-19th century?

Marvels such as these - both on show in the British Museum's medieval galleries - are unique portals to a past at once familiar and other. In trying to decode that otherness, their familiarity is revealed. These are documents as opaque, complex and poignant as any medieval written record, and reading them requires particular skills.

But they have a physical immediacy that speaks to everybody and they point us in unexpected directions - to Anglo-medieval African trading networks; to the learned counterpointing of pagan and Christian for the moral education of an Anglo-Saxon dynasty; and to the destruction and dispersal of French ecclesiastical patrimony after 1792.

The incomparable medieval collections of our museums abound in artefacts that make narrative, speculation and paradox visible and the issues of history literally graspable. How can we better bring this astonishing archive into the arena where these artefacts can speak their narratives to a wider audience and, in doing so, bring different discourses to medieval studies in higher education?

Whatever the concerns over student recruitment, the public appetite for the medieval past has never been greater. With at least a million visitors passing through the British Museum's medieval galleries every year, we should be thinking hard about how this public interest can be translated into positive support for the discipline.

In the continuing debate on the future of university medieval studies, museums might play a key role, precisely because of our dual nature, serving as we do both academic scholarship and the public who spill through our doors.

No other institutions are able to make their medieval collections as openly accessible and enjoyable to the same degree, not even our great libraries.

If we can better engage the public with the narratives in our collections, that enthusiasm should surely be convertible into new initiatives feeding into medieval studies and will, in turn, benefit museums by creating and inspiring a new generation of professionals. The launch of several major museum programmes suggests that the time is ripe for innovative thinking on this front.

First, the Museum of London, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum are all engaged in major reorganisations of their medieval displays, scheduled to open successively between the end of this year and 2009.

How to make each a singular creation has been the subject of lively debate, and presentations on all three will be included in sessions at the Leeds International Medieval Congress next week. The next four years offer the museums a unique chance to develop initiatives with the higher education sector through internships, diversified course content, web-based resources and perhaps, above all, through the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Second, the British Museum, the V&A and other London-based museums and galleries are partners in the new Government-supported Global Graduates scheme, aimed at encouraging bright young talent from culturally diverse backgrounds to the profession, a radical extension of our traditional programmes of student placements and internships.

Initiatives such as this, reaching out to bright inner-city school students who might not otherwise consider a museum career, have tremendous potential to enrich the ways that museums and higher education can work together to bring medieval studies to a new generation. By making the most of these opportunities, we will ensure a bright future for medieval studies, museums and for the world's understanding of its past.

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum, will deliver a keynote lecture, "The Middle Ages for the modern world - presenting medieval collections", at the International Medieval Congress , Leeds University, July 11-14.

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