Telling a changing story

The word ‘story’ keeps coming up in my research into museum display and archaeology. The ‘story to be told’ is the really exciting part of the process. I’ve found, through interviews with curators in various museums, that although the collection of a museum may not change, the story will. Telling a changing story is one of the most interesting challenges for museum professionals, and drawing on new technology, new research and theories, and also new finds, can greatly assist with revealing what that story is.

For example, the story to be told now about the Vikings seems to involve the Vikings as travellers, as explorers of the globe, as a maritime culture with such a curiosity and drive that they would set out in every direction from Northern Europe. Of course, much of this travel was funded by raiding and looting, but for too long the story has revolved around that aspect and has ignored the global trade networks that were established at this time.

The story to be told is about travelers, people in motion who leave behind a past life and those who knew them and are transformed by the journey. Call them Ishmaels, hobos, exiles, outcasts, beat hitchhikers, itinerant bluesmen, or jazz improvisers, but above all call them vikings. (Frank 2007: 23)

The idea of the story in the museum is one I will keep coming back to, but today I want to think about what happens when there is more than one story.

Multiple stories

One challenge facing the display of material culture is that one object may tell multiple stories, have more than one use, and those uses could be from more than one time or culture.

Here is a really, embarrassingly basic story: I have a cup. I use it to drink from. I give it to my friend. She uses it to put cut flowers in. Same object, but with more than one use–and it’s a nice, linear story. I used it for x, she uses it next for y. That’s fine, but say there’s an exhibition (obviously this would be the most boring exhibition in the world, but go with it). Does the curator put it with the cups, or with the vases?

This taps into the tension between function and use, as well as issues of multiple/dual/shared functions and issues of temporality.

So let’s get technical: ‘function’ has been defined as a broad term relating to the role of an object or assemblage within a cultural system, while ‘use’ refers to the task (or tasks) for which the object is used (Heron and Evershed 1993: 247-248).

Multifunctional material culture

The issues inherent in identifying object multi-functionality or shared purpose have been noted by archaeologists, some of whom view multi-functionality as a barrier to understanding past cultures (Jones 1983). As I am a medieval archaeology student, the examples I’ll be giving below will have a decidedly medieval flavour. The issues with identifying multi-functionality aren’t restricted to medieval archaeology, but archaeologists of other time periods seem to have established a precedent for dealing with this so-called ‘problem’ (I’m looking at the Roman archaeologists).

I think the first step is to recognise where we might actually find multi-functionality in objects.

Recognising multi-functionality: Medieval cosmetic/medical implements

Roman or Medieval cast copper-alloy toilet implement. Object ID: IOW-3832F3. Photo credit: PAS
Roman or Medieval cast copper-alloy toilet implement.
Object ID: IOW-3832F3. Photo credit: PAS

For this example, I’m going to objects that I believe had a shared use in one period, and will use another period as a precedent.

Objects associated with personal grooming in the medieval period appear to have been quite common, with cosmetic sets including tweezers, nail-cleaners, earscoops and razors found across the United Kingdom. Nail-cleaners and earscoops increased in popularity from the fourteenth century, and these and other cosmetic items could be individual or, as frequently found, riveted together to make a set. These items are generally seen to have been used specifically for cosmetic purposes, although identical objects from the Roman period have been classed as having a dual cosmetic and medical purpose. The problem with not classing the medieval instruments as medical is that there is a gap in the archaeological record for medieval medical material culture. Geoff Egan (2007: 66) noted this absence:

Aside from personal grooming tools from the Middle Ages, like nail cleaners, toothpicks and tweezers, a few of which might occasionally have seen more serious use outside the routine to deal with specific ailments, medieval medical equipment was not discussed.

Toilet instruments have been found in the Roman archaeological record and many are identical to their later counterparts. Shared use has long been accepted by Roman archaeologists for the same objects. Ralph Jackson (Jackson and La Niece 1986), at the British Museum, has drawn attention to shared use of objects in the Roman period, and has highlighted the link between medical and cosmetic instruments.

So before we can talk about how to display multi-functional items, perhaps we need to actually identify them. The topic of shared purpose of medieval cosmetic implements is one I could go on about for a long time, so I’m going to cut myself off here and move on.

 Multi-functionality through re-use, or appropriation

The Vale of York hoard vessel. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.
The Vale of York hoard vessel. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The Vikings: Life and Legend exhibition at the British Museum this year featured the Vale of York hoard, a Frankish vessel containing around 700 objects which was buried in the 920s. Items from across the Viking world were found crammed inside this tiny, but highly decorated gilt-silver cup. The cup was probably looted from a Frankish church, and later re-used by the Vikings as a hoard vessel. It was found in 2007 near Harrogate, in York.

The story of its reuse is much more straight-forward than multi-functionality, as it was used as a vessel by both cultures and in both periods (the vessel is thought to date to the mid-ninth century. Although the periods are close together, it’s quite a handy example). So, although the function did not change, the contents and meanings did. If the vessel had not been taken by the Vikings and if its end of use phase had not been the Viking Age, it may have been displayed with Frankish metalwork. It makes me wonder if the end of use phase is a little too important when it comes to display, and ignores the object’s biography.

Just to confuse things–multi-temporality AND multi-functionality

Neolithic arrowhead found in a medieval context. Photo credit: Current Archeology magazine
Neolithic arrowhead found in a medieval context. Photo credit: Current Archeology magazine

How can a museum engage with what Anders Andrén (2013: 268) has called ‘the complex multi-temporal character of the past’?

Well, they could communicate the way that objects are re-used and re-interpreted by people in different time periods. One example, and I do really love this one, is the re-use of Neolithic arrowheads as apotropaic amulets in the medieval period. The Kilwinning Community Archaeology Project found, in its 2011 season, a neolithic leaf-shaped arrowhead from around 3,500 BC in a dig at the Kilwinning Abbey chapter house.

Carly Hilts, at Current Archaeology magazine, has drawn on the medieval belief that these arrowheads were supernatural in origin: ‘Neolithic arrowheads were thought to be projectiles used by elves to harm humans and livestock’. They were called ‘elf-shot’, and were thought to have protective powers. They are sometimes found in contexts associated with roof spaces, and may have been thought to protect against lightning strikes.

If you had this neolithic arrowhead, from an unmistakably medieval context, where would you display it in a purely chronological/classificatory museum space? You could pick one of those times and put a note to say ‘also used in x period’, but then you’re assigning it to a period. The visitor will associate it with the period you’ve put it into no matter what the caption says. Which period has the biggest claim to it? Both periods used it–it had a function in both, but a very different one. It was crafted in the neolithic period, but may have been in use for a longer period of time in the medieval period. I don’t have any answers, but isn’t the question interesting?


Next week: the period room and the (re)constructed past

Works cited:

EGAN, G. 2007. Material culture of care for the sick : some excavated evidence from English medieval hospitals and other sites. In: BOWERS, B. S. (ed.) The medieval hospital and medical practice. Aldershot: Ashgate.

FRANK, R. 2007. Terminally Hip and Incredibly Cool: Carol, Vikings, and Anglo-Scandinavian England. Representations, 100, 23-33.

HERON, C. & EVERSHED, R. P. 1993. The Analysis of Organic Residues and the Study of Pottery Use. Archaeological Method and Theory, 5, 247-284.

JACKSON, R. & LA NIECE, S. 1986. A Set of Roman Medical Instruments from Italy. Britannia, 17, 119-167.

JONES, O. R. 1983. London Mustard Bottles. Historical Archaeology, 17, 69-84.