What are museums about? Is it the resonance of objects? People are intensely emotional about the things we make and use; even the most quotidian can become vessels loaded with our memories, with shared hopes, and the passionate need to mark events of significance with something that defies the relentless march of hours or decades. By experiencing objects made, shared and used by people elsewhere in place or time, we can try to imagine our way into their lives, expanding our capacity for empathy and appreciation of diverse pleasures and aims.
Fortunately, people working in heritage today recognise that this resonance isn’t automatically accessible for everyone who seeks it out. The traditional presentation of artefacts carefully categorised in glass cases or arranged behind velvet ropes, all accompanied by erudite written descriptions of their period and provenance is long gone. Audio guides, samples to touch, discovery trails and creative interpretation to draw out the significance of objects in the societies and stories that produced them are now, thankfully, standard issue.
But the folks at The British Museum never rest in coming up with great ideas to get us engaged in heritage, so they also put on a plethora of events, like the Up Late in Pompeii evening I went to last night. I haven’t yet been to the Pompeii & Herculaneum exhibition, but I spent many days over many years volunteering with the education team at The Collection museum of archaeology in Lincoln (one of the four colonia) so I know my Romans. The offering included a Fives tournament, designing amphora labels, hairdressing, a lecture on sex in Roman art, olive oil tasting, and lots of music. I saw and heard food historian Sally Grainger making rich sauces to Roman recipes and arts writer Charlotte Higgins reading romantic (and racy) classical poems. I walked down an avenue of shops where doctors, scribes, cloth-weavers and shrine-makers plied (or rather explained) their trades. These performances brought wonderful artefacts alive to give crowds of visitors a frisson of deep emotion for the past.
What this kind of event comprehends is that the imaginative connection to people from the past underpinned by real artefacts can be made through all sorts of channels. The first time I ate Italian food, when I was about ten years old, was in a restaurant called The Roman’s Place close to Lincoln Castle. I had a cheese and tomato pizza and, thanks to a short lifetime of fantastic heritage visits, felt deliciously immersed in ancient Rome. It was completely unforgettable; even now I can recall the excitement and emotion.
What I really want to draw out here is the layered quality of experiencing heritage in an outstanding museum today and the excitement we feel in dramatising the resonance of histories collectively. The BM event also included Russian Ballet students performing the tarantella, a dance contemporary in the Neapolitan region when Pompeii was first excavated in the 18th century. Similarly, Fabricio Mattos of the Royal Academy of Music was in the King’s Library playing beautiful Neapolitan folk music, including a tarantella accompaniment, from the same era, on a small, extremely precious, early 19th century guitar. We are reaching back for resonance, and actually, not too fussy about the ‘period and provenance’. The first importance, the highest value, is placed on the access to transcendence we experience through emotionally connecting with past people. There is a refreshing reflexivity here, in that as well as ancient and 18th century Pompeii, our awareness is drawn to the present moment also. Our senses are sharpened by rare sights, sounds, smells, tastes, textures. We are aware of sharing these sensations with a huge diversity of visitors all thinking and reaching back to the Romans, yet being together, collaborating with the performers in their interpretation. At the cloth-dyers stall, a woman in a linen tunic, a beautiful replica made by the methods used thousands of years ago, told me, half in character and half in jest,
‘Your dress must be dyed with madder’
And there is something richer between us than truth.