The Queensland Museum has just opened a new exhibition on Medieval Power. It runs until 10 April 2016. As the museum trumpets in its promo, it will be ‘the first museum in the world and the only one in Australia and New Zealand to host this incredible new exhibition curated by the British Museum.’
So – is it incredible? I’m not so sure. The exhibition contains a great many wonderful pieces. Not surprisingly, given how far they have come from one side of the world to the other, most of them are small. That’s not in itself a problem, though it does mean that the exhibits need time – and in my case reading glasses – to absorb their detail properly.
Given the problems of transportation, it was generous of the British Museum to send some fragile items, such as embroidered cloth or leather. There’s a leather shoe dredged from the muddy Thames that looks as if it could have hidden in the back of my wardrobe until recently. The cuts along the toes are so fresh that I’m sure a leather worker could recreate the design without much difficulty.
The caption says it dated from 1400-1500, but was it dated on the basis of style or some sort of chemical analysis? Carbon dating or DNA analysis would have been impossible with all that mud. I wanted to know more about that shoe, but there’s no catalogue to satisfy my curiosity – and what does it have to do with Power, the alleged theme of the exhibition?
In this exhibition, Power covers the authority of the church (papal rings, objects of devotion), the state (numerous seals, the Lewis chess set king) and the military force of the knights behind that (helmets, horse gear). Beyond that, there’s a miscellany of the stuff of ordinary life – knives and spoons, a saltcellar, items of adornment. I fell deeply in love with a small bone pin with the head and horn of a unicorn.
There’s also a rudimentary attempt to illustrate towns and trade, and one of the final cabinets contains a number of seals and other objects associated Jewish or Muslim minorities.
The objects are lovely, intriguing, engaging. Most of the people around me seemed perfectly happy with what was on display, though none of their comments seemed to go much beyond the ‘Wow, isn’t that old!’ school of history. It is the school holidays, after all.
So why did I come away from this exhibition feeling vaguely frustrated, and regretting that I had splashed out on a season ticket?
For a start, there’s no catalogue. I’m not sure who curated this exhibition, but my guess is that most of the decisions about selection were made in London, not Brisbane, especially as the exhibition is going on to other places after this. So why is there no catalogue to cover the entire tour? A search of ‘unicorn pin’ on the British Museum’s Collection online was easy – but I’ve got Buckley’s chance of finding the shoe. Similarly, there’s a nice quiet place within the exhibition where a lot of interesting books are laid out to read – but none of them are available at the bookshop.
According to the British Museum website, this travelling exhibition is called Medieval Europe: AD 400-1500 but somewhere between London and Brisbane, the title changed to Medieval Power: Symbols and Splendour. My hunch is that some publicist thought this title would appeal more to the Game of Thrones generation, but it’s a pity, because in the conversion, the chronology – and therefore causation – have been lost. A thousand years of the ebb and flow of European history have been mashed together into a largely undifferentiated ‘Middle Ages’, sometimes within the same display cabinet.
There’s another problem with the theme of Power. It leaves women out of the discussion, even when the objects themselves do not. The King in the Lewis chess set is described in terms of his sword and throne, the symbols of his royal power. But there is no comparable discussion of the Queen who sits beside him, from another walrus ivory chess set.
In the end, I was glad to have the season ticket because I went back at the end of the week, just to check if my original impressions were unfair. I don’t think they are, although on a second viewing the logic of the themes became a bit clearer. But I’m still disappointed. Don’t get me wrong – the exhibition is definitely worth a visit, maybe more than one, but go on a day that won’t be crowded so that you can take you your time over the smaller exhibits – and reading glasses. And don’t, like me, walk out expecting to pick up that fascinating book on medieval jewelry when you reach the bookshop. It won’t be there.
Update: Here is a very different report on the exhibition, this time from a physicist.