Staffordshire Hoard draws the crowds
Back in October, although we knew in the Museum that there was a huge popular interest in the Hoard, we had no idea that it would catch people's interest so powerfully - or prompt so many to queue round the building for a chance to see the assemblage of golden fragments on show.
The ideas of treasure, of gold and gems; that it was hidden, untouched and unknown for so many centuries; the light it casts on the English Dark Ages and an ancient pagan past; its very scale, richness and rarity; all these things fascinate. But I think we are also attracted by its mystery.
There are so many unanswered questions. Who collected and buried it? and why? Was it an offering to the gods? Military plunder? Why was everything broken apart with such apparent violence and carelessness of its beauty? Sometimes too many facts, too much knowledge, can be deadening. We need the unexplained. The Hoard allows us to imagine what and who and why, unfettered by the suspicion that there is an expert in the background holding all the answers.
So a big part of the attraction is the sense of mystery as much as its value. The hoard is worth more than its weight in gold because it teases out stories that were hidden with it.
Since it was discovered there's been a campaign to keep the hoard in the Midlands near where it was found. Martin sees this as part of the connection that objects in museums can evoke in people; a connection that can help them to relate to history.
For people in the West Midlands, the Hoard has touched us with a sense of our own history, and reminded us of an ancient identity. The notion of Mercia, the powerful, controlling kingdom of Britain in the 7th and 8th centuries, is unfamiliar. But suddenly we are hearing that this might be the treasure of Penda or Wulfhere or Aethelred, great kings from a remote past which give our region an unexpected authority. We're all Mercians now.
And the Hoard holds the special attraction that all museum objects share: that it's the real thing. It is an attraction which is unfailing; the sense that we are looking at actual history, the real evidence of the past. And objects can tell so many stories - both our own history and the wider world, exploring the experience and achievements of local people in a global context.
BMAG has a put a number of objects from its collection on A History of the World. How do these objects help explain Birmingham's place in the world?
The extraordinary clock barometer, on display in Birmingham's Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, for example, tells us about Birmingham's world-wide engineering prowess. The object was made by the great firm of Elkington & Co., for presentation in Argentina and has associations with the Birmingham engineer, William Bragge. But it tells separate stories of the very beginnings of the railways in South America and India, of pioneering and colonial expansion. It also suggests a more questionable narrative about the taste of Birmingham designers in the early 20th century!
But the clock barometer is linked through its stories to other objects in our selection. The Sultanganj Buddha, for example, found by a British engineer during the building of the railways in North East India, is one of the greatest treasures of the Museum. As is the Fijian Ancestor Figure, brought to Birmingham through Victorian trade and colonialism. But the figure is also a powerful emblem of spiritual and social authority in a changed world.
Perhaps, ultimately, A History of the World is more a journey than a history. It offers us the opportunity to wander through the past and around the globe, travelling from story to story, down tangential byways, to discover the inter-connectedness of human experience and heritage.
The Staffordshire Hoard is on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery from today. Go and get a glimpse of your ancient past and while you're there why not see if you can spot some of the A History of the World collection among the many treasures of the museum.
- Image courtesy of the Staffordshire Hoard website.