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Staffordshire Hoard draws the crowds

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Paul Sargeant Paul Sargeant | 12:15 UK time, Friday, 12 March 2010

A piece of the Staffordshire HoardI'm sure you remember the news last year when a hoard of over 1,500 items of Anglo Saxon gold was discovered in a field in South Staffordshire last year by a metal detectorist. Ever since there has been huge public interest in seeing this buried treasure, unearthed like something out of a pirate movie. As the Staffordshire Hoard goes on display again at one of our partner museums, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, we asked their Curator of Applied Arts, Martin Ellis, to tell us why it 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Presumably, the British Museum's Trustees believe that in London the Staffordshire Hoard will be an integral part of the story of world cultures, Paul, although I do not think that we should underestimate the importance to a more local museum, and a 'Mercian' sense of identity (and I write as a Londoner rather than a Brummie). The issue of 'Elginism' is one which I feel that BBC Radio 4 and the British Museum should address further, although I admired Neil MacGregor's elegance on the subject in Episode 27. Mary Beard put it thus:

    "I think the Parthenon must have been the kind of building that you spat at and kicked if you could. You knew, if you were one of Athens' subjects, that this was a statement of your own subordination. There was a clear and vociferous faction in Athens when the Parthenon was built, which said the money shouldn't be spent that way. That this was, in the words of one, dressing Athens up like a 'harlot'. Now, that's very odd, I think, for us to empathise with now, because the Parthenon sculptures seem so austerely beautiful, I think, it's hard to think of them in terms of prostitution. It's very discomfiting, I think, to think of our touchstone of good classical taste as having appeared vulgar. But it clearly did, to some."

    I just started a discussion thread about imperial loot on the Radio 4 'Choice is Yours' message board, as I feel that Kwame Opoku would give the British Museum a good kicking if he could.

    Perhaps you could suggest to Mark Damazer (and David Prudames could suggest to Neil MacGregor) that the Elginists, whether in Birmingham, Scotland or West Africa, merit a right of reply.

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