Monthly Archives: March 2014

Unearthing London: Museums and Artifacts as Sources

Museums are a valuable resource for those who study the past. On our excursion to the Museum of London, we had the amazing opportunity to see fragments of London’s history up close and personal. We were fortunate enough to get a tour of the medieval section from the curator herself, whose knowledge is furthered by her years of experience as a working archeologist in London. Archeological evidence, which makes up a good portion of the museum’s collection, can be very useful as long as it is considered alongside other kinds of sources.

The same can be said for museums more generally. While museums provide the opportunity to study artifacts for oneself, we must remember to also examine the way in which the museum chooses to present those artifacts. The importance of considering the museum’s interpretation cannot be overstated. An example of the Museum of London’s interpretation of a historical event was the short film on the 1348 Black Death in London. The film sought to emphasize the uncertainty and fear of the time period through the use of many low voices talking in the background. These voices listed locations that the plague had struck and symptoms of the disease, as well as reciting apocalyptic biblical verses. The film used imagery of fire and bones heavily. This film was the Museum’s attempt to picture life in London in 1348-49, an attempt that may or may not have been entirely accurate.

MOL Tour

After the tour and browsing the displays, we moved to a learning space to handle medieval objects from daily life. Some of the objects, like chain mail, were instantly recognizable, while others appeared strange and alien. These objects allowed us to begin to piece together the day-to-day life of the medieval Londoner. They showed us how he cooked, dressed, and did business. These small things all add up to a way of life that is very relevant to the study of history.

Handling objects 2 Handling objects

Moving outside the Museum, we came to a section of the old London city wall. The wall was constructed by the Romans around 200 CE, most likely as a response to the civil wars in the empire during the late second and early third centuries. It was built of ragstone shipped up the Thames from Maidstone, and the wall’s interior space was filled with ragstone rubble and a hard mortar. Horizontal bands of red Roman tile were also laid, and these helped to ensure that the wall remained level over distance. These bands are more readily visible in the section of wall by Tower Hill than in this one. However, this wall did show the medieval repairs and additions that often cover the Roman parts. With its backdrop of a modern building, it also demonstrated the vital nature of the city. Because London has been a significant city for a very long time, construction and growth were and continue to be almost a constant. The old and the new exist together, and often right on top of each other.

London Wall

In search of national identity

In England, one of the places where national identity can be felt is Westminster.  It may not need to be a place and indeed it can be felt through literature, music, artworks, artefacts, landscape or even ideas.  But historical importance of Westminster is obvious.  There is no remnant of Old St Paul’s Cathedral but a few of the Palace of Whitehall, and therefore along with the Tower, Westminster Abbey is one that provides us with some of the surviving, tangible evidence of the legacy of medieval London today.

Westminster Abbey seen from the north

We entered the abbey through the cloister, which is the part older than the church (the abbey began its life as a Benedictine monastery in the tenth century, although its roots are intertwined with legends).  Cloistered, undisturbed by the noise, it is an ideal space for meditation not only for monks but also the public.  The presence of memorials of the lost lives during the wars on the walls testifies what kinds of people might come to this place.

The church is remarkable in two points.  One is its architectural mastery, and the other is its close association with some of the prominent figures the nation has produced.  The church is built in the Gothic style, typical for its high vault and stained glasses.  An airy, vast space above the nave is enabled with the support of flying buttresses on both sides of the building.  With the light coming in through the glasses and a singing voice of the choir resonating, the space would create an atmosphere similar to the cloister.

At the heart of the church there rests Edward the Confessor, the founder of the church, surrounded by his successor kings.  The high altar is placed at the screen, because Henry VII, the founder of the Lady Chapel, rests in the apse at the east end.  The arrangement is also because the church – embracing the tombs of some of the prominent figures who contributed to the glory of the nation as well – is no longer exclusive of the general public, who used to have a limited access to the altar that had been placed beyond the screen.

At the ‘oldest’ door in use in Britain

Inside the church, it is not to be unnoticed that Mary I and Elizabeth I rest side by side.  It is symbolic of the religious and political reconciliation between different denominations Elizabeth endeavoured to achieve, blending Edward VI’s Protestantism and Mary’s Catholicism and, consequentially, laying out the foundation of the Anglican Church.  The sight does induce the recollection of such an aspect of the national history.

Moving to the National Portrait Gallery, we faced Tudor monarchs, an archbishop, royal servants, Elizabeth’s entourage, an explorer and others.  Their riches are amply displayed, yet in contrast their faces are serious – as if they want to tell us something (perhaps justification of their acts and decisions).  It is surprising to think how we perceive them differently through different media.  In the church, we know they are dead and we can feel it.  In the gallery, we know they are dead but their semblance on panels disturbs that belief.  Perhaps so long we talk and think about them, they will be remembered continuously.