Responding to the news that the National Trust and Mills & Boon have formed a partnership to publish bodice rippers set in historic houses, several CA readers have pointed out that the link between heritage and romance is far from new: museums and galleries have been exploiting their potential as trysting places for single urbanites for many years. In fact, you can probably study ‘dating in museums (nothing to do with Carbon 14)’ as an optional module in a museum studies degree these days.
This is now such a standard component of museum marketingpractice that when the Freud Museum appointed a new director – Carol Seigel (armed, according to the Guardian’s review of the programme, with not one but two degrees in museum studies) – she decided that the best way to improve visitor numbers was to mark the 100th anniversary of the publication of Freud’s treatise, Contributions to the Psychology of Love not with a study day but with a dating evening, with games in which participants shared the secrets of their most intimate dreams.
Not everyone seemed to get the point. As museum staff prepared for the event, Marian, the information officer, laid scatter cushions out on the floor. Ivan Ward, the highbrow Deputy Director of the museum, wasn’t happy with the way they were positioned. ‘Why would you want to be so close to someone?’ he asked, suggesting that a private session on Freud’s famous couch might not come amiss.
A quick bit of internet research reveals that there are as many varieties of museum-based dating party as there are forms of human sexuality. If discussing Freud’s groundbreaking theories on penis envy or castration complex is not your idea of fun, there are museums where you can dress up as an Egyptian mummy, a 17th century courtier or a rapacious Goth to attract the attention of a potential soulmate. As part of its event, called Speed Dating: Laws of Attraction, held on St Valentine’s Day 2010, the Science Museum even offered the shy and the geekish the chance to ‘talk to experts offering tips and advice about the science of body language’.
Valentine’s Day sees an orgiastic outbreak of such events, all listed on a website that goes by the unfortunate name of Past Caring. Despite sounding as though it is a website for those who have long lost their libido, this is a ‘Celebration of Love in History’ for all those people whose romantic side is stirred by talks on ‘the history of the love letter’, ‘the Victorian language of flowers’ or the ‘wilder side of archives’!
Anyone tickled by the idea that archives have a wilder side will be equally amused by a term that emerged when duties were reallocated recently to newly appointed ministers at the Department for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (DCOMS). There was a little bit of a flurry around the fact that Ed Vaizey, appointed as Culture Minister on 17 May, learned on 21 May that the built heritage part of his portfolio was being taken away and given to John Penrose. In the four short days that he had ministerial responsibility for architecture, Vaizey had promised to reconcile the conflict between historic and contemporary buildings (‘not one at the expense of the other, but each in its proper place’ was the gist of his position) and had been warmly welcomed in the role by the Royal Institute for British Architects.
Apparently the transfer of responsibilities occurred when it was realised that John Penrose could not be put in charge of telecoms reform because of his wife’s job as chief executive of the Talk Talk communications company. So Vaizey got responsibility for telecoms, broadband, digital switchover and the creative industries and Penrose got heritage and the built environment.
But Vaizey is a philosophical man, and he took a positive view of his new role, pleased that he had at least kept responsibility for ‘the glams’. What a different light it sheds on what some would consider a rather dowdy profession to discover that ‘glams’ is the sexy new name for ‘galleries, libraries, archives and museums’.
And if you still can’t believe that heritage is sexy, then read page 24 of the New Statesman magazine for 31 May 2010 where you will find a glowing picture of the actress and model Sienna Miller, along with an interview in which she talks about her humanitarian work as Global Ambassador for the International Medical Corps. Miller is the sort of girl who is rarely out of the limelight, is a fashion icon for teenage girls and frequently features in celebrity gossip magazines. But it appears she would happily swap this life of glamour for a bit of quiet trowelling in a trench with Phil Harding. Asked ‘If you weren’t an actress, what would you be doing?’ Sienna replies ‘Archaeology?’ (but note the question mark: her tentative answer suggests that she wonders if archaeology would be a good idea, rather than having come to a settled conviction).
If heritage is going to be the new Sex and the City, we definitely need an anthem. Listening to the radio last week while doing the household chores, Sherds half heard a song that is riding high in the music charts that seemed to fit the bill. Performed by Port Isaac’s Fisherman’s Friends, a 10-man group of fishermen, lifeboat men and coastguards, along with the odd builder, hotelier and shopkeeper, the song concludes with the words:
Turn off your engines and slow down your wheels
Suddenly your master plan loses its appeal
Everybody knows that this reality’s not real
So raise a glass to all things past and celebrate how good it feels.
It’s a bit of a cod-folk song, with some rather iffy sentiments, not to mention weak rhymes and clumsy metrics, but sung with rustic gusto, as it is by the Port Isaac crew, it sounded rather stirring and appropriate, with its injunction to ‘raise a glass to all things past’. Only later, when listening to the song again, did it register that the chorus celebrates being ‘on the road to nowhere’ and that it is called No Hopers, Jokers and Rogues. Perhaps not the best song for glamming up our sector after all.
On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with a good joke, and there are plenty of those in the recently published transcript of a seminar that Sir David Attenborough and others gave in Cambridge on 12 October 2009 in which they talked about the early days of archaeology in television (www.arch.cam.ac.uk/repository/personal-histories-2009-transcript.pdf).
Sir David played tribute to Glyn Daniel and Sir Mortimer Wheeler as consummate performers as a double act on Animal, Vegetable, Mineral. ‘Wheeler,’ said Sir David, ‘had a moustache – very useful for an expert because you can do a certain amount of twiddling with it – and he played the game to absolute perfection. Presented with an object he would say “My goodness, what on earth can that be?” Eventually it would turn out, of course, that he had actually excavated it and that he knew it backwards.’
Some of the other guests on the show were less adept at playing the game. Sir David recounts the occasion when Margaret Mead, the charismatic American anthropologist, got her agent to phone the BBC to say that Margaret was coming to the UK and would ‘consent to appear in our programme’. Instead of loosening her tongue, the pre-programme Beaujolais seemed to make her rather grumpy. In the studio, Glyn gave Mead an object to identify. She looked baffled before announcing ‘I think this is a stupid programme. I have no idea what this object is and it is quite absurd to suppose that anybody would!’
Sir David also recounts the many ways that Sir Mortimer and Glyn found to prick the pomposity of Sir Julian Huxley, the panel’s expert in natural history. Huxley was inclined to give brusque and self-important answers that lacked the conversational tone and explanatory gloss that Wheeler and Daniel did so well. On one occasion, the team was presented with a Great Auk from York Museum. This is the story as Sir David tells it:
‘Now, Sir Julian,’ said Glyn Daniel, ‘I think this is an object for you.’ ‘Well of course anyone can see it’s a Great Auk,’ said Sir Julian, ‘And it’s extinct.’ I thought that he would then go on and give us some interesting stuff about when the species went extinct, why it did and why it was flightless. But, that was it.
‘Sir Mortimer,’ said Glyn Daniel: ‘Have you got anything to add?’ Sir Mortimer took the bird and put it on his knee. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘As Sir Julian says, it is a Great Auk. Or, shall we put it this way – it’s a rather crude simulacrum of a Great Auk. You see, it has a penguin’s beak. These are chicken feathers rather crudely dyed. It’s really a rather incompetent fake.’