30 Years of Telling Stories about Dartmoor: a 380 Year Life History of Landscape Heritage Myth and Reality

Just a few weeks after I first came to Exeter University as an undergraduate student in October 1988, I remember being taken by Vic Ambler, the Warden of the St Lukes Hall of Residence, for an evening walk to Dartmoor. We got dropped off near Challacombe, and walked via Grimspound, the Headland Warren and Bennett’s Cross to the Warren House Inn. Just before we reached the pub, we walked past the Devil’s Playing Cards; four mysteriously shaped fields laid out on the hillside, in the shape of the four suits of a deck of playing cards. I remember Vic telling a story about how these got their name: that during a Great Storm, the Devil crashed through the roof of the Church at nearby Widecombe-in-the-Moor and carried off a man called Jan Reynolds who was playing cards at the back of the Church. As he flew across the moor, Jan dropped the four aces that he had up his sleeve and they fell to earth as four enclosures. I squinted at the hillside – OK; I could pick out the Diamond quite clearly… perhaps the Heart; but one needed to have a bit more imagination to make out the Club and the Spade. It was a good story – though I would have thought that the Devil would have been happy with someone playing cards at the back of a Church Service?

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Widecombe Church (Author’s Photo)

The walk, across Hameldown, between Widecombe and Warren House is one of my favourites, and the legend about the Devil is a nice story to impress visitors. It might even place me as a ‘local’, or at least as someone who ‘knows’ the Dartmoor landscape. Over the following years, I became more and more familiar with Dartmoor and its legends; lots about the Devil, many about ‘hauntings’, and a good few about environmental hazards – deep bogs or terrible storms. Indeed, there’s a story about a ‘Great Storm’ of 1638, written up on a series of tablets in the Nave of Widecombe Church, in which several people were killed – victims of God’s Judgement. I vaguely realised that the Devilish Legend about the Playing Cards was referring to the same storm event as the tragedy of 1638 in Widecombe, but never really followed up on how and why the two stories were connected.

In the Autumn of 2013, I was to run a 3rd year day field trip to Dartmoor to talk about landscape history and archaeology. The Headland Warren, Bennett’s Cross and the Devil’s Playing Cards was an obvious destination to take a group of third years in the Autumn Term of 2013, and all my Landscape Knowledge or Lore comes into its own when running such a student field trip. The legend of the Devil will be memorable for the students – just as it was for myself in 1988 – and if that helps to instil the ‘factual’ elements of landscape history, then all the better. On Friday 18th October 2013, I led a group of 35 students up to Dartmoor, as part of the Undergraduate Level 3 ‘Geographies of Heritage and Memory’ module within the Geography Department at Exeter.

 

I wrote a blog about this field trip here – and was struck by the juxtaposition of the two stories about the ‘Great Storm’. Of course, the students also asked some tricky questions – surely, they ask me, the Devil should have been happy that people were playing cards in Church(!); and how come the figure of ‘God’ turned directly into the figure of the Devil. These loose ends needed tidying up….

I re-visited the Church at Widecombe and took some photos of the tablets on the wall of the Nave. This story was very clear – that it was God that brought on the Great Storm and God’s Judgement that carried off several parishioners.

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The poem about the storm; Widecombe Church (Author’s photo)

I also began talking to my colleague in the English Department, Joanne Parker, who had previously written about Dartmoor stories and legends. We had been working together within the ‘Past-Place’ research team, at Exeter, and so the idea of producing a ‘life history’ of storytelling associated with an event such as the Great Storm took hold.

Together, we started to patch together the accounts of the Great Storm, of October 1638, from the first pamphlet publications only a couple of weeks after, through renditions in poetic and prose form during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and to their re-deployment in tourist legend in the 19th and 20th centuries. The first accounts of the event appeared in London in November 1638, and in this version, the storm is very much associated with God’s Judgement – though we also found the vestiges of some quasi-scientific reflection and interest. The Devil gets a mention in the 18th century, but only starts to dominate the accounts in the 19th century – which is the point at which the stone enclosures (the Devil’s Playing Cards) near the Warren House Inn enter the scene. At the end of 2019, we have now published a full scholarly account of this work in the Medieval and Early Modern Studies journal, Parergon, (Volume 26, number 2) https://parergon.org/current.html

  • Abstract: This article explores the nexus between the folk heritage of an unusual archaeological site, an early modern account of ‘ball lightning’, and the literary construction of an affective atmosphere. It examines how a violent storm in October 1638 provided a symbolic reservoir for narrative accounts of both the performance of God’s power and the Devil’s trickery, thereby providing lessons for civil conduct alongside explanations of some unusual archaeological features. Tracing a biographical life history of how the storm has been remembered at different periods since the event, we chart how various narratives of landscape can unfold over several centuries.

Just as my imagination was captivated in 1988 – and just as I have recounted it to many visitors in the last 30 years – the legend of the Devil has good currency through which to support ‘insider’ credentials. In some ways, its slightly comical and clearly mythical nature provides a gloss of specifically ‘local’ landscape knowledge. It is a story of ‘place making practice’, both over the last 380 years over which the legends have been circulated, and also the 30 years over which I have been telling the stories myself – as a ‘professional landscape historian’. And over the last 6 years, the blog on a WordPress site has now become a published journal article!

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Dartmoor resident (Author’s photo)

 

 

Norwegian Wood: Planned and Unplanned ‘Re-wilding’ in Norway and Scotland

I have just returned from my summer holiday, cycling along the coast of Norway from Kristiansand to Bergen; a beautiful part of the world, which strongly reminded me of many holidays spent in the NW Highlands and islands of Scotland. At least, I say that “it reminded me of Scotland”, less because of its similarity and more due to the fact that I kept on asking myself “Why is Norway so different from Scotland?!”

Of course, there are many similarities – of topography, geology, climate and traditional economies – which one might expect of two regions that are not too far apart, in the wet and temperate, Gulf Stream affected coastal highlands of the north Atlantic. But what struck me as more surprising was just how different the two regions were, particularly since the seemingly more luxuriant in flora and fauna (as well as perhaps the more populous) was the region lying further to the north: Norway. One might expect that the more northern region – more climatically inhospitable, wetter, more mountainous and more isolated – would be the tougher place to live, both for humans and for flora/fauna, but this doesn’t seem to be the case.

This isn’t the place to get into the politics of concerted massive regional State spending in a comparatively equal society (just yet!), but it struck me that there was something more going on in Norway, in terms of landscape and ‘natural’ heritage management, than it just being the product of the oil money bonanza. Put simply, while much of the NW Highlands and islands of Scotland are fairly bare of forest, Norway seemed to be almost entirely forested – and without the densely-packed plantations that seemed to be favoured by the old Forestry Commission in the UK.

These questions reminded me of a blogpost I write back in May 2017, about issues of afforestation and ‘rewilding’ in Scotland and on Dartmoor. But, while many ‘rewilding’ debates in the UK tend to revolve around the twin issues of sheep farming and deer stalking, cast as a sort of zero-sum game, coastal areas of Norway seem to have plenty of sheep (mostly with bells around their necks) as well as plenty of forest.

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Typical forested coastline in Norway

While on our cycle tour, we stayed at a mix of ‘cheap’ (by Norwegian standards) hotels, hostels and campsite cabins, many of which had old photos on their walls; showing what their location looked like in the late 19th and early 20th century, before the Second World War, and before the oil bonanza. And the thing that immediately struck me was just how bare the landscapes were – these black and white photographs really did look just like Scotland. In Mandal, we stayed in a hostel that was once the town’s gaol. In their historical notes, I found a reference to how the gaol was planned to be built out of wood, but had to be built in brick due to the scarcity of timber in the region. Really?! … Norway ‘scarce of timber’?!

This was certainly a very different-looking landscape to what we were cycling through today. So, how did the paths of Norway and Scotland diverge so sharply in the later 20th century when it comes to forest cover?

On the face of it – following a few discussions with a professional forester, and some critical reflection on what I know, the following observations seem pertinent:

First: While both regions saw a general depopulation and experienced wholesale emigration in the early 20th century, the nature of this experience, together with the implications for landscape management were different. While it seems that land abandonment in Norway led to afforestation, the emptying of tenanted crofts in Scotland did not lead to a similar expansion of forests. This might be connected to differences of land ownership and tenure – with Scotland (in)famously divided up into huge estates owned by just a few hundred people, and Norway known for its small holding traditions. And/or I might be connected to the power and continued prominence of deer stalking in Scotland, which requires the wide open ‘empty’ spaces that you find in the Scottish Highlands.

Secondly, and connected: while walking and mountaineering pursuits seem to be popular in both regions, it struck us that forests were at the heart of expectations for walkers and backpackers in Norway – while the Scottish Mountaineering Council have (controversially) made a few strong statements about how the ‘empty spaces’ of the Scottish Highlands are what is expected.

Third: while George Monbiot and other rewilding enthusiasts seem to see sheep farming as a root of all evil, we saw a lot of ‘forest sheep’ in Norway. We presumed that the stocking levels and management systems of Norway must be different (?), but it suggests that sheep farming livelihoods and ‘Caledonian forestry’ can go hand-in-hand.

Lastly: we assumed that a wealthy State and strong regional policies were behind the apparent fertility and abundance of the Norwegian experience, but this has some interesting heritage paradoxes – that the experiences of so many marginalised and impoverished people in Norway can be largely forgotten and elided, partly due to the ‘success’ of contemporary landscape management. While we should cherish all that rich biodiversity, we should not forget that this resulted from abandonment and emigration – something that it is difficult to ignore in Scotland.

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Remains of old settlement, Glen Carnoch, Knoydart. Difficult to ignore the human story behind this ’empty’ landscape

 

 

 

Local and Global Heritage of Protests – Tiananmen Square 30th Anniversary

30 years ago today tanks rolled in to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, and violently ended a pro-democracy protest. The 4thJune 30thanniversary is being talked about in the press, and being commemorated by many people; some publically and many, no doubt, through private reflection. Marked by various events and media stories in many parts of the world, in China, the anniversary is being marked-by-implication, through being a non-event, of heightened security in many city centres – a curtain of official silence alongside, perhaps, a dignified reflective silence among those who remember.

30 years ago, I was an undergraduate student in Exeter University. I was very much involved in campus politics – at the time, this meant the “Grants-not-Loans” campaign to protect the student grant and rights to benefits (the idea of paying tuition fees seemed ludicrous), together with a broader on-going commitment to stand up to Thatcherism and the rise of what I would find out later to be called Neo-liberalism. We had recently staged a sit-in, taking over the Vice Chancellor’s office; we had been on protest marches in Exeter, London and Manchester. In June 1989, the student-led protests in Beijing seemed to be part of our movement, protecting student rights, and seeking a progressive and more inclusive future – indeed, similar in nature to the protests from behind the Iron Curtain and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which were still some months away.

Towards the end of May and start of June in Exeter, I remember students gathering on the lawn outside the Devonshire House Student’s Union building. I am sure that we all knew that signing a petition in support of our brothers and sisters in Beijing was hardly going to change anything in itself, but somehow there was a genuine feeling of connection; that lighting a tea-light candle in a jam jar actually meant something – even if just a material and public display of solidarity with those protesters in China. Their struggle and our struggle were one.

But then, on the 4thJune 1989, everything seemed to change.

We came to understand that their struggle was of a different nature, and was something that could lead to death or imprisonment. At first sight, all that sitting around strumming on guitars, signing petitions and lighting candles seems incredibly stupid and banal. But, while those vigils on the lawn outside Devonshire House in Exeter were certainly naïve, they also made the connection with those in Tiananmen Square somehow momentarily more real. When the shock came, it seemed to be more painful, with a profound sense of bereavement. Naïve, we might have been but our tears were honest and heartfelt.

The construction of a monument to mark those feelings seemed to be a natural response. I don’t know whose idea it was – it doesn’t actually matter – but I think we all felt a sense of genuine investment and connection to that monument, which ‘sprang up overnight’. I remember that the University authorities were not keen on it at all and wanted it removed, but everyone knew that it would be unmoveable. At least for a few years….

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Tiananmen Square memorial, on the lawn outside the Devonshire House Union Building, Exeter University

By definition, the student collective memory at any University is always fairly short-term and in constant flux. Most students are only at a University for the duration of their degree, and so by the mid 1990s, very few people at Exeter University could remember the circumstances of how the Tiananmen Square statue came to be where it was – nor why its location, on the lawn in front of the Union Building, was so significant. Furthermore, while the material nature of monuments is often seen as a very tangible and unchanging medium of commemoration, the Tiananmen Square memorial at Exeter University had a knack for changing! First, being made of textile, the flag deteriorated and fell off. It was replaced a few times, but with half-hearted protection, the figure very much transformed from being ‘Marianne’ in nature and representative of a cry for freedom and comradeship across the world, to being more baton-wielding ‘special forces’ in nature. Indeed, the loss of the flag seemed to run alongside the decrease in the angle of tilt in the figure’s arm, producing an ever more frightening pose.

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Memorial Statue, late 1990s – still on the Devonshire House lawn, but in a more menacing pose

Then the memorial statue disappeared completely. The lawn was earmarked for development, but the University authorities would find a ‘suitable location’ for the memorial statue – nevermind that it was the actual location that was the key element in the memorial, much more so than the now-transformed warrior-like statue.

Perhaps with an eye towards diplomacy, with the University actively seeking Chinese partnerships and wanting to attract more and more Chinese students to take courses in Exeter, the University’s ‘suitable location’ turned out to be a field on the edge of the main campus. The statue is still visible from the road, but there are no paths to the statue and very few regular passers by. The memorial now stands as a largely forgotten curio. It is on the Exeter University Sculpture Trail, though without reference to the connection between student protests in the UK and China, which meant so much back in 1989. And the lawn area that once stood just at the bottom of the entrance steps to the Union Building is now an outdoor seating area of a Costa Coffee shop. The memorial statue itself seems to be an empty vessel, though I guess it is still representative of the very real and profound connection that some people in Exeter felt with people across the world 30 years ago.

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The memorial statue, now relocated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Landscape Painting and the Invention of the Danish Landscape

I recently saw a very good seminar by Dr Gry Hedin of the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, in Copenhagen. Entitled “Can landscape painting influence climate change?”, Hedin’s paper explored the development of landscape painting in Denmark from the 18th to the 20th century. (See also Hedin, G. (2018) ‘Anthropocene beginnings: entanglements of art and science in Danish art and archaeology, 1780-1840’, in G. Hedin and A-S.N. Gremaud (eds) Artistic Visions of the Anthropocene North: Climate Change and Nature in Art, (Routledge; New York), pp. 15-40).

This was a period in which ‘deep time’ was discovered, and this narrative was communicated to the public partly through art. It was an excellent paper, lavishly illustrated with images of many of the period’s most famous artists, from Jens Peter Møller and JL Lund in the early 19th century, through the work of Skovgaard and Lundbye in the mid-nineteenth century, and Peter Hansen at the turn of the 20th century, with works such as Ripe Rye (1891):

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Peter Hansen’s ‘Ripe Rye’

It was the images of the paintings of this last group that struck me as being familiar, but I couldn’t place it at the time. According to Hedin, it was in the 1890s that a genre of Danish landscape painting developed that focussed on fields of cereal crops. These monochrome fields of industrial farming act as a celebration of human control and the practical marshalling of landscape resources epitomised for Hedin, in Peter Hansen’s The Ploughman Turns. Nature seems to be reduced to plain surfaces; a modern and thoroughly engineered landscape of production, clearly portrayed in Hammershøi’s Landscape from Falster for instance:

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Vilhelm Hammersøi’s ‘Landscape from Falster’

This is not a ‘natural’ landscape – and nor is it an ‘ancient’ landscape, unchanged for millennia. Rather this seems to be a narration (or ‘curation’) through which the rapidly industrialising landscape of late 19th/early 20th century Denmark can become naturalised, and legitimated as the authentic landscape of the Danish nation. Certainly, this genre of landscape art seems to go hand-in-hand with the development of modern Danish agriculture, which, through the attendant growth of influential agricultural co-operatives, lies at the heart of wider Danish modernisation and economic expansion during the 20th century. Harald Slott-Møller’s Danish Landscape (1891) is typical of this style of painting – the ‘natural’ national Danish landscape is a field of cereal crops:

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Harald Slott-Møller ‘Danish Landscape’

There are three ‘critical heritage’ points that I would like to make from this:

First, while the landscapes depicted in these paintings appear to be thoroughly modern – give or take some technical machinery, they could have been painted yesterday – one should always remember the side of things that they do not show, but which they are completely connected to. Most obvious to me – at least when I am cycling around the countryside near Aarhus – are the huge pig factories; covered barns and silos (to store all that cereal-based feed), which dominate the Danish rural landscape. Pigs are everywhere; you may sometimes hear them, you always smell them, but you never see them!

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Modern ‘pig factory’, near Odder, just south of Aarhus

Secondly, while these modern landscape paintings depict a thoroughly recent landscape, they seem to have instilled themselves within the psyche as to how the Danish landscape should look – and perhaps even as always looked. Most oddly to my mind, this industrial landscape has come to be seen as the epitome of a Danish landscape even among landscape historians and archaeologists who are working in entirely different eras. The Slott-Møller painting was familiar to me because I had seen something like it on the cover of a book: Fabech et al’s (2000) Settlement and Landscape. Skimming through the 54 chapters of this landmark publication by Aarhus University Press, I see that the vast majority of chapters deal with the Prehistoric era, with just a few chapters on the medieval era, and next-to-nothing on the post 1500 landscape, whether in ‘Denmark’ or elsewhere. It is perhaps ironic that the stork seen flying low over golden fields in Slott-Møller’s painting, is now extinct in Denmark – for reasons that I would assume are connected to all that modern industrial farming! It is a nice painting, but it seems odd that it somehow stands for ‘landscape’ to a group of archaeologists who are mostly engaged in Prehistoric subject matter.

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Settlement and Landscape, front cover, Aarhus Library

Lastly, as I cycled home from Gry Hedin’s seminar, it suddenly struck me why those images were so familiar. Of course, I had seen such an image, countless times, last Summer and early autumn. Mostly in magazines, newspapers or perhaps on bus shelters – connected to a massive advertising campaign by Danske Folkpartiet (the Danish People’s Party). Throw in a church and a flag, and for the Danish People’s Party this modern, recent and industrial version of the landscape is Denmark.

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Danish People’s Party poster

This is Denmark

 

Longer days and mending legs

Well, having spent the last couple of months off work (and in blogging silence) with a broken leg, I now know a lot more about the Danish health care system (which is excellent, and with particularly good hospital food). My cast came off on Midwinter’s Day – the Northern Hemisphere’s shortest day of the year – just before Christmas, and so I feel that there is something more meaningful about the days growing longer than I have done in the past.

Whether recovering from a broken leg, or seeing, feeling and sensing the days lengthening, there differences are imperceptible at first. Indeed, the days immediately afterwards somehow seem to be especially dark and bleak (and painful) even when you know that things are heading the right way. Slowly-but-surely, however, movement becomes easier and change more apparent; walking about on crutches becomes possible – slow at first, and then more comfortable. I have been telling everyone that having my cast taken off was the best Christmas present ever, and certainly worthy of celebration. And there is something enduring in that sentiment – at least in high latitudes – which has nothing to do with Christmas, and nothing to do with broken legs.

Things are still not easy in early January, but the days are getting longer. My broken leg has given me a different (and distinctly literal) perspective this year, but I am consciously reflecting on how numerous people, over countless generations, over many millennia must have experienced as part of an everyday experience of living through the winter months…. responding to recent short days through reflecting on previous stories, and making plans for longer and warmer days to come. I back on my bike again this week, and I know that I will soon be hearing woodpeckers in the forest as I cycle to work at first light. And from previous remembrances, I know that I will soon see the sun rise at exactly that spot, over the island of Samsø, as I reach the point where there’s a break in the trees.

Framing UNESCO Heritage: New ‘Danish’ World Heritage Site(s) in 2018

 

I usually have a quick look each year at the additions to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, partly to see what trends may be detected, and which oddities catch my eye; perhaps a cause célèbre (such as with the Buddhas of Bamyan in Afghanistan, listed only after they were blown up). This year’s list has 18 inscribed properties, delineated in the usual UNESCO frames of reference. First, the sites are categorized as being ‘cultural’ or ‘natural’, with a third category of being ‘mixed’ always seeming to make the other categories redundant. Each site is accredited with a list of ‘criteria’ under which the inscription was made, with some declared as displaying 2 or even 3 criteria. And then each of the sites is ascribed to a nation state, since it is ‘states parties’ who sponsor the nomination process.

Of the 18 sites, 13 are described as being ‘cultural’, 3 ‘natural’ and 3 ‘mixed’, and in broad terms, there are 6 cultural landscapes (3 coming under the ‘mixed’ category), 3 archaeological sites, 3 religious sites, 2 cities, 1 industrial site and 1 ensemble of buildings in Mumbai described as ‘Art Deco and Victorian’. All three of the ‘natural’ sites are mountains. In terms of where they are, just 1 is in Africa, all three of the mixed sites are in the Americas, 6 are in Europe, and 9 are in Asia – of which 4 are located in west Asia/‘Middle East’, which is interesting. So, in spite of clear efforts to overcome a long established ‘Eurocentrism’ in the location of ascribed ‘universal heritage’, Europe still seems to be hugely over-represented (considering its size and population), there is nothing in Oceania, and only one site in Africa (a ‘natural’ site). The Americas seem to supply the sites where ‘culture’ and ‘nature’ become blurred, or where the ‘indigenous’ is somehow closer to ‘nature’ than in the supposed cradles of ‘civilisation’ in the ‘Old World’. In other words – from this 2018 list at least, it seems that archaeological landscapes in the ‘Old World’ are ‘cultural’, while similar landscapes in the ‘New World’ are ‘mixed’.

But what sense does it make to frame sites according to the nation states in which they are located today, especially when they are proclaimed as being ‘universal heritage’ on account of events, settlements and lifestyles from sometimes thousands of years ago? Even when looking at heritage examples that stem from more recent times, the national framing doesn’t seem to make sense, or at least testifies to greater complexity – as can be seen for instance with the case of the Victorian buildings in Mumbai; an imprint of British Imperial endeavor within an ‘Indian’ World Heritage Site.

Most conspicuously, however, the list of 18 World Heritage Sites includes an intriguingly ambiguous Danish element. On the one hand, there is one site listed as being located within the state of Denmark: that of Aasivissuit-Nipisat. On the other hand, another of the cultural heritage sites now inscribed by UNESO is the ‘Danevirk’ and Viking town of Hedeby; the border wall that once protected the southern boundary of Denmark, and one of the most important cities of Viking era Denmark – only, of course, these sites are listed under UNESCO framings as being in Germany!

It is interesting to click on the newly inscribed site of Aasivissuit-Nipisat  and see the Danish flag in the top right corner of the screen. Described as being an ‘Inuit hunting ground between ice and sea’, this site is located in Greenland. Indeed, the image of the Danish flag is slightly jarring – a strange remnant of imperial ambition that doesn’t sit well with the outward feel of the site’s inscription. The listing details describe how the site contains 4,200 years of human history – nearly all of which had nothing to do with Denmark at all. It seems a little ironic to proclaim how the area ‘bears testimony to the resilience of the human cultures of the region’, when the power and force of change against which this ‘resilience’ was measured was that of the Danish Empire! As with all World Heritage Sites, there is a slightly unreflexive section on ‘authenticity’, which focuses on material culture, though does mention that Inuit intangible cultural heritage and traditional knowledge contributes to this.

Since it is located in Germany, the nomination of Hedeby and the Danevirke was sponsored by the German state. It would be nice to know what Angela Merkel thinks about the proclamation of this ‘beautiful southern border wall’ (to coin a Donald Trump phrase) as universal heritage, especially with tensions over migration and border walls being so high up the political agendas in both Germany and Denmark. Once again, the material integrity of the site is the focus of the listing documents, though if you read various press reports, it is the ‘Danishness’ of the site that is most prominent. This is a key site for the Danish-speaking minority in the far north of Germany. I guess the question that is left hanging, is how such a definite boundary – a border wall – can be used to bring people together (German- and Danish-speakers, from both sides of the frontier), in the spirit of something called ‘universal heritage’?

Labelling ‘World Culture’ in a Museum

I was recently back in Exeter and decided to visit the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), to catch up with how their recently renovated ‘World Cultures’ galleries were looking. There were a few new items that I hadn’t seen before, and a few items I thought I remembered were now missing, but on the whole, I was surprised by the lack of change from the old galleries. In particular, I think this came out in the labelling … so, instead of examining the collection itself, or even the explicit stories surrounding the collection of objects, I focussed on what the display labels revealed about the derivation of the objects. What do the labels reveal about the technology of display and how do these technologies of display can act to sustain a certain discourse?

 

Obtained 1884; Made Before 1880; Acquired 1912; Collected between 1885 and 1889; Acquired early 1970s; Voyage of HMS Discovery 1791-5; Acquired after 1879; Collected 1826-7; Acquired before 1893; Voyage of HMS Blossom 1826-7; Before 1863; Bought 1916; Acquired 1880; Taken from a shrine 1889; Collected 1864;

On the face of it, this is a curated assemblage of treasure, ‘acquired’ (or, perhaps, ‘plundered’) from almost everywhere and anywhere around the world. The collection is described in phrases that seem to hide as much as they reveal. In the old gallery, one item was described as being ‘captured’, which suggests an act of theft and probably a certain level of violence. In the new gallery, one item is described as having been ‘taken from a shrine in 1889’ – tantalising, perhaps, in what it intimates without saying – but what is the difference between ‘obtained’, ‘collected’ and ‘acquired’?

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One gap in the collection is filled with a label, that ‘Out of Respect’ a feather bonnet, which was identified as sacred by a visiting delegation of indigenous Blackfoot people, was removed and is now kept in the store. But what else does this store contain? And why is this material culture that is sacred to people living thousands of miles away kept in a storeroom in Exeter anyway? Indeed, how did all these things end up in the RAMM Collection?

There were also a few understated non-references to colonialist and imperialist histories, including a copper manilla that the label described as being ‘exported to Nigeria for use as a means of exchange’, without mention either that the ‘exchanges’ in which manillas are usually associated with were for human cargo, or that Exeter itself was an important producer of such manillas.

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Peter Aronsson (2011) write about how discourses of nationhood are promulgated through museums displays within imperial and conglomerate states such as France, Spain, and Great Britain. The British Museum, for instance, does not seek to tell the ‘story of Britain’ as either an eternal entity or a certainty of emergent destiny. Rather than reflecting any pretence of humility, however, Aronsson (2011: 47) sees this as a demonstration of ‘how a universalist approach is identified with a successful national power and reinforced by the sheer magnitude of its collections’.

Bringing a critical perspective to understanding these types of display, one can often tell a lot from reading between the lines of what the displays say and what they do not say; what they show and what they hide. With very little direct reference to ‘Britain’ within the RAMM World Cultures gallery, a 30 minute perusal of its label leaves one with a strong understanding that Britain has the power to ‘collect’, ‘obtain’ and otherwise ‘acquire’ material from anywhere in the world – and that everywhere in the world is categorised according to British value judgement. Through the construction, management and display of knowledge, the gallery reveals a great deal about Britain – British identity narratives, British values and British imperialism – with hardly any mention of Britain.