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)

 

 

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.

Celebrating Boundaries and the Heritage of Distinction (Part 4): Norway, Finland and the gifting of Halti mountain

In this blog, I return to a theme that I have covered a few times before; that of how ‘heritage’ gets entwined with a celebration of boundaries. In previous posts, I have talked about (in Part 1) BEXIT and problems in Europe of how ideas of cultural ‘distinction’ becomes celebrated through notions of heritage; how heritage is used to justify seeing Europe as a sort of mosaic of necessarily distinct homogenous and strictly bounded cultures. I then followed this by tracing how this happens on the ground, (in Part 2) through various assumptions made about the distinction of ‘Cornwall’ and ‘Cornishness’. And a further blog (in Part 3) about how such tendencies can be seen through the unlikely lens of practising ‘hygge’ in Denmark (part 3).

In this blog, I am going to look at another ‘Scandinavian’ example; of how Finland is bounded, should be bounded and might be bounded, and explore some of the consequences of seeing the world in bounded fashion through a slightly paradoxical example, of how apparent disruption of boundaries actually seems to cement the idea of boundaries.

Last month (December 2017) saw the 100th birthday of ‘Finland’ – at least it was 100 years since Finland gained independence from Russia on 6th December 1917. As would be expected, the occasion saw many efforts on the part of the Finnish state and state supporting entities, to celebrate this centenary event. Not surprisingly, much of this effort worked through the management, curating and performance of various aspects of heritage.

The role of ‘heritage’ within these acts of celebration can be ably examined using the work of people like Anssi Paasi (‘institutionalisation of the region’) and Hannu Linkola’s work on the management of Finland’s landscape narrative. Even a cursory analysis of this material reveals a huge conscious and unconscious practice of ‘boundary marking’ through reference to items and processes of ‘heritage. Instead, however, I am going to focus on a seemingly unlikely (if not conscious critical) example of the efforts to give a piece of ‘Norway’ to ‘Finland’ as a birthday present:

Through more than 40 years of efforts on the part of local campaigners such as Bjørn Geirr Harsson in Norway, a proposal was placed before the Norwegian Government to gift a small piece of land along the Norway/Finland border to act as a birthday present. See this campaign video.

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At first glance, this example seems to be wonderfully celebratory of the idea that borders are always arbitrary. It turns out that the highest point in Finland was actually on the side of Mt Halti, which has two peaks; one at 1,361m (about one kilometer on the Norwegian side of the border), and one shorter peak –  Hálditšohkka’s – at 1,331m, which is still in Norway, but only about 31m from the border with Finland, which lies at 1,325m above sea level.

 The peak “would be a wonderful gift to our sister nation”, said the mayor of Kåfjord (in Norway) Svein Leiros, who with other local politicians has written to the government in Oslo to express enthusiastic support for the plan. “We want to reach out a hand to our neighbour that we will be able to shake across the summit.”

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As an article in The Independent (January 2017) put it; There is no real reason or need for the gift, but that’s kind of the point. “All over the world you find countries that fight or make war to enlarge their countries, but in this case Norway is willing to give away a small part without anyone asking for anything return,” Geirr Harsson added. “It is a gift from the heart of the Norwegians to Finland so we don’t expect anything back; we just want to give them something really nice when they celebrate 100 years as a free nation.”

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This seems to be a story with a positive and warm glow, and which seems to be seeking ideas of peaceful sharing rather than of strictly marking territory. “On the surface, this is a cute film about a very unique kind of gift between nations. But at its heart is something real and relevant,” says David Freid, director of Battle for Birthday Mountain: “While we witness the rising tumult along international borders – from Ukraine and Russia, to the South China Sea, to Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico – the idea behind ’Birthday Mountain’ is a rare international gesture worth admiring.”

But what does this gesture really mean? And is this gesture really critical of borders?

In many ways, the gifting of this land both points to the arbitrariness of national boundaries, but also perhaps underlines their value and meaning in terms of how they naturally act to mark off supposed units of culture. The giving of this piece of land would be a correspond to a (tiny) altering of the supposed mosaic of national boundaries, rather than calling their essential territorial meaning in to question. This would be a gift from ‘Norway’ to ‘Finland’ – an exchange between two essential entities; the territorial detail of these entities might no longer be ‘set in stone’, but the singular authority, and their ability to bound areas of land by marking territory is enhanced. The metaphorical image of two nation states shaking hands across the summit of the mountain just acts to reinforce claims to the natural legitimacy of essential nation states. And one could add that such a gesture might be seen as a particularly ostentatious and maybe even aggressive form of gift giving on the part of Norway, which is both very wealthy and also very mountainous (with a multitude of peaks much higher than Halti). Even after the gifting of this land, the highest point of the mountain (at 1361m) would still be on the Norwegian side of the border. The giving of a gift such as this would be an act of incredible power.

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In practice, the gifting didn’t happen, since Norway’s constitution clearly stipulates that the country is a “free, independent, indivisible and inalienable realm” – and so the surrender by the state of any part of Norwegian territory to another power is prohibited. This hasn’t stopped a fairly high profile campaign. An American-based group of Norwegian ex-pats has started a Facebook page, which (so far) has garnered nearly 20,000 ‘likes’. But I found the statement around the edges of a comment in the Guardian newspaper (from July 2016) highly revealing:

“Public reaction has been overwhelmingly positive in both Norway and Finland, with the only objection so far coming from the indigenous Sami community, whose reindeer roam freely across the border and who argue that the land should belong to neither country”

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To me, this example highlights not only the arbitrariness of national borders, but also the practice of how marginalised people are airbrushed out of the debate. … the implication that the local Sami people who have lived in the area for generations before either (something called) ‘Norway’, or (something called) ‘Finland’ even existed don’t count. Are the Sami people some sort of killjoys by arguing that the land should belong to neither country?

The ‘birthday mountain’ story has a nice feel to it, but it carries an implication that the practices that count with respect to these landscapes is the clicking of the LIKE button on Facebook. The practice of reindeer herding is not as important – and we should carefully gloss over and ignore any colonial overtones of how the Sami people and Sami society have been abused and marginalized for centuries.

 

Marshaling the Vikings: the politics of the Viking Museum in Denmark

Back in May 2016, I wrote a blog on how the populist Danish People’s Party (Den Danske Folkpartiet, or DF; an influential xenophobic and anti-immigration political party in Denmark) were calling for the complete refurbishment of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. Built in the late 1960s to house the five famous Viking ships salvaged from the Roskilde Fjord in 1962, the present museum now looks a little dated. According to a newspaper report in Politiken, Alex Ahrendtsen, a Danish People’s Party (DF) cultural spokesperson, imagines an ‘iconic museum in Viking style’. “We are in an international Viking competition; Norway, especially, is far ahead. There, they have really invested. And then it’s annoying if we’re back in Denmark with a crumbling concrete museum that scares tourists away” he says.

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The DF dream, however, appeared to be hampered by the fact that architect Erik Christian Sørensen’s Museum Hall of 1969 was protected under national heritage laws in 1997. The concrete museum cannot be replaced by a more ‘Danish’ building, because it is a building declared to as a ‘Danish’ architectural icon already! This is a debate about who the Danes are – or at least who the DF imagines the Danes to be. DF wishes the Danish nation to be architecturally represented by an iconic building in ‘Viking’ style (as re-imagined in the early 21st century), in a move that both makes a strong claiming of natural, direct and unproblematic Viking connection as well as an explicit rejection of the modern design aesthetics that Denmark is also often associated with and reflected in the 1969 building.

The most recent financial settlement in the Danish Government (December 2017), however, sees a new twist, with the Danish People’s Party managing to secure 23 Million Danish Kroner (DKK) for a series of their pet cultural heritage projects, including their vision of the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde. According to a recent newspaper article in Politiken (11th December 2017), DF have secured 10 million DKK for the Roskilde project, for a two year examination of the possibilities of rebuilding the Museum in Viking style: “I’m pretty happy with that. It has taken some time, but now it begins to draw light. For now, the state has committed itself to preserving and safeguarding the Viking ships”, says Alex Ahrendtsen. The plan involves moving the ships and carrying out a full investigation as to whether the Museum building should be renewed in its present (modernist) state, or demolished and rebuilt in ‘Viking style’. The National Museum Board would prefer to preserve the central parts of the present museum hall, but the Danish People’s Party Alex Ahrendtsen, on the other hand prefers complete demolition and rebuilding: “we need a nice museum with the best of Danish architecture, which simultaneously exudes the Viking Age. It will in itself set a standard and attract many people”.

One might wonder what a building that ‘exudes the Viking age’ might look like. I don’t think that the ‘real’ Vikings a thousand or more years ago built any large museums – or at least there are none that survive in the archaeological record – so a museum ‘in Viking style’ is a blank canvas on which to sketch one’s dreams of self-identity. The Danish People’s Party’s ideal museum, therefore, would be a building that exudes the aesthetics and style of an imagined Viking origines gentium of the Danish people.

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For this purpose of ‘imagineering’, the Vikings have been a remarkably durable vehicle over the years. The Vikings have been robust enough in terms of recognisability and consistency of image (of long ships, horned helmets and long beards) to sustain a powerful sense of imagined community, yet also flexible enough to fit changing tastes and requirements over ideas of civilisation and their positive cultural legacy. They also (helpfully) herald from a temporally distant-enough epoch to allow one to gloss over aspects of slave trading and pillaging, or at least to allow one to place them in context of a (once) violent world. The Vikings as brave and highly skilled seafarers and traders, who left a distinct cultural imprint across the entire continent of Europe, is a much nicer image to memorialise and celebrate. In this guise, they can be channelled as ancestors to be cherished – something that I guess the Danish People’s Party would probably like.

This seems to be at the heart of a speech celebrating the Vikings by Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, the former Icelandic President, back in 2005. Likening the present day Icelandic population to the Vikings, Grímsson talked about how Icelanders “are risk takers. They are daring … We don‘t like bureaucracy, we travel the world without extra baggage; without ulterior motive; without military or political strength …. young entrepreneurial Vikings have arrived in London full of confidence and ready to take on the world”.

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Imagined in this guise, Vikings are great – certainly ancestors to be proud of, adventurers ‘without baggage’ and ‘without political or military strength’. And since they traded and settled, intermarried and blended with populations all over Europe, then perhaps this is an image that we can all have a stake in? This is something that is probably a long way from the imaginations of Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson or the Danish People’s Party, but if the Vikings are flexible enough to accommodate the imagined community of 21st century entrepreneurs and business leaders, then perhaps they are also robust enough to act as a vehicle through which to understand – and celebrate – a broader community of people who travel to unknown lands?

Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson (2005): “The heritage of discovery and exploration, fostered by the medieval Viking sagas that have been told and retold to every Icelandic child. This is a tradition that gives honour to those who venture into unknown lands, who dare to journey to foreign fields, interpreting modern …. ventures as an extension of the Viking spirit, applauding the successful entrepreneurs as heirs of this proud tradition…. [this is] demonstrated by the Icelandic term used to describe a pioneer or an entrepreneur, – “athafnaskáld” – which means literally “a poet of enterprise”.

I don‘t suppose the Danish People‘s Party intend their imagined Viking space to spread this far, but if we look at contemporary Denmark, perhaps it is the refugees and migrants who have found a home in Denmark that are the true ‘Vikings‘. These are the contemporary Vikings; poets of enterprise, who travel without baggage and without political or military strength. And if a new Viking Ship Museum does get built in Roskilde, perhaps its ‘Viking style‘ can reflect the immigrant communities as the true inheritors of the Viking spirit?

Poets of Enterprise

Poets of Enterprise

 

Another Chapter in the Continuing Life History of the General Buller Statue in Exeter, UK

I thought I had done with writing about General Buller following my initial reflections (here) in November 2014, and further thoughts (here) in July 2015, following the critical intervention (or ‘guerrilla memorialisation’) event that took place that Summer. In tracing the ongoing ‘biography’ of the General Buller monument, I argued that it can be seen both as a meaningful vehicle of contemporary politics, at which a critical and creative engagement with the past can occur, and also as a dynamic site, with an open-ended life history that has time depth. The General Buller Statue, therefore, is never ‘cast in stone’. The status ‘does work’, serving as a site of contemporary debate; it can engage, as well as be engaged with.

These observations accord with debates and critical comment about many statues around the world today, most recently through the high profile events and deliberations surrounding the fate of many statues and monuments to the Confederacy in the USA’s southern states, as well as debates in recent years about the fate of Cecil Rhodes in South Africa (or Oxford – see here). The question over whether we should manage such ‘difficult heritage’ by removing monuments, adding extra plaques, or leaving them be has certainly had a high public profile, matched by some interesting academic debate, such as Lisa Johnson’s paper on JP Coen’s statue in Holland. Indeed, the broader issue of how to deal with contentious pasts in the present formed a central theme of a recent Book Review forum in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers that dealt with David Lowenthal’s Past is a Foreign Country – Revisited. Whichever side of the fence one sits – whether arguing for the removal or preservation of a statue – most of these debates tend to focus on the subject matter of the statue or monument: should we or shouldn’t we ‘memorialise’ General Buller (or Cecil Rhodes, or General Robert E. Lee etc.)?

But late at night on 10th June 2017 in Exeter, a young man called Tom Calloway, aged 18, fell from the General Buller statue and died.

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Since Tom Calloway’s tragic death this Summer, there has been a more-or-less constant effort in maintaining his ‘presence’ through memorialisation activity at the site. How-ever ‘spontaneously’ this activity began, this seems to be more than the ‘spontaneous memorial’ practices that one often finds at the sites of recent tragedy. The statue is located directly outside Exeter College, and so many of Tom’s colleagues, friends, teachers and classmates regularly come past ‘his memorial’. And where does it leave General Buller?

Exeter_Buller_Tom memorial2

At the time of his accident, Tom Calloway was undertaking the ‘tradition’ of placing a traffic cone on General Buller’s head. This playful and creative engagement with formal memorial sites has a long tradition and many parallels, perhaps most famously at the Duke of Wellington’s horse statue in Glasgow. It was Glasgow City Council’s concern about the potential for accidents to happen (and threatened plans to prevent people from climbing the statue) that brought out the wider public’s fondness for seeing the traffic cone donned on the Duke of Wellington. Public heritage debate demanded the Duke of Wellington be adorned with his ‘customary traffic cone’, and so Glasgow City Council dropped their security plans and tacitly turned-a-blind-eye to nocturnal activities with traffic cones. In Exeter, General Buller has been adorned with traffic cones and other paraphernalia for as long as I can remember, whether in playful jest or as purposeful critique, but what will happen now?

In terms of representing something meaningful for the people who pass by every day, General Buller is now a site for remembering Tom Calloway. Debates over whether and how we should remember General Buller’s role in the Boer War; whether he was a ‘war criminal’ to be put on trial, or an embarrassing ancestor to be kept hidden from view, now seem of secondary importance. In its most affective guise, the statue no longer memorialises General Buller at all.