Tuesday, 8 October 2013

The Uncurated

A family day out at Chillingham Castle in Northumberland on Sunday was, I think, one of the most enjoyable visits to a historic building I have ever made. The reason? It was almost entirely unlike a National Trust or English Heritage property, buildings which are carefully restored and preserved, and curated so as to give the visitor a series of passably accurate impressions of what different parts of the building might have looked like in different eras.

By contrast, Chillingham, in places, gives the impression of having had eight hundred years' worth of junk strewn around it. Not quite indiscriminately: most of the Arctic and Himalayan equipment is in one room, most of the Indian booty in another, the Georgian stuff in a third. But everywhere there are dead things - skins, horns (endless horns), the largest pair of moose antlers I have ever seen anywhere; and everywhere there are weapons, from the Gatling guns standing unremarked in two different rooms, to enough halberds and billhooks to restage the battle of Flodden. But then, there are prodigious quantities of everything. Each room is heaving with ancient tat, higgledy-piggledy. I don't recall ever seeing elephant armour before. And in one room, stuffed in the corner, was a wooden claw-footed bath that apparently once belonged to Marie Antoinette, and is now, naturally, used as a drinks cabinet ('Let them drink Coke!').

And I don't believe they violated any health-and-safety regulations, but in an NT property you never have a chance to trip on ragged carpets or stumble on a three-inch dip in a dungeon floor.

What is so refreshing is to visit a place which doesn't treat the past with exaggerated reverence. You're not protected from it, and it's not protected from you. You are allowed to touch things. The place felt alive in a way that properties owned by public bodies rarely do.

Of course, there are disadvantages. The house and the family's history was obscure (you would scarcely guess that it belonged to a prominent regicide); the objects were left to speak for themselves, virtually unlabelled. It could only be done like this because visitor numbers are relatively low.

But still, I could wish other curators would take something from a place like this. We want junk: we want rooms jumbled with surprises. And while ancient and precious things certainly need to be protected, they can be protected too much. Things don't last forever, any more than people do; and while most of us like long lives, we also like to live them.

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