Turner and the Sea at the National Maritime Museum? I missed it. Van Gogh’s Sunflowers at the National Portrait Gallery? I missed that too. I am angry at myself and sad, an opportunity wasted, I wanted to go and see these exhibitions, but life got in the way, not enough time, there is never enough time. Surely I am not the only one who feels like this?
There will be other Turner exhibitions, more chances to see Van Gogh’s work, but some exhibitions are special, the combination of objects and interpretation brought together in one place at one time can weave a magical power. When they are over, that small window to another time and place, an inkling into the mind of a great artist is gone. The best exhibitions are like classic books, the objects like characters with their own history and experiences, the interpretation, a narrative that steers you through. When it works, when it really works, like a great read you are blessed by a transcendent moment that lifts you from daily cares and modern interruptions.
There is always a hint of smugness, a smidge of boasting when I get to a much talked about highly rated show. Did you see Discoveries at Two Temple Place? I did, it was fabulous, amazing! Sensing Spaces at the Royal Academy? That was brilliant! I often think about those first days after an exhibition is over, the people who turn up at the museum or gallery to see it, only to be crushingly disappointed that they are too late. I remember talking to staff at Two Temple Place about the people who turn up only to find the whole place closes down for the summer and winter, from the end of April to the end of January. If you miss your window of opportunity you have to wait a whole nine months to even set foot in the building, if that isn’t an incentive I don’t know what is.
So, I have to ask, did you get to see the Cheapside Hoard at the Museum of London? I have a real sadness about the end of this exhibition, not for once because I missed it, in fact I saw it three times (smug boast). My feelings come from a special affinity to this exhibition that I have charted from start to finish. Its seven month tenure marks a turning point in my relationship with the Museum of London, from casual project volunteer to permanent collection care volunteer.
Over the months I have met more and more people who have worked on this story, I have seen items in conservation being worked on before a decision was even made about their inclusion. I made it to the launch where I quaffed cocktails and gazed at the gems with the glitterati, I have returned on my own with notebook in hand, observing as much the other visitors as the jewels themselves. Finally in the last weeks I came once more with my parents and youngest offspring, I chased him as he buzzed from case to case like a jewel obsessed bee, huge magnifying glass in hand examining walls and floors as hundreds of years of jewellery making history passed him by on the breeze.
I am sad it is over, but still I am intrigued, what happens when the lights go down (or perhaps that should be up), when the cases are opened and the jewels packed away, the paintings taken down, when loans from the British Museum and the V&A are returned? I have been very lucky to be given access on the first day of deinstalling the Cheapside Hoard and for me it was a magical as the first visit. I am not quite finished with these jewels yet, we have a little more time to spend in each others company.
It is a weird thing to walk into an exhibition empty of visitors, security was as tight as when it was open, passes are shown, I have to sign in and be chaperoned round, no chance of slipping a few rubies into my pocket. There are three people working away, the ghostly echoes of bustling voyeurs have not completely left the space. Video screens still play to packing crates and moving equipment, the lights are up, the cases look slightly neglected, the finest layer of dust I can barely pick out, the smudge of the last few remaining finger prints etched on the glass. The jewels trying so hard to gleam for me, knowing they will be packed away, their story is nearly told for this moment in time.
Strangely, I spend more time looking at cases and lighting, we talk about the how different sized cases were reused for the exhibition, matching coloured skirting around them tying them all in together. The problems of cases with a lack of interior lighting, how to do justice to faceted surfaces and delicately suspended chains. The lighting hoods above with directional light control, the problems of the visitor blocking light meant to highlight interpretation panels. I guess you can call it the nitty-gritty of exhibition design and display.
I ask what happens to all this stuff, there is a lot of waste, but much is reused where possible. The skirting will all go, the cases reused, the shop interior graphic will be packed off to the archive in Hackney, loans are returned, items ready to be sent back to their silent slumber in the museum store. They are all condition checked, as much care going into returning them as was lavished on them when they were being installed. Sometimes items from exhibitions even end up going to a film props company. I love the fact the story is never completely over with little bits popping up where you least expect it.
Day one of deinstalling focuses on the paintings, the conservator works under bright light, examining every inch of paint and frame. I chat to her about the trust between certain museums, often couriers are sent from loan museums but in this instance they are free to work through the loan paintings, checking condition and packing them up. We talk about the jewels which will be the last thing to be removed. Cases are sealed and not opened again once the items are ready for display, the whole process taking up to three weeks to dismantle. The V&A and British Museum will come to reclaim their treasures and the Cheapside Hoard will be torn asunder, fragments of story strewn across London.
I chat to the technicians packing up a painting of Sir William Herrick, a jeweller, courtier and diplomat on loan from Leicester Museum. They tell me what it is like to set up and then pack away, the time involved, a game of matching crates to pictures. It is easy to see the care, time and precision taken. I ask about the hardest thing to install; the shop signs, high up on the wall, no doubt overlooked by some, took 4-5 people, lots of time and heavy machinery to inch-by-inch slot them into place.
What intrigues me is those signs are unlikely to have ever been on display before, I wonder how long they have been in the Museum of London care. It is these items that bring richness to the story, they provide the sensuous velvet background to set the Cheapside Hoard off to its gleaming best. I am fascinated by the recreation of a jewellers workshop, recently I came across a modern jewellers in London where you could peer in and see their working environment, the tools laid in replica to this historical scene, so much is similar, the years of separation fall away. Many of these tools in the display had not even been individually accessioned before this exhibition, they had come as a job lot. There was not the time or specific need to add each individually, but the Cheapside Hoard has meant these items that have never been on display before are pulled into the light. Each one is re-examined, afforded its own identity in the museum databases.
This is how a story is woven, it is more than a tale of a hidden treasure trove rediscovered. This retelling in this particular way with these specific objects is a once in a generation spectacle. It is 100 years since the hoard was last displayed and the first time that it has been shown in its entirety, and my fascination is pulling me back to this first outing. How special was that first display? Did visitors clamour and queue? Was the Cheapside Hoard of 100 years ago as mesmerising as today’s audiences have found? To begin with I struggled to find some early references, then I realised in those early days of discovery it was not known as the ‘Cheapside Hoard’, but more modestly the ‘Elizabethan Jewels’, the location kept a closely guarded secret as the questions and struggles over ownership were played out. Then a gem of my own discovery, the digitised copies of the Daily Telegraph put up on the web in commemoration of World War I. Here was the opening of the ‘London Museum’ in March 1914, I could be in that audience of generations ago and feast on the palpable excitement of discovery and the first hungry eyes to devour their splendour.
London Museum at Stafford House – Elizabethan Jewels, The Daily Telegraph, Thursday 19 March 1914
“Unquestionably, the most attractive and remarkable feature of the exhibition is the wonderful collection of jewellery of about the first decade of the seventeenth century. The story of this astonishing discovery cannot even yet be told in full, and yesterday Mr Laking and his coadjutors had to give guarded answers to the many adroitly framed questions of the specially invited company who enjoyed the most private of private views. But about two years ago there was found under the staircase leading to the cellar of a house “within the walls” of London, the locality not being precisely stated, a decaying case containing about 150 of the most perfect examples of the jewellers’ craft of that period that can be imagined. It can only be supposed that it was the stock of some famous jeweller of his day, placed there for safety, while he went forth, perhaps never to return, after some tavern brawl, or it might have been a thieves haul, that they dared not come back to take.” (1)
Even King George V and his Queen consort beat a path to the London Museum to view the recently discovered jewels in the newly opened museum at Stafford House.
King and Queen and old London – Visit to Stafford House, his Majesty’s Message, The Daily Telegraph, Saturday 21st March 1914
“…the King and Queen came to the gold and silver collections, and naturally sought out at once the museum’s most recent “find” of Elizabethan jewellery. Their Majesties inspected it closely, and commented upon the fact that the chief feature and real charm of the work lay not so much in the size or costliness of the jewels as in the skill and beauty of the setting. The King even went so far as to remark that modern jewellers might copy the general style of the work with excellent results.”(2)
Their visit lasting the better part of two hours, by today’s standards that is quite impressive. I have even tracked down the original ‘shilling catalogue'(3) issued by the London Museum back in 1928, designed to meet the interest in this story and these jewels that was still going strong 14 years after they were first displayed. The preface written by Mortimer Wheeler himself and although many pictures are black and white there is a simple beauty to their presentation.
Perhaps my favourite spin on this tale is one of supernatural spectres and ghostly apparitions. I love the fact the Cheapside Hoard’s mystery caught the public’s attention when it was first found in 1912 and that interest has never really gone away.
Ghostly Museum Treasures, Haunted Gems, The Evening Telegraph, Monday 1 December 1919.
“The jewels arrived about six o’clock one evening. About ten o’clock, although it was a warm June night, the official and his wife and daughter experienced a sensation of shivering cold in the room in which the jewels had been placed. Later an art student friend, who claims to possess occult powers called at the house and was shown into the study where the official and his wife and daughter were. The student presently startled the family group by observing that he could see standing by the jewels a person whom he described as tall, thin man in Elizabethan costume, who looked very angry. He further declared that he heard or ‘sensed’ the apparition say. ‘Those are my jewels. What right do you have to them?'”
“Another curious incident occurred shortly before the war. A woman Spiritualist, when shown the jewels at the London Museum, fainted. On recovering she accounted for her illness by explaining she had seen blood on a gold neck chain among the jewels, and that she had ‘sensed’ that the woman who originally wore it had been murdered by somebody who wanted to obtain possession of it. Since then there have been no further strange manifestations.”(4)
In the beginning I spoke of sadness that this story has come to an end, but that sadness is I think misplaced. Looking back to 100 years ago, looking round at the staff working away to protect and care for the jewels today and the security staff who even now still stand guard, I can see the story of the Cheapside Hoard is bigger than one exhibition and one moment in time. In the beginning of this blog I talked about how a great exhibition is like a great book, now I can see that this exhibition is just one chapter in a complex story that spans the generations. It may be another 100 years before the Cheapside Hoard is brought together again, with a new spin, a new angle, the magic will be worked again by the story tellers at the Museum of London. Perhaps I am entitled to a little bit of sadness knowing that it is unlikely I will be around to see the next chapter. But I am grateful to have been able to linger one more day, revel in the mystery, wonder at the skill, be dazzled in the glittering light and take time to say goodbye to the Cheapside Hoard. The story is not over but it is time to finish this chapter.
1. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/ww1-archive/10703289/Daily-Telegraph-March-19-1914.html pg 12 Accessed 10 May 2014
2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/ww1-archive/10703331/Daily-Telegraph-March-21-1914.html pg 11 Accessed 10 May 2014
3. The Cheapside Hoard of Elizabethan and Jacobean Jewellery, London Museum Catalogues: no2, Lancaster House, Saint James’s, 1928
4. The Evening Telegraph, Monday 1 December 1919 pg 4. British Library Newspaper Archive