I have just finished watching Art of Persia, a three-part series on the BBC (still available on iPlayer). It is a stunning portrayal of an amazing country and its fabulous historical and cultural treasures and it made me long to go back. Visiting ancient archaeological sites and beautiful mosques and learning about the Sufi poets, Samira Ahmed was the perfect presenter - interested and enquiring, but making her presentation all about the sites she was seeing and not about her. She reveals how narrow the West’s understanding of Persian culture is. Yet, for 3,000 years, Persia has influenced culture across the world. This was one of the few nations to defeat the Roman Empire. Yet, for most of its existence, Persia was isolated, not least because it held on its own language, even when overrun by Islamic, Arabic-speaking, invaders. Even today, Iran is the only non-Arabic speaking country in the Middle East. The ethos of being Persian is still an integral part of Iranian culture today. Whatever your political views, it is a country well-worth visiting and the local people will welcome you with open arms and generous hospitality.
Back in 2018 I wrote about the 12-week old Weimaraner puppy that had joined Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ Protective Services Team. Riley’s job is to sniff out bugs that can damage textiles in museum collections and, thereby, prevent an infestation taking hold.
I’m delighted to announce that an extended version of my post about Riley has been published on the Sniffing the Past blog. This site, edited by one of my doctoral supervisors, Chris Pearson, presents reflections about dogs in history and is well worth a read. I also write about dogs being trained to sniff out stolen historic artefacts and trafficked antiquities. Hats off to our canine companions who are starting to play a key role in the preservation of our culture and heritage.
The government has said that museums and galleries in England can open from 4 July provided that safety measures are implemented. Guidance developed by the National Museum Directors’ Council sets out nine considerations that need to be in place before re-opening to support the safety of staff and visitors. They have also created a suggested timeline to help museums plan their re-opening.
National museums in London have said that they are phasing their opening, but should all be open over the summer. But, how many smaller museums and galleries will be able to meet the requirements of social distancing...? As I’ve already reported, many well-known smaller venues have already announced that they are struggling. The Museums Association says that substantial financial aid is still needed to help the sector, but will the government see the necessity?
The National Archives has also produced guidelines to help archives plan for re-opening that include links to a checklist and risk management template:
But it is very odd that archives and libraries are still scheduled to be closed when shops, often far smaller spaces, are allowed to open and some archives already operate a booking system, so why not extend that? Most archive staff that I know have not been furloughed and there has to come a point where they simply have no more work that they can do from home. The benefits of access to libraries, museums and archives are well-documented so, for everyone’s well-being – staff, visitors and users – let’s see them re-opened sooner rather than later.
The impact of the Coronavirus on the heritage sector has hit close to home this week with the sad news that Fishbourne Palace may have to close. Fishbourne, situated just outside Chichester, is a Roman villa on a monumental scale that was comprised of four large residential wings around a courtyard garden. It is the largest residential building from the Roman period found in Britain. The outline of the walls, together with many stunning and elaborate mosaics, survives. It was built around 70AD by Tiberius Claudius Togidubnus, king of the Regni, who was granted Roman citizenship and became fully assimilated into the Roman way of life. The site also houses the archaeological collections for Chichester District and serves as an important hub for academic research and both school-age and adult education, because it is a key site in explaining how the newly conquered province of Britain came to be absorbed culturally into the Roman empire.
Fishbourne is one of eight sites owned by the Sussex Archaeological Society (SAS), also known as Sussex Past, that have all been affected by the loss of visitors. SAS says that all its sites are threatened with closure due to a shortfall of £1 million in lost income. Next year marks the 175th anniversary of the founding of SAS and an appeal has been launched, supported by the historian, Tom Holland. Let’s hope it makes it to this momentous milestone.
A new report predicts that the creative industries sector will be hit twice as hard as the economy in general as a result of Covid-19. In the report, Oxford Economics forecasts the loss of 119,000 permanent posts and 287,000 freelance roles by the end of 2020. The focus on museums and galleries specifically suggests that £743 million in revenue and 4,000 jobs (representing 5% of the total) could be lost. These shocking statistics are reflected in film, TV, radio and theatre, which will also suffer huge losses.
Link to the report: https://www.creativeindustriesfederation.com/publications/report-projected-economic-impact-covid-19-uk-creative-industries
Renewed calls to take down public monuments celebrating people and events now considered offensive have become a key part of anti-racism protests taking place around the world, but the removal of statues of slave traders is sparking concerns that important lessons from history might be swept under the carpet. Simplistic expressions of mob justice do no good and only serve to further polarise opinion, but we should avoid any knee-jerk reactions. Each statue will have to be reviewed independently because the backgrounds and contexts are not the same. Edward Colston, for example, whose statue was pulled down, was a Victorian re-invention. His statue was erected in Bristol 170 years after his death, representing the economic, social and political perspectives of the businessmen of the city at that time. There have been calls for the removal of Nelson in Trafalgar Square, because he was opposed to the abolition of slavery, yet this is one of the few monuments to portray black seamen, many of whom served in Nelson’s navy.
The measured response of Sir Geoff Palmer, an emeritus professor of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and Scotland's first black professor, is one that many could heed. He does not support removing statues relating to slavery, believing that they are part of black history and stresses the importance of facing up to the past and better educating the public about it. He has been a key participant in the proposal to amend a plaque on a controversial monument of Scottish politician Henry Dundas to explain that he was "instrumental in deferring the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade". Palmer told BBC Scotland that the new plaque would give the public the opportunity to see and "actually read the evil that this man has done. If we take the statue down, this will not be known". He said that adding clarifications to these monuments, rather than pulling them down altogether, would avoid erasing history: “My view is you remove the evidence, you remove the deed”.
How we view the past changes from generation to generation, with each viewing its past differently. History is a continuing conversation with and about the past. Looking again means re-evaluating, but re-evaluation is not just the process of knocking the great off their perches, but recognising the value of those who have been overlooked. As retired bishop, Richard Harries, put it on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme’s “Thought for the day” slot (12 June): “If history is a continuing re-evaluation of the past, then perhaps the full story can only be told when mankind no longer exists”. That’s a very long way off...
The latest heritage site to announce it is struggling for survival in the wake of the coronavirus lockdown is the Jane Austen House museum at Chawton in Hampshire. Its director has warned that the museum faces closure at the end of the year, because it is almost entirely dependent on visitor income. Austen lived in the now grade 1 listed, 17th century house from 1809 until her death in 1817. It is where she finished her novels. The museum will be applying for emergency funding, but has also started a Justgiving appeal. The historian, Lucy Worsley, and gardener and TV presenter, Alan Titchmarsh, who lives in Hampshire, are supporting the campaign to raise £75,000. Worsley described the museum as “the most treasured Austen site in the world”. To donate to the appeal, follow the link:
Business secretary Alok Sharma has confirmed that shops, department stores and shopping centres – all indoor spaces with limited room for people to roam – can reopen from Monday 15 June, “provided they put in place the necessary steps to keep their workers and customers safe”. After much public pressure, zoos and safari parks have now been given the green light to welcome visitors. This is great news, as these sites have been living on their nerves while awaiting news about when they can bring essential funds back into their businesses, but the same devastating experience has affected many museums and heritage sites too. With open-air visitor attractions like zoos and indoor retail units deemed safe, why not museums? Just one example of the disconnect in the government’s stance is evident at Covent Garden, where a raft of shops will be reopening on Monday while their neighbour, London Transport Museum, will remain shut. A lack of joined-up thinking or a lack of care and understanding for our culture and heritage?
In the wake of this week’s announcements that the Globe Theatre and the Royal Albert Hall may have to close, Sir Nicholas Kenyon (Managing Director of the Barbican Centre and former director of the BBC Proms) stated on BBC Radio 4 this morning that the survival of the arts can no longer be a side issue. He believes - and rightly so - that different approaches to recovery will be needed for the different sectors of the arts. Social distancing is being relaxed to enable sport to resume, so why, when more people go to the theatre than attend a premier league football match, is there such disparity in funding and political support? If more government support is not forthcoming, so much of our culture and heritage will be lost.
Julia Gillard, the first woman to serve as Deputy Prime Minister and Prime Minister (2010-13) of Australia, described her appointment as the new chair of the Wellcome Trust as “a dream come true”, adding that “I will relish supporting and speaking up for scientific research into key health challenges. I look forward to working with all those in the Wellcome family, including the Board, the staff who are led by the remarkable Jeremy Farrar, the research community and all those focused on the health of humanity.”
Gillard was a prominent figure in Australia’s economic recovery from the 2008 financial crash and also implemented significant education and healthcare reforms. Since leaving office in Australia, she has taken on roles as chair of both the Global Partnership for Education and mental health awareness body Beyond Blue. Her appointment is to be welcomed. She will replace another inspiring woman, Eliza Manningham-Buller, former Director General of MI5, the outgoing chair in April 2021.
My thoughts, views and musings about what's happening in the world of archives and records management, information and governance, heritage and culture