Thursday, 11 October 2012

Medieval, the NMS, and Nationalism



A colleague of mine, Tasha Gefreh, recently gave a seminar on ‘Brave-Art: Concepts of Medievalism and Artefacts’ for Edinburgh University’s Late Antique and Medieval Postgraduate Society. Her talk explored the historic…er…issues of Disney’s Brave, treating on the issues of historical versus imagined time, academic responsibility, nationalism, and the inspiring if often misleading nature of popular conceptions of “medieval”. Tasha explored this connection between Pixar and the National Museum of Scotland, noting that the studio sent artists in 2006 and 2007 to see the museum and its artefacts. At one point, she showed one still from the movie that struck me. While arresting in its dramatic composition, Tasha drew our attention to a Pictish symbol, reminiscent of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone, shown in the bottom right as part of the architectural structure of a building. This use of Pictishness and of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone is not anything new for the NMS and the use of the imagined medieval has been utilised by the NMS earlier than Brave as seen at during its reopening and its earlier acquisition of the Hilton of Cadboll Stone.

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With the opening of the NMS on St. Andrew’s Day 1998, the birth of the museum coincided with the reinstatement of the Scottish Parliament a year later.1 While David Clarke, Head of Exhibitions for the NMS attempted to ‘dissuade those who are determined to find endorsement of their own sense of national identity’ he was unsuccessful as Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first First Minister, wrote just two years later that he hopes ‘these two key institutions [Scottish Parliament and NMS] will help to shape both the cultural identity and our constitutional destiny in the next millennium’.2 The work of McLean et al to determine the effects of the rebranding, reconstruction, and reopening of the NMS demonstrated a key interest in the creation of national museums, as one interviewee aptly stated ‘every country needs a national museum’.3        
             The Hilton of Cadboll Stone is a Pictish cross-slab dating around 800 C.E. The stone’s cross face is lost as a burial memorial was carved in its place in 1676. Additionally, the stone is broken in three sections, an upper portion, lower portion, and tenon. Excavations in 1998 to 2001 at St Mary’s Chapel discovered the previously missing lower portion and over seven thousand fragments. The stone is described as a playing ‘an iconic role in the production of a national story’ by Siân Jones and it is afforded pride of place in the Early People section of the NMS complete with a raised platform, dramatic lighting, and multimedia to explain the rich history, iconography, and cooperate interests arising from the stone. 4
            The upper portion of the stone was taken to Invergordon Castle in the mid-nineteenth century by Robert Bruce Aeneas Macleod and then offered to the British Museum in 1921 by his son Captain Roderick Willoughby Macleod. This was met with ‘widespread protest’ from politicians and antiquarians until Macleod withdrew his offer and instead donated the stone to the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh in 1921. The stone became a symbol of Scottish identity, which a cursory walk through the Early People section of the NMS would imply is a mixture of Roman, Viking, Celtic, and Pictish ancestry. However, a conflict of ownership resulted in the find of the lower portion in 2001 as ‘where a museum has already acquired part of an object, as in this case, the integrity of the object is prioritised and new discoveries are usually allocated to the same museum’.5 While Hall’s work focuses on the formation of national identity as a ‘system of cultural representation’, Jones found that the people of Cadboll, displaying residual tensions over the removal of the upper portion of the stone and the uncertainty borne out of the Highland Clearances, were in fact creating these representative systems as well. Jones notes that the stone is spoken of as a living member of the community that has been taken from its home.6 Even if ‘a nation is a homogenous site for the production of an imagined cultural identity, that the authority of national heritage organisations over the management of such monuments should be accepted’ the people of Hilton expressively viewed their situation as one of oppression and misrepresentation. Issues surrounding cultural heritage, tourism, and national verses local identity can be seen played out in the Hilton of Cadboll stone.7
            While the situation of the Hilton stone is ultimately unresolved, the inclusion of the stone within the NMS allows it to function iconically as a marker of national identity at the cost of local identity. Because the actual stone is exhibited in the Early People section of the NMS, it can be seen that the ‘museum functions as an ensemble of narrative element which the visitor...is able to rehears’ through the act of walking and associating like artefacts, such as the stone, with other Picitsh and thus Scottish elements.8

-Samuel

1. McLean, Fiona and Cooke, Steven. 2003. ‘The National Museum of Scotland: A Symbol for a New Scotland?’, Scottish Affairs, 45: 111
2. Clarke, David. 1996. ‘Me Tartan and Chained to the Past’, Museums Journal, 96: 75; Dewar. D. 2000. ‘Foreword’, Heritage and Museums: Shaping National Identity (Shaftesbury, Donhead): ix
3. McLean, Fiona and Cooke, Steven. 2003. ‘The National Museum of Scotland: A Symbol for a New Scotland?’, Scottish Affairs, 45: 118
4. Jones, Siân. 2005. ‘’That Stone was Born Here and That’s Where it Belongs’: Hilton of Cadboll and the Negotiation of Identity, Ownership and Belonging’, Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the 21st Century (Edinburgh, Society for Medieval Archaeology): 40.
5. Ibid, 41
6. Hall, Stuart. 1992. ‘The Question of Cultural Identity’, Modernity and its Features (Cambridge, Polity Press): 292
7. Jones, Siân. 2005. ‘’That Stone was Born Here and That’s Where it Belongs’: Hilton of Cadboll and the Negotiation of Identity, Ownership and Belonging’, Scotland’s Early Medieval Sculpture in the 21st Century (Edinburgh, Society for Medieval Archaeology): 44
8. Bennett, Tony. 1995. The Birth of the Museum (London, Routledge): 184

Brave ©Disney Pixar 
Hilton of Cadboll Stone © NMS 

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