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Medieval and Renaissance: Past, Present and Future

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Archive for June, 2008

Tangled Up in Time

Monday, June 16th, 2008

By Stuart Frost

There are so many colleagues working on so many different aspects of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries project that it is difficult to know where to start when trying to update people about progress. In fact I won’t even try to be comprehensive. At the moment every member of the project is fully occupied by the challenge of juggling multiple tasks simultaneously.

Developing ideas for timelines and orientation graphics.From an interpretation point-of-view work is continuing on a wide range of interactives and other devices. The concepts for many of the activities were finalised quite easily. Other interactives have proved much more difficult to resolve. Something that has been proving particularly challenging to crack is the concept for a large graphic timeline. This will occupy the wall of a corridor that will connect one of the new Medieval and Renaissance galleries with the study centre. There are at least two appropriate approaches for a large scale graphic here.

One viable approach is to provide a graphic to remind visitors of scope of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries project at the V&A before they reach (or leave) a key orientation area at the heart of the gallery sequence. There are ten galleries spaces on four different levels. The photograph included here shows one option which my colleagues Simon and Elin mocked-up to test. One object is used to represent each of the ten Medieval and Renaissance Galleries, the gallery images are then arranged in the roughly chronological order visitors will probably experience them in. Each image is accompanied by a short description of the gallery narrative.

The second approach is to opt for a timeline covering the date range 300-1600, providing visitors with key dates, facts and context to help give them a sense of the scope of the period covered by the displays. Images of key objects would be used to provide visual enticement to draw visitors in. Some well known dates and events would be included to provide visitors with familiar reference points. Other less familiar dates would be added to support the project narratives. However how do you cover 1300 years of history adequately over 8 or so meters of wall? It is impossible to include everything and everyone will have their own view of what should be included and what shouldn’t be omitted. If too much information is provided people won’t be able to take it in.

We have drawn up a short list of dates. I suspect that many of them will be completely unfamiliar to most people.  Do you know off hand, for example, the major historical events that occurred in 313, 410 or on Christmas Day 800? Do you know the dates for any historical events between 300-1600 at all?  Are there any dates that you feel have to be included on the timeline? If you have any comments please post your responses via the comments facility below.

This timeline conundrum is just one small aspect of the intellectual framework for the galleries. In the overall scheme of things it isn’t an expensive or technically complex piece of interpretation. However that it isn’t preventing it from being quite a challenge to finalise. Fortunately we have Holmes-Wood, the graphic designers for the galleries, to work with and they are bringing all of their expertise to bear to help develop a solution. I’m sure that the project team will get this timeline right. However once it is in place I doubt that visitors will have any idea of how much thought and effort went into developing it.

From my own point of view the completion of the project in November 2009 no longer seems so distant. I often find it hard to believe that I have been working on the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries Project since June 2002. There were four of us at the first project meeting.  Now the Medieval and Renaissance project impacts on just about everybody working at the V&A in some way. I’ve started feel in recent weeks that time is slipping away more rapidly than ever and that in terms of the overall project timeline we have really entered the final stages.

Big Brother Medieval (and Renaissance) Style

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

By Stuart Frost

Even when I’m off-duty I find it hard to avoid getting engaged with something that has a connection to medieval and Renaissance history. A couple of weekends ago I made a rare foray out of London to visit some friends who live in Pickering, North Yorkshire. I accompanied them and their vintage car to Ryedale Folk Museum in Hutton-le-Hole on the Sunday. I was happy to wander around the village where I used to stay over the summer holidays when I was a young boy. Crofter's Cottage, Ryedale Folk Museum.

It was fascinating to explore Ryedale Folk Museum and to see how much I could remember of my childhood visits. I think because I’m so removed from rural life I really enjoyed visiting the farm areas and looking at the different breeds of pigs, hens and so on. I also found it fascinating to explore the reconstructions of period homes and interiors and to try and imagine myself living in the past. Needless to say I spent most of my visit exploring a modern reconstruction of a medieval crofter’s cottage (of around 1450). I’ve included some photographs here. 

Perhaps it was because it was a hot and sunny day but the longer I looked at the cottage the more appealing a late medieval crofter’s lifestyle seemed to be. The crofter’s cottage had a greater floorspace than the flat I rent in south-east London. It also had more character, personality and charm: oak beams rather than plasterboard, natural surfaces with rich textures rather than bland modern finishes.The view, looking out onto wooded hillsides rather than grey pebble-dash walls and urban sprawl, was also substantially better. Other plus points included a small but attractive garden filled with practical herbs. In south-east London almost everyone who is fortunate enough to have a garden seems to have covered it with concrete or tarmac.Crofter's Cottage, Ryedale Folk Museum.

The design of the house must have encouraged a very close knit and sociable lifestyle: the open fire at the heart of the home, for example, would have a been a focal point for social interaction. Everyone shared the same space.

The late medieval crofter had a lifestyle much more in harmony with nature than our own. They used fewer of the earth’s non-renewable natural resources, created much less pollution and lived a far more sustainable lifestyle. Work was only a short walk away: no two-hour daily commute to cope with. Perhaps if everyone who commutes has a small holding instead there’d be less long faces on the trains and tubes? 

The downside of rural life in the fifteenth century are probably fairly obvious and I’m sure visiting the Crofter’s Cottage in the middle of January when food was running low would have led my imaginative flight-of-fancy into a completely different direction. Nevertheless I think it would be fascinating to try and live like a 15th century crofter for a couple of months and to see how the experience compared to modern living. I think the next batch of Big Brother contestants should be asked to live a medieval lifestyle in a reconstructed village: perhaps that really would be a social experiment worth watching?

Click here to find our more about Ryedale Folk Museum.