“Celts”, a review of the NMS exhibition
Duncan Sneddon is a PhD student who works on early medieval Scotland and Ireland. He blogs at Cruithneach and tweets @Cruithneach
For those who haven’t yet been to see it, the Celts exhibition is still on at the National Museum of Scotland, and runs until the 25th of September. It’s been in Edinburgh since early this summer, and prior to that was based at the British Museum in London.(1) The biggest museum exhibition of Celtic material culture for a generation, Celts brings together a vast quantity of material from all over Europe, some of it very well known, some less so.
Indeed, the scale of the collection displayed at the NMS is challenging in itself. I’ve been three times with different friends and family members, and all have said they’d need two visits to be able to take it all in. Certainly if you’re taking your time and reading the panels as you go around, you’ll find yourself flagging a bit by the time you’re around two thirds of the way through.
So much for quantity, what the quality?
Well, there can be no doubt that Celts brings together some absolutely stunning artifacts – many of which I had known previously only as photographs in books. The Gundestrup Cauldron on its own would be worth the admission fee, and is very much the jewel in this exhibition’s crown. But it shares the stage with some of the most famous productions of Celtic culture – the Battersea Shield, the Hunterston Brooch (which is usually held in the basement level of the NMS, where I think it is displayed better, and is easier to see in detail), the bull-headed Trichtingen Torc, carnyces from present-day France and Scotland, and much else besides. Besides the cauldron, the Braganza Brooch, featuring an intricately-formed golden warrior fighting off a lion was a highlight for me. Indeed, metalwork in general is very well represented in Celts, certainly more so than stone sculpture or illuminated manuscripts, for instance.
There is also a plethora of handy video screens, in which scholars talk through the material on display. The stand-out video panel for me was the one on language, in which Thomas Owen Clancy and Katherine Forsyth (both of the University of Glasgow) give a handy introduction to the Celtic languages and how they can be traced in place names across Europe, as well how they changed over time. I know that the London incarnation of this exhibition faced some criticism for largely neglecting language, which in an exhibition which is supposed to explore issues of cultural identity is a serious (and a curious) weakness. Even in Edinburgh, the visitor is about halfway through the exhibition before they encounter the concept of Celtic languages at all. Since the panels and videos which come before this stress the diversity of the material, and the absence of a monolithic “Celticness” in the material cultural record, this seems to leave it rather late to introduce a key component of the cultural connections between the Celtic-speaking peoples of Europe, thus potentially guiding visitors to a more strongly “Celtosceptic” position than is really warranted.
There are other sins of omission as well. Continental Europe drops out of the Celts story more or less as soon as the Romans rock up in Britain, leaving the visitor to wonder what happened to them. Then, following a very good section on the early medieval church (featuring the shrine case for the Cathach, a couple of croziers and bell shrines and the magnificent processional cross from Tully Lough in Co. Roscommon, but surprisingly little from the Welsh-speaking areas), we jump straight into the antiquarian rediscovery of the Celts, Romanticism and the Celtic Revival. Nothing on the Reformation. Nothing on the English conquests of Wales and Ireland. Nothing on the Lordship of the Isles. Nothing on the role of the Welsh-speaking Methodist chapel in the creation of modern Welsh identity, or contemporary language revitalisation efforts. Nothing about the devastating effects of the First World War on Gaelic-speaking communities. Nothing at all about Brittany. Hardly anything about, or from, the Isle of Man. There are no opportunities to hear any Celtic languages being spoken or sung. A handbook with Gaelic translations of the information panels and labels was eventually produced for the exhibition (the panels and labels themselves are all entirely in English), but the modern Celtic languages are not integrated into the exhibition at all – again, a curious omission for something which is supposed to probe “art and identity” (as per the title of the exhibition catalogue).
Does this matter? Well, yes, it does. When notions of Celtic identity are being probed and critiqued, a knowledge of the current linguistic situation is essential, and a lack of it will lead to very strange conclusions. Quite a few responses to Celts (certainly in its London run) seemed to have been led by the exhibition to take up cudgels against Romantic notions of Celtic unity and monolithic identity (strawmen, these, which are not encountered either in academic Celtic departments or in Celtic-language communities). One of the most bizarre was this, from a review by Julian Cope (for some reason) in The Guardian:
Soon, Celtic elements were being “discovered” in places with little or no historical evidence of the so-called Celt – and so it has continued. Nowadays, even the 4,800-years-old Callanish – that splendid megalithic cruciform sitting high upon a Hebridean headland – has fallen prey to a recent Celtic revival. Its simple Scandinavian spelling – of a fairly commonplace word meaning “boat jetty” – is nowadays given the Gaelic spelling Calanais on tourist signs. Appropriately Celtic this may be, but it is still entirely fanciful.(2)
Cope seems to be labouring under the misapprehension that the signs pointing drivers to Calanais are there because of a “fanciful” Celtic revival, in which Celto-enthusiasts have popped up to appropriate all sorts of things for themselves, in a fit of misplaced ethnic pride – perhaps even with darker hints of atavistic irredentism. This, of course, has nothing whatsoever to do with road signs in Lewis. Gaelic is the language spoken by most people who live in Callanish.(3) Road signs in the Western Isles are in Gaelic because that is the language spoken there. Leòdhasaich in general are very much aware of the Norse history of their island, and having road signs in their own language is certainly not part of some attempt to efface this.
Cope would presumably never imagine that a sign pointing visitors to “Stonehenge” was an “entirely fanciful” pan-Germanic ethnic fantasy, appropriating the legacy of people who lived in Wiltshire before the English speakers did. He could never make that mistake, because he knows that English is spoken in Wiltshire (I assume. I’ve never been there). Ignorance about the presence and situation of speakers of Celtic languages, however, is pretty much par for the course in much public discourse about these matters, and that such ignorance can find a place in the pages of The Guardian is indicative of a wider problem. That the Celts exhibition, for all the stunning, amazing quality of the material it presents, was unwilling or unable to engage with this problem is a great pity.
So, should you go? Yes. Go twice. The quality of the jewelry, weaponry, everyday utensils, cult objects and the rest is amazing. The levels of skill and craftsmanship that went into making much of the material are nothing short of astonishing. Go, and you’ll spend an hour or more immersed in work that is truly wonderful. But be mindful, too, of what isn’t there, and could have been. As with all exhibitions, don’t take what’s there as definitive, but as the starting point for discovering more, learning more, discussing more.
Oh, and try the cullen skink in the cafe downstairs. It’s very good.
(1) NB – I did not see the exibhition when it was London, so all my comments relate to how it was in its Edinburgh incarnation. Any changes that may have taken place in the presentation, or material which was added or subtracted for reasons of physical space etc. between the two runs will therefore not necessarily be reflected here.