Editorial

By Malone, Caroline; Stoddart, Simon | Antiquity, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Editorial


Malone, Caroline, Stoddart, Simon, Antiquity


* On 6 May 1999, the Scots elected their first parliament in 300 years. On the same day, the Welsh elected their assembly. The politics of these events is strongly related to culture, as recent Celtic debates in the pages of ANTIQUITY and The Scotsman relate. Yet, of all the major parties north of the border, only the Scottish Nationalist Party had an evocative cultural image in their manifesto: the Stones of Callanish under the word Democracy. Only the Scottish Liberal Democrats explicitly sought to protect and market Scotland's natural, built and cultural heritage, while Scottish New Labour plans 'to maximise the benefits of Scotland's unique strengths of history, culture and natural beauty ...'. The most specific cultural pledge of most of the parties is to enable free entry to museums. These are vague pledges given the cultural basis of the whole political initiative.

The Society of Antiquaries of Scotland and the Society of Antiquaries of London (the last co-ordinated by a Welshman) took a much more intelligent approach. A joint meeting (30 April-2 May 1999) was organized with a timing redolent with political meaning, exploring the intense interaction of culture and politics in a highly successful occasion. Icons of Scottishness were studied at every turn: the Royal Park of Holyrood (including Arthur's Seat), the new Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh Castle, Holyrood Palace, Holyrood Abbey and the archaeological foundations under the future Scottish parliament.

The Museum of Scotland has been well visited by political controversy, fuelled by politicians focusing more on events and individuals such as William Wallace than on the long time-depth of material culture in Scotland. A modern Pitt-Rivers-type museum has been created in a setting which brings together material culture, modern art and architecture[middle dot] Paolozzi People holding early artefacts greet the visitor who is drawn through a thematic presentation of the early Scottish Past. 10,000 objects were chosen from the full collection of some 750,000 objects, but these were whittled down to 4,000 by design teams in the final displays. In the early section, chronology is collapsed in these displays into a series of themes - People, A generous land, Wider Horizons, Them and Us, In Touch with the Gods - which allow the longue duree of material culture to be explored. 'People' introduces the exhibition's absentees, through figures sculpted by Sir Eduardo Paolozzi. The figures stand for Scotland's early people. They are abstract because there is little evidence to help us identify and describe them realistically. Each group of figures also highlights a section of the exhibition. A Generous Land looks at the land's resources and how people used them. Wider Horizons explores the theme of contact with a wider world and the movement of people, goods and ideas. In Them and Us issues of conflict and imperialism, power and status, are examined, while In touch with the Gods concentrates on spiritual life.' (http://www.nms.ac.uk/mos/). This emphasis on material culture drew out a number of intriguing insights. One was a display case that showed the distribution of the use of whale bone throughout the ages across the outer islands of Scotland. Another was a basket, originally considered modern, reallocated to archaeology from the ethnography section by a specialist dating and conservation programme. At times the displays require background knowledge and a reading age of 13, but the experiment, once fully appreciated, is highly successful. The whole project is backed by a wider Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network, or SCRAN, accessed from the internet (http://www.scran.ac.uk/) which will supply educational information to schools. Perhaps the politicians of the future will be more informed about their deep historical past, and save more space in their manifestos for the cultural heritage.

The Royal Park has recently been systematically surveyed by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland which survives intact north of the border.

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