ARTS Our Island Storyadio Programme That Tells

The Spectator, February 11, 2012 | Go to article overview

ARTS Our Island Storyadio Programme That Tells


History of the World in 100 Objects managed to squeeze the great paradigm shifts of anthropology into the interval between the roadworks sign and the all-clear, spiriting away traffic cones with remote customs and belief systems. What could follow something so confidently global if not an examination of our own strange customs and belief systems - some introspective anthropology? The Art of Monarchy, though a history told through 50 objects in a single collection, is not intended as another History of the World, but the comparison allows us to imagine how our material cultural footprint might be interpreted by some remote and future museum. The guide through the material, the BBC's arts editor Will Gompertz, catches the amiable but probing bemusement that such a remote viewpoint might provoke. He examines a range of objects and asks a range of people (most of them subjects) about a millennium of royal history.

Finding the objects was easy: the Royal Collection contains the accumulated treasure-trove of the British monarchy, the carefully conceived engines of magnificence and the incidental evidence of momentous events. Making the selection proved much more difficult as it required us curators to look beyond intrinsic quality; somebody should do a 'hundred masterpieces that changed the world' but this was not it. What made the process more taxing was that the information that a museum curator supplies as a matter of course - what the object's use was and what it tells us about its users (in short, its anthropology) - is not something consciously considered when the object in question is still in use.

Queen Elizabeth II signed her coronation oath using a 1953 Sydney Cockerell pen; she went to the Abbey in the 1762 State Coach;

the anointing took place using a 12th-century coronation spoon. We all know roughly what a coronation is, but what is the precise character, history and significance of this ceremony? These insights are harder to find, especially now that 'Kings and Queens' has become a shorthand for everything which is not generally taught in school history.

If these objects are the tools of the trade, what exactly is the trade? What do monarchs do? The answer presented by this series suggests that monarchs (in no particular order) strut, fight, worship, encourage, preserve and occasionally try to live a normal life. Monarchs need to show off to awe their subjects and their rivals but also to provide the nation's 'Sunday best' towards which subjects may turn with pride. Monarchs need to fight and to persuade others to do so on their behalf (an activity that also involves a certain amount of strutting).

The sovereign is the supreme governor of the Church of England and was, at least until the Civil War, considered to be part of the great chain of being, linking divine and human life. Monarchs instigate activities that benefit the nation and humanity - academies, industries and charities. Monarchs personify continuity of things and institutions;

the person who made Edward III's monster 'bearing sword' has the same job title (Royal Armourer) as the one who now advises on its conservation.

Much of a monarch's 'normal' life was subsumed into the duties set out above: while we might get up in the morning; a monarch had a levee. Sometimes, however, especially after the accession of Queen Victoria, a private life became possible, though more often than not our record of it is crafted with half an eye to public consumption. The monarchy is also the mirror in which people see themselves and the Royal Collection holds these innumerable insights into two relevant population groups: the British and the citizens of the Commonwealth. …

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