The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Hunting for Bergerac; meanderings on a trip to Jersey

I recently had the opportunity to couple a fieldwork visit to Jersey with a short holiday.  This is a shortish ramble through some of my experiences there with the visitor attractions of Jersey Museum and Mont Orgueil Castle (besides a fruitless search for Bergerac memorabilia). Jersey is the principal of the Channel Islands, an oddity of the British Isles because they are so close to mainland France.  They have belonged to the Dukes of Normandy since the early 900s and made the choice to stay with the English throne when King John lost the rest of his French possessions in 1204.  This makes me think that King John obviously wasn't so bad as king as he is painted, however that is a different story altogether..


I stayed in St Helier, the capital of the island which has grown up around a magnificent bay as shown in the picture above.  A key feature of the bay is Elizabeth castle (see below), however because you can only approach the castle at low tide by foot (and then at high tide by ferry) I missed my opportunity to walk across the cause way.  But the castle looked very dramatic from the end of the harbour.



I did make it to two Jersey visitor attractions during my stay.  The first was Jersey Museum, just off Liberation Square in St Helier.  The museum was a 'jack of all trades' - it told the story of Jersey on the ground and first floors, contained an art gallery on the second floor, and the third / fourth floors were a reconstruction of a merchant's house from the nineteenth century. I found the museum a bit of a distracting jumble at first with cases telling the story of Lillie Langtry (mistress of King Edward VIII and someone who seemed to be famous for being famous) and a reconstruction of a treadmill from the prison.  However on the first floor it was more obviously themed with sections looking at Jersey's environment, its unusual government structure (a hangover from the days of rule from the Norman dukes, apparently the Queen is still entitled to two mallards in lieu of her feudal seigneurity), a quick romp through its turbulent history and an introduction to classic 'stereotypes' of the island such as the Jersey cow, Jersey tomatoes and Jersey potatoes.  The interpretation was obviously cutting edge for its day but was now looking slightly dated, particularly the models of people and a disturbed looking Jersey cow.  The reconstruction of the merchant's house was better, made to look as if the inhabitants had just 'left', however although there were games and dressing up activities for children there was not much for adults expect to gaze on the scenes before them.  I enjoyed looking round the art collection, which was specifically looking at how 'Romantics' conceived of the island.  Mostly in a very 'romantic' manner all wispy beaches and picturesque wrecks.  Victor Hugo got a mention, coming to live on the island from exile in France, and there were a couple of pretty paintings by Millais including his famous one of Lillie Langtry holding a lily (not a Jersey lily however but a Guernsey lily which spoils the association with her nickname).  All in all a pleasant enough experience which told me a bit more about the history of the island than the guidebook I bought from Waterstones.


The second visit was made to Mont Orgueil castle in the east of the island.  Originally I conceived of walking along the coast to the castle, then back along the B-roads to take in La Houge Bie on the way back, a prehistoric burial site that is (as literature boasts) older than the pyramids.  Unfortunately two things scuppered my plan: firstly the VERY hot weather for late September and walking without a hat was not a good idea; secondly the roads were very narrow and with few pavements I gave up trying to walk along them after a mile or so and got the bus back to St Helier.  However I did make the first half of my journey, the 5-6 mile walk along the coast line to Gorey town where the castle is situated.  It was a lovely walk along incredibly deserted beaches... considering it was a Saturday and boiling hot I expected them to be thronged with people.  But I saw hardly anybody as the following images attest.




The second image shows the approach to the castle from across the beach - how the castle dominates the local area!  The castle was started by King John after the loss of his French possessions as the Channel Islands suddenly became the frontier of the (then) Anglo-Norman 'Empire', then extended in the sixteenth century to respond to the demands of warfare when guns and cannons replaced arrows and crossbows.  It is an impressive castle, hugging the rock upon which it stands, and with a steep climb from the harbour to the entrance (as shown below).  

It has been restored relatively recently so apart from the lack of interior furnishing, it is possible to get a feel for what it was like as a working castle. It is a labyrinthine place with staircases everywhere and several times I became disorientated when trying to work out if I had been into a particular room or not!  The image below shows the massive 16th century addition to the keep (main living area of the castle) which was built to withstand the impact of cannon.


The castle interpretation was very detailed, mainly told through the usual large boards seen at heritage sites, with helpful diagrams which indicated exactly what you were looking at.  It was possible to get round without a guidebook or map (and the getting lost aspect was actually quite fun as it was akin to exploring).  Additional interpretation was in the form of sculptures and other forms of artwork, an unusual and interesting method of conveying a key theme or aspect of the history.  The first image below shows the sculpture showing the complicated links between the English and French medieval monarchies by illustration as a family tree, instead of flowers or fruits the heads of the monarchs and key family members.


Another impressive sculpture was near the entrance to the castle, showing the various wounds that could be caused by medieval warfare... the interpretation explained that it was trying to combat the suggestion that medieval warfare was romantic, fairytale or chivalrous!


A third installation, which unfortunately was beyond my camera's capability to photograph, was also the most effective.  Hidden in a dark chamber next to the Bell Tower was a shadow sculpture entitled the 'Dance of Death.'  It is based on a favourite medieval tale which survives in a wall painting in one of the churches on the island; three kings go out to ride in the forest in all their finery and they meet three tattered skeletons which remind them of their mortality and the futility of earthly riches.  The sculpture shows a large skeleton, bow poised to strike, surrounded by smaller skeletons which rotate slowly to the sound of melancholy music.  The shadows it created upon the walls of the chamber were very eerie and I left feeling somewhat subdued after my encounter.


The views from the castle roof were amazing and my photo hardly does it justice - it looks down upon the harbour in Gorey and you can just see the castle gardens peeking out from behind the keep.  Personally I would enjoy visiting a castle even if a ruin with no interpretation but Mont Orgueil had the added bonus of interesting and thoughtful interpretation.  There were a few collections of objects found in the castle, including an impressive wall case stuffed full of clay pipes!

So that was my brief trip to Jersey.  And what does Bergerac have to do with all this you might ask?  (For the uninitiated Bergerac was an iconic detective programme set in Jersey and aired in the 1980s with John Nettles playing the titular hero of the show).  Before I went my friend Anna set me the challenge of finding some Bergerac related souvenir during my visit.  This proved very difficult, however I did manage to visit a site on the way back from the castle which featured heavily in Bergerac as "Bureau des Etrangers"... unfortunately this made me feel a bit of a voyeur as this building is now more infamous as Haut de la Garenne which is at the centre of child abuse allegations from when it was a children's home. The building itself was down a very quiet road and gave no hint at the potential horrors hidden beneath its calm facade, as the castle too gave little hint as to its conflict-soaked past when bathed in sunlight.

2 comments:

Amy said...

The interpretive sculptures sound fascinating: really innovative.

Ceri said...

Indeed, it is not something you see very much. The first time I ever saw it was at a museum in Oldenberg Germany... it was great because I understood the exhibits from the artwork despite not speaking a word of German!