Close Encounters of the Sixth-Century Kind: Some Musings on the Attraction of the Past through Imagination and Historical Empathy

What attracts us to the past?

When people ask what first inspired me to pursue a museum career, I often stumble upon this basic question. As PhD students, we are frequently told to demonstrate a clear ‘career trajectory’ on our CVs, as if our younger selves were inexorably drawn in one direction only; as if, historiographically speaking, it was inevitable that we would become this, or that. For some, of course, this may be true; for others, including myself, the reality is far messier. Yes, it would have been nice to have known from the age of 9 that I wanted to be a museum curator, and then I could have planned accordingly, but the truth is for the longest time I didn’t know precisely what I wanted to do. And, when I did know, I became ensnared in the dreaded ‘no experience, no job’ conundrum which continues to plague the young, aspiring museum professional. Yet, ironically, in exploring different career options, we build up precisely the multi-layered skills profile we are so often exhorted to cultivate in the current volatile financial and economic climate.

At 16, then, when I came to choose my A Levels, I was horribly conflicted. Sciences or humanities? I knew whatever choice I made would close down a whole host of other options. What if I got it wrong? My potential career options were all over the place. I was initially attracted to care-giving professions, and medicine excited me, but I knew I’d never make it as a doctor. My greatest strengths lay in writing, and the creative arts. So, in my head, I lurched from pharmacist to funeral director, journalist to intelligence officer. In the end, I fell back on the one thing that had been there all along, but which I had never once considered as providing the raw material for a career choice. My interest in history.

This started early. One of my earliest memories is of my mother reading me Beowulf as a bedtime story. I devoured books on Norse mythology, the Bible, the middle ages, fairy tales, sorcerers, dragons, other worlds both wonderful and strange. One of my favourite stories was Sleeping Beauty. I was fascinated by the idea that an entire world and all the people in it could be preserved intact for a century, and then re-awakened to life, even if the Prince in my edition was crass enough to point out that his bride’s wedding gown was now seriously out of fashion. I fantasized endlessly about discovering such a world for myself, a world unseen, and untouched by the present for many years. A timeless world that would not grow old as I would. A fantasy to escape to whenever reality was dull, or threatening.  At play in my imaginary world, I was again conflicted as to my role. Princess or knight? Sorceress, or necromancer? Would I ride a wyvern into battle, or a winged horse?

Detail from a 1920 edition of Sleeping Beauty, illustrated by Arthur Rackham

As a child, I didn’t visit many museums. My only clear memories consist of visiting places in the open air, such as Welsh castles in the drizzling rain, or staring out from the car window in mild awe at Stonehenge we drove past it on the way to Devon and Cornwall for our yearly holiday.

Once, I was taken to visit Flambards, a theme park in Helston, Cornwall. I must have been about 5 or 6 years old. My parents mentioned they were taking me to visit a Victorian street, and I remember looking forward to this enormously. When I got there, I was rather disappointed. It was supposed to be a reconstructed cobbled street, lit by a gas lamp and populated by rows of shops on either side, but it felt disjointed, dark, and empty. The model of a horse standing at a jaunty angle by the lamp post was just a model of a horse. In short, it had no life in it. I had a tendency to take things quite literally as a child, and to invest what I read or heard with my own imagination, which was often richer than what I perceived with my senses. I felt cheated. This wasn’t ‘the past’, or the gateway to some Narnian world I could inhabit.

But then I found the Chemist’s Shop. For some reason, it caught my attention, and held it. My mother leaned down and whispered to me, ‘This one is real’. I peered through the grainy windows, nose to the glass, at the rows and rows of coloured bottles, silent sentries, covered in dust and what were probably false cobwebs, but this time, the ersatz things didn’t matter. Something else was happening. A sudden and startling revelation that these were the material remnants of a world which had existed long before I was born. It was real, after all, and I was close enough to reach out my hand and touch it. Was this brought about by the knowledge that this had, indeed, been a chemist’s shop found boarded up and intact after nearly a hundred years, moved and put back together again? I can’t say. But from that moment, as far as I can tell, I was hooked, unwittingly, on museums.

Last Tuesday, I embarked upon a research trip to Uppsala, Sweden, to see one of the best-preserved kunstchränke, or art cupboards, to survive from the seventeenth century. This miniature cabinet of curiosity is not only a work of art in its own right, it also contains a huge number and variety of objects, from a tiny apothecary’s chest to a harpsichord which can be programmed to play 5 pieces of music mechanically. I had encountered the thing so often in photographs and digital interactives, it was like greeting an old friend.

At the end of the day, having caused my camera to malfunction from the number of pictures I was kindly permitted to take by the Museum Gustavianum, I took a bus to a place which has held a special place in my imagination since I first read about it in 2002, while researching my undergraduate dissertation on Norse hero myths. Gamla Uppsala, or ‘Old’ Uppsala, was the site on which the city was first founded, as well as the first cathedral. Before that, it had been used as a pagan burial site, and, most intriguingly, was rumoured by medieval chroniclers such as Adam of Bremen to be a site sacred to the Aesir, the Norse pantheon led by Odin All-Father, god of wisdom and of war, and to have contained a great temple and a sacrificial grove in which humans and animals were offered up to the gods. In later times, this place was to be the last bastion of the old religion in Europe, a true götterdämmerung.

Whether or not this ancient place was really sacred to the likes of Odin, Thor and Frey is contested by historians who point out that Adam and his fellow chroniclers were relying heavily upon hearsay when it came to the description of the temple and the grove, but as I approached this quiet spot, the long path winding between the sixth-century barrows, and only the wind faintly stirring the long grasses, I felt almost an electric charge. The sky was dark, and threatening rain, the onsite Museum was closed, and there were few people about. Was it merely my foreknowledge of the site, my excitement and anticipation at finally standing in the very spot I had read so avidly about ten years ago, or just my overactive imagination again? I wonder. Certainly it was no special gift or talent of mine – I am not religious, and have the psychic sensitivity of a rock – the place was special to a particular community, long ago, I had felt it, and that was that. 

 Sixth-century barrows at Old Uppsala

 'New' Uppsala seen from the Old

But what was it that I had felt, exactly? There is a thing I like to call historical empathy, although most historians would not use the term quite in this sense: a thing which only lasts a few moments, but serves, for a fraction of a second, to break down the barriers separating our world from the worlds which existed before it, or on its cusp. It is born of the collision of one world with another. Many writers and artists have described a similar feeling, from Henry Fuseli to H. G. Wells. Whatever it is, it opens up an immense emotional gulf within the onlooker, who suddenly feels simultaneous elation at their unexpected moment of closeness to a vanished world, and a cavernous sense of loss at its destruction. Suddenly, the past has become personal. This was our world, once, and never, never, can we get it back again. The prompts do not have to be grandiose, and could be the most everyday things in the world, but they are almost always material. How else could the sight of an unbroken row of Victorian chimney pots on a widow’s walk reduce me almost to tears on one occasion? 

Henry Fuseli, The Artist Moved by the Grandeur of Ancient Ruins, 1778-9

Could it be a form of extreme nostalgia, or the uncanny, and their variants? It can be emotional, but this emotion, for me, does not rise from the knowledge of traumatic events inspiring human pity, although this does frequently occur, but rather more a sense of the pathos of the past itself. Yet these moments are rare, and precious, and may not manifest themselves for many years at a time.

Irrational and romantic they may be, but I wonder not only what they are, but how widespread they are, and how they affect not just how we look at the past, but how we work with it in our museums. They are certainly not quantifiable, or measurable – one could never cite them as an output – and yet it is moments such as these that drive us on, spur entire careers perhaps, just to feel the nearness of the past in the present once more. The past is not a dead concern; rather, it is teeming with life for those that have encountered it. The development of a language with which to describe it, however, I leave to those more eloquent than I.

‘You may think me superstitious, if you will, and foolish; but indeed, I am more than half convinced that he had, in truth, an abnormal gift, and a sense, something – I know not what – that in the guise of wall and door offered him an outlet, a secret and peculiar passage of escape into another and altogether more beautiful world’.

H. G. Wells, The Door in the Wall, 1911


MuseumWriter said…
Thanks for the post Stephanie!
Stephanie said…
Thanks Amy! Would you mind if I uploaded a version of this to my new blog as well?
MuseumWriter said…
Of course! I cross post to my blog sometimes too.

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