The Lewis Chessmen Winter North

This month saw the arrival in Aberdeen Art Gallery of The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked exhibition

“Probably made in Norway…Found on the Isle of Lewis, Outer Hebrides, Scotland”

So the British Museum’s website prosaically introduces us to the Lewis Chessmen, or Uig Chessmen, a collection of 93 chess pieces intricately carved out of walrus ivory and whales’ teeth by three Vikings between 1150 and 1200 AD.  (Yes: three!)  The BM owns 82 of the 93 pieces which form this beautiful collection.  The other eleven are normally housed in the National Museum in Edinburgh, and a selection of just over 30 pieces from both museums is currently touring Scotland as part of the Unmasked exhibition. 

Unmasked began in Edinburgh in May 2010 and will travel to Shetland in January 2011 and before completing its Scottish tour in Stornoway from April to September of that year.

I’ve been walking around Edinburgh for the last six months or so with a notebook bearing the furtive coffee- (or maybe pint-) induced note-to-self: “Write something on the Lewis Chessmen”.  It didn’t happen; the exhibition came to Edinburgh, and then went, and the devil won the day.  Fortunately, I have intermittent occasion to travel to Aberdeen (well…), and when my girlfriend’s father asked me if I’d heard about this new Chessmen exhibition I couldn’t in good conscience say no.

In my ignorance I had expected a Mona Lisa-type scenario, an unsatisfying huddle around a single glass cabinet searing the eyes out of my head from all the reflected camera flashes.  Far from it, The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked is a beautifully curated experience.  In a darkened wing with standing room aplenty, visitors can move easily through the space.  The chessmen are displayed in numerous cabinets, occasionally contextualised beside other artefacts from the same period in Lewis such as broaches, swords, and tools – all grim pieces beside the curious beauty of the collection, but adding depth of visual understanding for the visitor.  There are even gaming boards where visitors can play chess, drafts and another Norse board game whose name escapes me.

The chessmen themselves are not high art by any means, but they do exhibit a mysterious gravitas and a window into the ideology of the age that clearly fascinates.  Faces stare out at their game with expressions ranging from furtive suspicion to deep contemplation, investing the offices of bishop, queen and king with unquestionable wisdom, seriousness and a degree of serenity.  Soldiers, on the other hand, tend to look cautiously out over shields, clutching their spears and swords tightly with what would be whitened knuckles of only the whole surfaces of the pieces weren’t the same tone.

The real appeal of the Lewis Chessmen seems to be their ability to civilise the past.  The soldiers’ mysterious Dark Age faces contrast with the sense of education, reason and patience which emanates from those of the civic and religious authorities.  And the function of this set (or three sets) – to entertain, pass time, socialise – contrasts with a storybook image of a dark, barbaric north.  This more civilised picture is added to by the broader context of artistry, trade and communication which the exhibition presents well.

But let’s not pretend that this is all about the Dark Age past.  For a start, a major element of the story concerns the discovery of the pieces in Lewis in the nineteenth century and their journey which ended in various museum collections.  Strikingly, the exhibition’s concern with the Lewis discovery story has resulted in the use of Gaelic throughout with English translation, including during the audio-visual presentation.  The sight of the written words, the occasional broad backdrops of the stone and green Lewis landscape on the walls, and the sound of the Gaelic language film leaves you with little doubt: this is a Gaelic, Scottish experience.

The sounds and sights of the Gaelic Western Isles are charming indeed, but their deployment here in this exhibition’s tour of Scotland does tend to make one question their purpose, particularly when it is freely admitted that Lewis at the time of the chessmen’s creation was, culturally speaking, Scandinavian.  It can’t be denied that this is viewed to a large extent as a homecoming tour and that conversely those pieces which normally reside in the British Museum are not at home there, as such.

Furthermore, the Lewis Chessmen Unmasked, supported by the Scottish Government, has a thing or two to say about contemporary Scotland.  This is a Scotland which embraces its past and its cultural diversity.  It says ‘anyone in Scotland can be Scottish’, but it also suggests positive discrimination towards the Gaelic world or an ideal of it.  It even looks north to Norway, the last-man-standing in Alex Salmond’s ‘Arc of Success’.

The Lewis Chessmen Unmasked is in Aberdeen until 8th January 2011.  This blog commends it to you.

Refugee Tours

An artefact, whether a painting, vase or samurai sword, will inevitably have a multitude of stories to tell, stories of miners in times long past, forgers’ furnaces, battles, artists’ workshops, aristocrats’ houses, temples, churches and so on.  And then there are the stories of modern recovery and interpretation, often involving imperialists or archaeologists, communities, maybe the odd chancer with a metal detector or perhaps more excitingly the Russian Mafia.

We can of course focus on materials and techniques, but mostly what draws the crowds in are the human stories associated with these inanimate objects, whether ancient or modern – whether we are facinated with the sexual exploits of Cleopatra or the series of ominous events which befell so many members of Howard Carter’s team after discovering Tutankhamun’s tomb in 1923.

Last week was Refugee Week and one of the most interesting efforts to mark it I read of was in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.  They want more stories told about and around their collection, and on Sunday the BBC reported that the V&A held a series of events to mark Refugee Week including inviting refugees to give personal tours of their collection, reflecting on their own experiences and journeys, discussing and reacting to the collection as they go.  It’s a facinating article and a wonderful idea, which all museums could consider implementing.  Not only would visitors gain insights into the lands from which the various items were pilfired and the experiences of people from those places, but there is also a lot of integrative and educational potential in such an idea.

It would be great to see this rolled out in Scotland.  The Royal Museum in Edinburgh had a related event, Travelling Tales, but this had a more limited scope, being concerned with children and fimilies as part of Storytelliing Week also.  I’d love to see an event which involved old-time Highlanders and Islanders, for example, reacting to the material culture of the Kingdom of Scotland exhibit in the National Museum in Edinburgh.  Imagine how much they could potentially have to say on the materials, crafts and fishing techniques, for example, evidenced there.  The fantastic collection in the Kelvingrove in Glasgow also has huge potential with respect to Glasgow’s culturally diverse population.  Plenty of potential here.

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