Monday, November 5, 2012

A Bear Skull, a Witches Charm and Me: Connecting Story, Place and Objects in London

As a part of my work for Context Travel, I’m currently in London with their staff and yesterday, we took a walk along the south side of the Thames;  and today at the British Museum I saw Shakespeare Staging the World, a special exhibition devoted to exploring how Shakespeare’s plays reflected the time when London was emerging as  a world city;  and the ways he shaped a sense of national identity (and, in no small measure, how his sense of the world continues to matter to us today).
It’s meaningful to be in a place and then see objects related to it—even ones that seem small.  Yesterday, our great, enthusiastic guide Carolyn stopped us at Bear Lane and talked about bear-baiting as a spectator sport, even quoting from Samuel Pepys diary entry.  Today in the exhibition I encountered a bear skull, with its teeth filed down, excavated from the site of the new Globe Theater, a handwritten poster for bear baiting, along with a quote from Shakespeare on the same topic.  The place, the object, the document and the literary source, all connected.
On the walk along the Thames, the river served as the ongoing central focus;  from Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind and the docks to the survival of St. Paul’s during World War II despite German bombers ability to follow the reflection of the river during bombing runs. And in the exhibit, Shakespeare's historical plays, Italian plays and more  made me remember what we had seen the day before and provided me with an even deeper context.
It’s the bringing it up today that made it meaningful to me, and I suspect it does to many other people as well.  The Shakespeare exhibition showcased a array of objects,  both glittering, gruesome and everyday, from a shield associated with the funeral of Henry V to a calf's heart stuck with pins used by witches,  from embroidered tapestries to paintings of queens.  But the exhibit felt not just historical but also modern. Video projections or screens feature actors from the Royal Shakespeare Company, simply dressed, performing works from Shakespeare.  I watched Paterson Joseph  perform Brutus' speech from Julius Caeser twice, literally compelled to pay attention by his voice and presence--a reminder that Shakespeare's language still matters.
The conclusion of the exhibit brings us to where we—we as visitors, and where we as Britons (not me,  but the audience) are today. The Tempest, the imagined new world of Shakespeare, reveals his interest in those questions of who we are in a changing world.  The exhibit encourages us to ponder, but doesn't answer (nor do I think needs to) why his work continues to have meaning for so many.
The final object is the exhibition is the Robbens Island Bible;  a copy of Shakespeare's works, it was owned by South African prisoner Sonny Venkatrathnam and explained to his guards as a Bible.  He shared it with other prisoners and asked them to sign their names next to passages that were particularly meaningful to them.  Here’s the verses Nelson Mandela found particular meaning in this passage from Julius Caeser:
Cowards die many times before their deaths / The valiant never taste of death but once. / Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, / It seems to me most strange that men should fear, / Seeing that death, a necessary end, / Will come when it will come.
In our conversations here we’ve been talking about making walks transformative and what that really means.  Can we change lives through exhibitions or walks?  Maybe or maybe not.  Can we change the way we might look at the world?  Most assuredly.

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