Museums and Heritage

Museums and Heritage

Exhibition Review: “Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling”

Review: Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling” at The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, Maryland, through September 18, 2016. Free.

“There’s no right spot in the galleries for him,” says Dr. Lynley Herbert, Assistant Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts at the Walters Collection in Baltimore. We’re staring at a larger-than-life marble head of Hercules in the center of the room, his fierce expression frozen in time. This Hercules is unlike other Greco-Roman statues. The issue is the holes—a series of holes— big enough to almost fit a pinky into— that have been drilled into the statue: one in each eye, and a line of them punctuating the curls of his beard and the tips of his mane.

This Hercules was originally carved in second-century Florence. But as time passed and the world changed around it, Florence no longer had need of larger-than-life Greek supermen. So in the 14th century, 1100 years after its creation, it was given a new life. The head was found, given the line of holes it bears today, and repurposed into the head of a saint. The holes were probably carved to make the details “pop” from a greater distance.

But therein lies the problem for Dr. Herbert—is this head Roman, or medieval?

It is clearly both. But art museums, like so many academic institutions, have difficulty with things that do not fall into clear categories. Herbert, in her exhibition “Waste Not: The Art of Medieval Recycling” currently mounted at the Walters, wants to challenge these calcified ideas.

Ostensibly, the exhibition’s theme is recycling. “People think of recycling as a very modern thing,” says Herbert, but “Recycling has been going on for thousands of years.” And Herbert has displayed a series of fascinating objects that illustrate this point in a variety of ways.

Walters Ms. W.494, Lace Book of Marie de' Medici. 17th-century prayerbook, Including nine miniatures cut and pasted in from a 15th century manuscript.
Walters Ms. W.494, Lace Book of Marie de’ Medici. 17th-century prayerbook, Including nine miniatures cut and pasted in from a 15th century manuscript.

There are those objects that were recycled—like the head of Hercules—either as a cost-saving measure or because local craftsmen of similar skill were hard to find. But there are other types of recycling at play too. An early-modern printed copy of Aesop’s fables—despite being made on a very early printing press, not an especially rare book, all things considered—has a unique cover: a scrap of Talmud, handwritten in Aramaic from the 12th century. A Byzantine ring set with a blue cameo of the goat-legged god Pan—clearly a relic from the ancient world—but given a new context with an inscription from Psalm 26: “Lord, my Light and my Savior, whom shall I fear?” A small prayer book from the 17th century sits open, revealing tiny images which have been cut out of a 15th century book of hours and carefully pasted in this “new” work.  A 12th century cross is set with beautiful blue enamel, now found to have been made from melted roman glass.

Ring with an Intaglio of Pan, Walters Collection 57.1580. A Byzantine ring bearing a recontextualized, much older, stone.
Ring with an Intaglio of Pan, Walters Collection 57.1580. A Byzantine ring bearing a recontextualized, much older, stone.

The essence of the exhibit is about the recycling of materials and ideas – both medieval people recycling from the past, and post-medieval people recycling from the Middle Ages. Unlike common perceptions of history, where each era marks a clear break from the ones before and ones after, this exhibition shows how reliant every era is on its past. Both the materials and the ideas of the past are the crucial building blocks for each new age.

In fact, there is only one fundamental difference between recycling of this type and our current blue-bin recycling. Each of the examples in the exhibition are a result of recycling due to lack and scarcity. The Talmud was used to wrap Aesop because, as Herbert noted “You’re not going to be able to run down to Office Depot and get more parchment.” The Roman glass was reused in medieval enamel because they no longer had a ready supply of crucial natron flux.

Western society is no longer beholden to that lack of materials. We can go to Office Depot for paper. If we want images from a fifteenth century book, we can print them from the internet. We are awash in glass. Living in the age of mechanical reproduction (and now, 3D printing), has led to an incredible bounty of art and of images. And with that bounty has come disposability.

And perhaps that is the only fundamental difference between the recycling seen here and contemporary blue-bin recycling. We recycle bottles not because we wish to save glass, but because we wish to save energy. And we wish to save energy because we wish to save ourselves. We recycle because the very culture of disposability that has freed us from needing to recycle has begun to threaten our very existence on earth. And so, we recycle. As the exhibition notes,

“recycling, upcycling, and adaptive reuse have become necessary responses to the growing awareness of our planet’s limited resources and to the environmental damage caused by our everyday activities.”

And that may be what is most interesting about this exhibition—that it so deftly reveals the links between our way of being and that of the past, while remaining respectful of the distances between the past and present.

Perhaps the only criticism of the exhibition is that it relies so heavily upon the past in terms of its design, layout, and engagement. The exhibition is in a small, unassuming space in the Walters, and does not announce itself or its intent very loudly. The way in which the objects and ideas are presented are entirely traditional—objects accompanied by well-crafted text panels on walls and podia. The text itself is refreshingly casual in points, relating the ideas behind the objects to modern ideas like “name-dropping.” But the panels are short, and left me wanting to know more (why was this page of Talmud chosen? What does the text on it say? What saint was Hercules supposed to be?, etc.).

And as is common in many art museums, the experience of visiting the exhibition was infinitely more enjoyable and enlightening when accompanied by the curator of the exhibition—its taupe-on-taupe, small-text design does little to announce this exhibition as something as special as it is. It is perhaps ironic that the only significant flaw of this exhibition is the fact that that the way it presents its ideas have been largely reused from the past.

But in spite of this, it is an excellent exhibition that seeks to break the mould in an exciting way. It shows that the walls within the gallery and within our understanding of the past deserve to be questioned, complicated, and even removed. It may not look like much, but this is an excellent exhibition. As such, I highly recommend that you take the trip to the Walters before it closes on September 18th.


Full Disclosure: I was contacted by the Walters and asked to review this exhibition, and interviewed the curator while touring the exhibition. I was not offered nor given any compensation for this review.


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Fantasy vs. RealityMuseums and Heritage

The Curious Case of the Weapon that Didn’t Exist

Editor’s Note: Since posting this, I’ve done more research and updated my thoughts on this subject in an article for Medieval Warfare magazine. Check it out here.

Just about everybody interested in the Middle Ages, who has played Dungeons and Dragons, or read historical and fantasy novels knows what a military flail is. It’s one of these: (more…)

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Museums and HeritagePast and Present

Sculpting Medieval Landscapes for Viking Tourism

by Megan Arnott 

We use so many criteria to help us define the spaces around us: What is the environment like? What are the people like? What can you do there– and what are you supposed to? That said, one of the interesting ways we define a space is by who–or what–was there before us. Cultural heritage can help us label our maps, or help us comprehend landscapes in “new” ways. And as a result of the heritage of a place, we often reshape the landscape in terms of what the environment looks like, and how we understand its function in our lives.  It can even change how we think of the people who live there now– or how they see themselves.

Maybe we should start with this map. (more…)

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Museums and HeritageWhat is History For?

There is No “Average” Person

There’s a common idea floating around that needs to die. It’s common enough that I have heard it several times in the last months, both in professional contexts (in the mouths of august and eloquent professors) and non-professional ones. That is the idea of the “average person.”

The idea of the “average person” takes the form of the “average public” when discussing what people think about the medieval world, “average student” when in the mouth of a professor, or the “average visitor” when it comes to the museum. In common parlance we even have snappy phrases for the idea—“John/Joe Q. Public”, “John Doe”, “Tom, Dick and Harry”.

Let me be quite clear. “John Q. Public” is not real. And even if he were, we have absolutely no reason to pay any attention to him. He is, at best, a sly cover for the speaker’s ill-informed views, and at worst, a rhetorical trick designed to reinforce the status quo and the tyranny of the majority. (more…)

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Museums and Heritage

Unveiling The Cloisters

For someone living in America interested in the Middle Ages, opportunities to see something authentically-medieval in person are rather scarce. There is the Norse settlement in L’Anse Aux Meadows, Newfoundland, Canada. Some of the major research universities in America (like Princeton and The University of Pennsylvania) have medieval manuscripts in their libraries’ Special Collections (though best of luck getting the chance to see them), as does the Library of Congress. The Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland has a significant collection of medieval art, with a particularly impressive collection of illuminated manuscripts. The Higgins Armory museum, in Worchester Massachusetts used to house the most impressive collection of medieval arms and armour outside of Europe; sadly, it closed its doors last year due to a lack of funding, with its collection going to the Worchester Art Museum.

But the collection that makes all of these others pale by comparison must surely be that of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, with a significant portion of its medieval gallery housed in The Cloisters, a purpose-built museum perched on the very northern tip of Manhattan Island. (more…)

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Museums and HeritageWhat is History For?

American Medieval

For those of you who don’t know me personally, I am an American. Having just returned to the USA for work after an extended life abroad, this little fact is very much on my mind. My American-ness obviously passes without notice or comment on my current continent, but I was simply not accustomed to that in Europe. There, no matter how long I stayed, my nationality and accent always set me slightly apart.

Among my friends, my American-ness usually either went without comment or elicited a bit of gentle ribbing. It simply was one aspect of my life. But some of the most push-back that I fielded when living and working abroad had to do with my profession– and why I, as an American, chose it.

Essentially, some were surprised that an American would devote their life to the study of the medieval world.

Academics weren’t the culprits, if nothing else than because of tradition; today there are as many (if not more) American medievalists as there are European ones. American scholars have been among the leaders in the field ever since the field began.

But to some others there remains a certain confusion of why, in the great Venn Diagram of life, the “American” circle would overlap with the “medievalist” one.

America: A land without a Middle Age

Lanse aux meadows
The American Middle Ages in its Totality

The confusion is understandable. Aside from a damp corner of Canada, there simply was no Middle Ages in North America. I am aware that this may be surprising or even controversial– even among historians– but it is important to recognize that “the Middle Ages” is not just a temporal category, but a geographically- and culturally-specific one.

The idea of the Middle Ages was conceived by Italian humanists in the fifteenth century as a way of setting themselves apart from what came before. They wanted to distance themselves from what (they argued) was a time of darkness that engulfed the gap between the glories of the Roman Empire and their glittering present in the fifteenth century. (This is, by the way, rubbish on a wide variety of levels but that is the topic of another post…)

And while there is argument over exact dates, causes and effects of the Middle Ages, contemporary historians usually maintain that same rough paradigm: the Middle Ages is bookended by the Romans and the Renaissance; between empire and nation, between the beginning of hegemonic Christianity and it’s fragmentation.

Defining the Middle Ages this way is different from simply saying “the tenth century AD”, which, though counted differently in each of the world’s calendars, provides a global chronology which is the same everywhere, more or less. But “the Middle Ages” is a term just as culturally to specific as “the Meiji period” in Japan or “the Vedic period” in India. Similarly, it is just as absurd to discuss the “Chinese Middle Ages” as it would be to discuss a “European Seven Warring States period”. Thus, there is no Middle Ages in the Americas, outside perhaps a fleeting Norse excursion in Vinland.

And it’s for that reason that I can understand why I often field puzzled looks at dinner parties where Europeans ask, “the Middle Ages? Why did you decide to study that?” It belies a feeling that the Middle Ages is theirs, not mine. In honesty, I suppose I might wonder the same question about an Indonesian person who was an expert in the American revolution.

But this mindset only illustrates just how ingrained in us is a nation-centric conception of history, and the peculiar limits of what is “our”  history versus “your” and “their” history.

I recently attended a conference of history education scholars from around the world. And there, I was intrigued to find that one of their chief concerns, no matter what country they called home, was deconstructing the idea that history’s purpose ultimately is to socialise people into their particular nation. Many, if not most of the scholars there rejected wholly the idea that history’s purpose is to create good citizens who all think about history in roughly the same way.

I was raised in an educational system that privileged national history, but I can see the power and appeal of their idea. Who is to say that “our” history extends only to the history of our nation? Isn’t the history of all humanity all our history? Sure, we instinctively as human animals are inclined to care more about our kin-groups than those outside them. But extending this idea out to the nation is a far bigger sell. Nation-states have a very vested interest in inculcating a sense of collective identity and history in their populace. And they have done so by dictating education curricula, days of commemoration and other ways of rendering the past into a coherent identity. Thus, “our history” implicitly ends at “our borders” in the same way that “our land” and “our people”, and “us” do.

But is that wholly true of the Middle Ages in the USA? Is it really so true that the Americas are so devoid of the medieval? Americans have had, and continue to have a peculiar relationship with the Middle Ages that does not fit within the usual chronological or cultural.

Give us your poor, your tired, your medieval…

Part of the American love affair with the Middle Ages relates to a collective and individual desire among white American people to see themselves as a product of a complex immigrant past. In the USA as in across Europe there was a revitalization of interest in the medieval world at the end of the nineteenth century and in the beginning of the twentieth. In Europe this worked in tandem with nationalistic movements which used the Middle Ages to define new identities for themselves. Perhaps not coincidentally, this period also saw a significant influx of immigrants to the USA, and also heralded the birth of the mass media.

John D. Rockefeller and other industrialists of the early American twentieth century famously felt that America was devoid of “culture”, and so they looked to Europe in order to acquire some. In Rockefeller’s case, this led to the importation of significant portions of five medieval abbeys, which were reconstructed as The Cloisters on the northern tip of Manhattan (which I will be talking about at greater length in a few weeks). The result of this was not just to define an American identity, but to argue that America’s common heritage is a European, medieval one. This is obviously a complex and thorny issue that I will be exploring in the coming weeks. But the overarching point here is that even though the USA might be mostly-devoid of its own Middle Ages, it is replete with medieval art and architecture collected or shipped from Europe wholesale. The Cloisters in New York. Dunbarton Oaks in Washington, DC. The medieval manuscript collection at the Library of Congress. The Royal Armouries, USA (at the Frazier Museum in Louisville, KY).

Or the medievalesque imitators built here, made of stone, brick or plastic: The Chicago Water Tower. The Smithsonian Castle. Hearst Castle. The Biltmore Estate castle. White Castle. Cinderella’s castle.

The Real American Gothic
The Real American Gothic

Add to those the thousands of churches built as imitators of European styles. And standing above them all, the National Cathedral, resplendent in its late-fourteenth century English Gothic style.

And those don’t even count the ways in which Americans most typically engage with the medieval past today: through reenactment, playful pastiche and popular culture. Faux-medieval Renaissance Faires. Medieval Times theme restaurants. HEMA groups. Films. TV shows. Video games. The SCA.

It may be odd to be a medievalist in America. But for a public medievalist, it’s just fine.

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Medieval Tourism Bucket List: The Royal Armouries Museum

Sadly, life is too short to see everything you want to see.

For those people – historians and non-historians alike—interested in the medieval world, a sort of “bucket list” quickly develops of all the “medieval” places you want to go. For me, that bucket list includes those places that I simply must see, either because of an event that happened there, a truly singular object held there, or because of an extraordinary building in that place.


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