Some years ago, I visited the Virginia Museum in Richmond with the lady who is now my wife. In the Mediaeval section there were several religious statues, including one of St. Denis with his head tucked underneath his arm (cue music about Anne Boleyn's ghost).
When my lady friend asked why he was so depicted, I explained that martyrs were often depicted in ways that identified how they were martyred . . . at that time I hadn't heard the legend about him picking his head up and carrying it back to the church.
A docent heard me and asked if I knew why another statue (I forget who it depicted) had these little glass or crystal panels in the chest. The identifying sign clearly described it as a reliquary statue, and I explained how the statue had at least originally contained some part of the saint's skeleton, probably a rib or two, considering where the panels were. She appreciated the explanation, and it left me wondering how much more about the works in that section she didn't know.
When we visited the Treasure Houses of Britain exhibit at the National Gallery of Art, there were no docents anywhere in the Mediaeval/Renaissance area. I spent a lot of time explaining the armour, and both of us spent even more time explaining that the children in the family portraits were not all girls despite wearing dresses (boys not yet breeched) or that that was not a noble but a royal family (Henry VIII and all his children, who were never all together in one room like that), and so forth.
But the armor and the paintings were right out there, and one could easily have touched them. My wife almost fainted a couple of times when I pointed out a detail in a painting, my finger about an inch away from the surface. "Don't touch it, don't touch it!" Well, I wasn't going to, but there were no barriers to it.
Sent: Thu, 15 Feb 2007 5:15 PM
Subject: RE: [MedievalSawdust] Tools
I will have to agree with you, Will. The museums I have visited in the US have the attitude that you shouldn't touch or photograph anything. This was a real shock to me when my wife and I managed a trip to London a few years ago. Unless it was cordoned off or behind glass, the British museum didn't seem to care if you were to actually touch such sculptures as the Discus Thrower or some of the carved lids on various Medieval tombs. This became especially apparent when the Egyptian exhibit came to Oklahoma city form the British Museum. The very same sculptures that I was permitted to touch in London were so off limits in my home town that I was given a hard time for leaning in too close. Also, the curators here on the States don't seem to know much, or they just won't sacrifice the time to talk with a mere amateur historian. Both at the British Museum and the Tower of London I was able to engage into in depth conversations with the experts, even to the point of being introduced to the curator of the Crown Jewels at the Tower. Most enjoyable and informative - and in London they were QUITE familiar with the SCA, showing enthusiasm for someone who obviously had a genuine interest. ; )
In Magical Service,