Elaborate hairstyles, choral singing and Middle English were all on the menu at the most recent themed late opening of the British Museum. The ‘Medieval Late’ evening on Friday, 8 July saw the grounds and central area of the museum, as well as many of the galleries, open until 9:00pm while a host of themed events occurred throughout. The current major exhibition ‘Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe’ was the obvious source of inspiration for the evening, and the starting point for the plethora of informational activities and refreshments available to guests.
The regular closing time for the British Museum is 5:30pm, so for some guests it undoubtedly came as a pleasant surprise to find that they weren’t being ushered towards the door at that time, but rather encouraged to stay for the festivities to come. There was something for everyone on the agenda: gallery talks and lectures for the studious, art classes and chances to dress-up for the hands-on, theatre and singing for the observant and food and drink for the, uh, gluttonous.
After hearing her speak at the staff opening of ‘Treasures of Heaven’, I wanted to attend project curator Anna Harnden’s gallery talk. Swelled to capacity, the southeast corner of the Medieval gallery (Room 40) is the home of the subject of Anna’s talk, a woodcut of the Virgin and Child with Eight Virgin Saints. For someone who doesn’t know his Catherine from his Barbara, this was a lively and useful overview of the lives and legends of some of the most important virgin saints (and their attributes), which is crucial to appreciating reliquaries on display in the main exhibition. Her introduction to the cult of saints also helped to put into context many of the objects which are found by members of the public and recorded by the PAS, like this recent find of a possible badge of St Ursula from Lancashire (LANCUM-61F133).
As many will appreciate, the panoply of spaces in the British Museum make it adaptable to a variety of uses, and the organisers of the ‘Medieval Late’ took advantage of this. Colleagues spoke in admiration at the wonderful sounds and atmosphere of the Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1) generated by the Renaissance Singers, who kept to the theme by including medieval songs in their repertoire. The Mausoleum of Halikarnassos gallery (Room 2) with its two specially-lit colossal statues formed the stage for a young acting troupe’s twist on Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, which was seen by an overflowing crowd of onlookers. Even a presentation on the art of medieval hairdressing for film and theatre was given a dramatic location in front of the Nereid Monument in Room 17.
The special period menu available in the Great Court was fairly adventurous and there were several guests who appeared to sample most of what was on offer: wild boar sausage, ox tongue, and pickled vegetables. I tried the hard-boiled duck egg with mustard sauce and spinach, which proved a heart, tasty treat for a reasonably-priced £1.50. I did feel that the caterers were ambitous in their attempt to sell bottles of ‘Mead’ – actually Fuller’s ‘Honey Dew’ Ale – for £5.00 each, but obviously the general public were happy to imbibe, as the beer sold out by 7:30pm.
I think the museum did well to put on a host of activities based on a central theme whilst at the same time allowing those who simply wanted to wander the galleries, visit the shops or enjoy the restaurants, the opportunity to do so at their own pace, without having the medieval world thrust upon them. Nonetheless the sheer size of the museum means that many events can be going on in disparate locations and it can be difficult for a visitor who does want to engage with the theme to decide what is worth attending. It would be great to see a specially constructed information ‘Hub’ on the forecourt or colonnade to grab the attention of guests as they enter the museum and direct them to the ongoing events and inform them of cancellations. That aside, the Medieval Late was an enjoyable, entertaining and worthwhile programme which greatly complimented the ongoing major exhibition. If they haven’t visited ‘Treasures of Heaven’ already, I’d bet this evening inspired a few more guests to check it out.