Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Friday, 18 October 2013

Fun day at the museum

Perhaps not the best day  to visit the Museum of London's new exhibition of the restored Cheapside Hoard of jewellery: a teachers' strike, a couple of days after a TV documentary all about the exhibition, and apparently in the middle of half-term holidays for Dutch schools. The Museum was packed with people, and the school parties seemed busy and active, and a bit noisy: but that, after all, is the London the museum celebrates.

Inside the special exhibition gallery, despite timed entrance tickets, it could still feel crowded. Since the special beauty of so many of the pieces on display is in how small they are -  this scent bottle is barely an inch high, for example - you had to lean over the case with the borrowed magnifying glass,  blocking the view for anyone else behind. And it only took a couple of vocal and scampering toddlers to cause a fair amount of tutting.

But with a little patience, detachment and observation, it was possible to see the seemingly miraculous fine details, explore where the jewels come from, and how the pieces were made - together with the beliefs around different jewels and the illnesses they supposedly warded off, the iconography of the way they were worn, even have a sniff of the sort of scent the bottle might have contained. It was particularly powerful and pungent, but it probably would have had to be to cope with the stink of London - and Londoners - of those days.

And then, of course, there's the mystery of how this collection came to be lost or abandoned: since that must have happened any time after 1640 up to about 1680, you can take your pick of explanations - someone who went to fight in the Civil War and never came back, someone who went into exile when their side was out of favour (and never came back), a family that died in the Great Plague and left no heirs or records? We shall never know.

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