Labelling the past

‘This curtain was made from the uniforms of Russian prisoners in the Crimean war’

On the wall was an intricately patched curtain of red, green and black. Amidst the geometric patterns there were tiny, millimetre-wide dots of fabric giving depth and texture to the material. To explain this, just a single line of text. But why had they made it? And why was it now hanging in Bamburgh Castle, Northumberland? How did it get here?

Questions, questions. From enormous iron chains to Faberge glassware, endless porcelain and paintings once-attributed to Turner, Bamburgh Castle was full of unexplained objects . This privately run heritage site had a complex, multi-layered history and a wealth of items to display – but what was the story?

We came away unsatisfied. As we walked on the beach below the castle, the sun shone straight into our eyes so we couldn’t see it clearly without squinting. Rather fitting, for a place we felt we had hardly seen at all, though we had really seen so much – perhaps too much.

fullsizerenderDisplaying objects is a fine art, and so is the writing of labels. What museums have learned in recent years is that less is more – or rather, that fewer objects, which are better explained and brought to life, can have a bigger impact on your audience. When you only have a few moments to catch someone’s attention, you want to make the most of it. Perhaps the story of the Crimean curtain is a mystery – if so, why not say it? Everyone loves a mystery, after all.

But writing labels takes time, money, and a capable researcher. When places like Bamburgh Castle take so much looking after simply to keep them open, it’s easy to see why there is nothing left over – and that’s why it’s important that people keep going and paying their entrance fee. At the same time, it is also a reminder of the incredible work that organisations like English Heritage and the National Trust do to bring places alive, with volunteers, stories and visitors, for years to come.



Images of curtain from:


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