Touring antiquary exhibition Making History reaches West Midlands

By Adam Bambury Published: 12 March 2009

A drawing of a bracelet

Drawing of an Iron Age gold torc by George Scharf, artist and first director of the National Portrait Gallery (1848). Picture courtesy Society of Antiquaries of London

Exhibition: Making History - 300 Years of Antiquaries in Britain, The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, until June 21 2009

A selection of previously unseen local treasures from the Society of Antiquaries' extensive archives are on display for the first time in the West Midlands leg of this impressive touring show.

The exhibition, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, has come to rest at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent for five months, having already taken in London and Wiltshire. It will move on to Sunderland and reach Lincolnshire by the end of the year.

Making History is the Society of Antiquaries' first touring exhibition, and comprises a rich selection of antiquities, manuscripts and works of art. Formed in a tavern in 1707, the organisation became the authority on safely depositing precious and historical objects in the century and a half before the British Museum started collecting British antiquities.

This status means the society’s collection contains a hoard of interesting items that may otherwise have been lost to the passage of time. The drawings and engravings of sites, monuments and artefacts from the 18th to 20th centuries - often of things that no longer exist - comprise a valuable resource for studying British heritage.

An image of a king inside a large crown surrounded by medieval script

Detail from The Roll Chronicle, mid 15th century, showing King Brutus.Picture courtesy Society of Antiquaries of London

The formation of the society marked an important step in a rapidly industrialising society’s appreciation of the past. Its collection reflects changes in people’s conception of their own history, shown both in the artefacts themselves and through the methods people developed to document and interpret what was going on around them in an age before photography.

As Making History visits local museums on its tour of the UK, efforts have been made to display previously unseen items relevant to each region. Wiltshire, with its rich ancient and modern history, yielded a host of items.

An early architectural drawing of Salisbury Cathedral from 1784 revealed the Society’s dedication to documenting heritage in a standardised manner, free from the flourishes of artistic interpretation – even if this meant putting up with accusations of dullness. But a wildly inaccurate “Exact Plan and Section of Old Sarum” from 1761 showed historians still had something to learn about their craft.

Staffordshire, the exhibition’s current location, has its own share of fascinating local history. A hand-coloured engraving from 1848 by Edward Richardson of the Stanley Child Monument depicts what may well be the first monument dedicated to fatality by sporting misadventure – in this case, tennis.

Images of a stone monument with a figure and patterns

The Stanley Child Monument, Front & Side Views, Cross Stone and Details, Elford Church Staffordshire (1848-49). Picture courtesy Society of Antiquaries of London

The effigy of the young John Stanley on top of the monument holds a small ball in one hand while gesturing towards his chin with the other. “Where the pain [was], there his finger [points],” reads the Latin inscription Richardson reconstructed from antiquarian sources. This matter-of-fact epitaph was thought to have originally been painted on the ball itself.

It was a stern warning to those who would indulge in “hand ball” or “palm play”, a game popular in around 1360, the year Stanley died. This game, with its wooden ball batted back and forth with bare or gloved hands, was the precursor to what we now know as tennis.

One exhibit, a watercolour of a piece of Roman tessellated pavement, offers a reminder of the importance of the Society of Antiquaries in a time when heritage was not treated as carefully as it usually is today. When the pavement was uncovered in Wroxeter in 1827 visiting crowds proceeded to completely tear it apart, pocketing pieces to take home a souvenirs.

Accompanying the watercolour is a letter from one local antiquary to another, discussing the discovery of the pavement 40 years later. Perhaps they were working out how to prevent such an incident from happening again.

A piece of flint shaped into a point

The Hoxne Handaxe (400,000 BC). Picture courtesy Society of Antiquaries of London

To this day the Society continues to advance the study and knowledge of antiquities, and its Fellowship now numbers 2,700 members. It continues to work with and adapt to new technologies that facilitate the collection and documentation of heritage.

One such technology is the humble metal detector, used by the Portable Antiquities Scheme in the West Midlands. A selection of the Iron Age coins and ornate broaches unearthed thanks to the efforts of local detectorists are also on show.

Their work continues in the Society’s tradition of fascination and respect for our collective heritage, one that remains vibrant and vital to this day.

The rest of the tour in full:

The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Stoke-on-Trent, until June 21 2009

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, July 11 2009 – October 4 2009

The Collection: Art and Archaeology in Lincolnshire, October 16 2009 – January 3 2010