Monday 17 May 2010

Charlie Brooker, Museums, Pots and Boredom

Self styled Ranter Charlie Brooker, with whose words of wisdom, I have to confess, I usually concur, was heard on the Jeremy Vine show, on Friday 14th May 2010, saying:

“Say you find yourself staring at an old pot, your brain being an incredibly sophisticated computer immediately asses that it’s an old pot and that old pots are boring. It’s not going to dance, or sing heart breaking songs of yesteryear, it won’t even rock gently in the breeze, it’s just going to sit there being a pot. Probably a broken one at that, if it was on television they’d at least have the decency to back it with some upbeat techno while zooming in and out, and even then you’d immediately switch over. That said, because you’ve got the misfortune of actually being there in front of it, surrounded by other people, you have to stand and look at the poxy thing for a minimum of about thirty seconds before moving on to gawp at the next bit of old rubbish, otherwise everyone’s going to think you’re a philistine. Museums are full of secretly bored people pulling falsely contemplative faces; it’s a weird mass public mime. “

Needless to say I'm not in agreement on this one! Old pots do dance, with the remembered movements of the potter’s hands, the spin of the wheel, the kick of the foot, the flash of fire. They do sing songs of yesteryear; of the potters who made them, digging the clay from the earth, forming it with their hands, firing it incandescent yellow and red in kilns burning only wood. They sing of the rare commodities they carried, wine, olive oil, garum, honey, incense; of the exotic ancient lands where they originated and through which they travelled; of the sailors who navigated their fragile ships through raging seas to bring them to our shores. They tell the tales of the people who used them; of ancient ways of cooking, eating and drinking; of strange ritual, religious and magical practices. I’m really rather surprised to find that Mr Brooker doesn’t have the imagination to see that, or is it simply polemic?

I have always said that “ancient pots in museum cases sometimes appear quite boring, I know that they're not!” and I have always thought that it is my job to bring them to life. Never mind the “upbeat techno”, I offer the archaeological equivalent of live theatre. Once people see the dead potsherd reborn on the wheel, witness lump of clay spiralling up into a pot: Once they have held a replica of that pot in their hands: Once they have heard the story of its creation and use many thousands of years ago: Then their “boredom” turns to fascination. I have had groups that were simply passing through the museum stay and talk with me for over an hour.

Children are the harshest critics, capable of delivering killer blows far more cutting than anything Charlie Brooker can dish out.  I often work with groups of “disengaged youth” they usually don’t want to leave at the end of the session. With children I often use a few sherds of North African olive oil amphorae that I have. I get them to hold onto the dull boring bit of pot, I even tell them that that’s what it is, then I tell them the story: of the potter on the north coast of Africa, how he dug and prepared his clay, formed the pot on the wheel, fired it in his kiln; of the olive grower who bought the pot along with many thousands of others, how he picked and pressed the olives to extract the oil and then packed it into the pot sealing it with beeswax or pitch: of the merchant who bought the now full amphora and the altar he set up to ensure the safe completion of his trading venture to Britannia: of the dock workers and loaded and secured the very heavy pot in its place in the bottom of the hold ensuring that it couldn’t move and capsize the boat: of the sailors who sailed the ship through the busy shipping lanes and trade routes of the Mediterranean, out through the pillars of Hercules into the wild storm tossed Atlantic: of their fear of the open ocean and their offerings to the Gods of the deep to keep them safe on their Journey: Of the ship safely delivered to Arbeia at the mouth of the Tyne where the Amphora was transferred to a flat bottomed barge and carefully steered up river by the Praefectus numeri barcariorum Tigrisiensium, Arbeia "The Company of Bargemen from the Tigris at Arbeia" : of the merchant who received the consignment of olive oil and sold it from his taberna in the town of Coria (Corbridge): Of the citizens who burned the oil in their lamps, cooked their food with it, offered it to their household gods in the Lararium, mixed it with white lead and applied it as makeup, rubbed it on old battle wounds to heal them, massaged themselves with it in the bath house and when the amphora was finally empty of the rubbish dump where it was deposited in the field next to the town: of the children who broke it into small pieces while practicing with their slingshots and used the broken pieces while playing board games leaving only a few remaining sherds for me to pick up over 1600 years later.

And the response I usually get? ........................ Now can you tell me about this one. Maybe the children have a more active and accommodating imagination than Charlie Brooker. Or maybe it’s just that their “incredibly sophisticated computer” brains are in better working order.

POTS ARE NOT BORING and if you'd like me to prove that Charlie Brooker you can come on one of my workshops FREE OF CHARGE.

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