Julian Walker parallax observer UK
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Things to do at the British Museum

Acts of Cultural Query and Resolution


According to the pre-modern notion of relics it was possible to engender relics by touch, by laying an object against the surface of a relic. Pope Gregory the Great (supreme pontiff from 590 to 604) used the full weight of his authority to encourage veneration for the relics of the saints, and these were used to further the spread of the early Christian church. In particular relics were laid under altar stones of new churches, especially where these took over pagan sites of worship, and small relics were often sewn into the cloths laid over altar stones.

In order to keep up with the demand for relics a factory of sorts was set up in Rome, laying cloths on the sepulchre of Saint Peter; these were called brandea, and became fully-functional relics in themselves. As the demand for a material culture for the Christian church grew with membership and martyrdom, the direct one-step link extended to multiple steps, with the perception that there is no loss of power no matter how many links there may be in a chain. Bede describes the power of relics deriving from the death of St Oswald in 641: "It has happened that people have taken soil from the place where his body fell to the ground, have put it in water, and by its use have brought great relief to their sick."

The process of healing through indirect touch occurs in the New Testament, Matthew 9. 20-22, where the woman suffering from a haemorrhage touches Jesus’ garment. "Thy faith has made thee whole", he says, though it is uncertain from this which faith is efficacious, the faith in Jesus Christ or the faith that she will recover merely by touching his garment — the faith that this will function as directly as touching his skin.

We continue to feel the draw of physical contact with "the things of the great" in our secular society. The clothes of Diana are highly prized, the subject of criminal trials and charity auctions — even when the articles left in memory in royal parks between her death and funeral were stolen, the perpetrators received criminal sentences. We may not try on Nelson’s uniform, sleep in the Great Bed of Ware, write with Dickens’ pen, or practice on Haydn’s piano.

Tom Keating, the art forger, described how on visits to the National Gallery he would surreptitiously touch the surfaces of canvases and feel vibrations from the artists who had painted them.

However, do things or people act as better links in chains of contact?

Partygoers before the coronation of Edward VIII danced to a song entitled "I danced with a man who danced with a girl who danced with the Prince of Wales". Barry Humphries as a child shook hands with Percy Grainger, who had shaken hands with Delius, who had shaken hands with Greig, who had shaken hands with Lizst, who had shaken hands with Beethoven, who had shaken hands with Haydn, who had shaken hands with Mozart. Is this cumulative, or merely transmitory ? Does the hand-shake become more powerful the more it passes along a chain of the great and the good, or could it have carried the presence of Mozart along a chain of handshakes from doctors, teachers, news-vendors, masseurs, footballers, gardeners, stationers’ apprentices, and wax-chandlers? Is it essentially goal-oriented or passage-oriented?

In 594 the Empress Constantina asked Pope Gregory The Great (Pope from 590 to 604) for "the head or some other part of the body of St Paul to deposit in the new church she was building" (Gregory The Great, F Homes Dudden, London, 1905), and was offered instead a piece of the fetters which had bound St Paul. She might have been less pleased with a handshake from someone whose great-grandfather had worked with a man whose cousin’s grandfather had bought a loaf of bread from the grandson of the next-door neighbour of the grand-daughter of the brother of the jailer who had put said fetters on the wrists of Saint Paul. It may be that the thing that has been in physical contact with the object of our desires acts as a conduit better than a person partly because of its own inertness.

Applying this to the secular, or possible semi-sacral environment of the museum, it may be seen that everything is in contact with everything else. Thus the specimen EA 52387 is in contact with specimen EA 32757 by virtue of being in contact with the floor of a case, which is in contact with the floor of the room, which is in contact with the floor of the case of specimen EA 32757, which is in contact with specimen EA 32757. However, is the contact more potent, or perceived as more potent, if the intermediary links are living beings, particularly if they are articulate human beings, able to describe the act of transmission of presence? If touching is perceived as more potent than looking, does the added ingress into degrees of taboo confuse, strengthen, weaken, or divert what may happen?

Thus there can be specified three types of intermediary, human (deliberate or incidental), deliberately placed inanimate, and environmental inanimate. What effects do these produce and how do they differ, and how to quantify the differences? Would Room 64 of the British Museum feel a different sort of place if specimen EA 52387 were to be put in contact with specimen EA 32757, through the medium of a chain of individuals holding hands, with the outer two pressing their hands against the glass of the case nearest to them? Would there be a tingle of contact? If it were done in a thunderstorm, would the charged atmosphere make the contact stronger? Is such an act symbolic, virtual, or actual? How would it compare to a chair leant against the case of specimen EA 52387 and supporting a walking-stick resting on an ironing-board bearing a length of garden-cane laying against the case of EA 32757? Is such an act symbolic, virtual, or actual?

What are you doing on Saturday?

Things to do at the British Museum - Room 50 and Room 49
Things to do at the British Museum - Room 64