When Sutton Hoo reopened last summer following a seven-month-long, multi-million pound restoration, one crucial relic remained missing. Although the displays have been dramatically updated, and visitors to the site — the ship burial of a seventh century Anglo-Saxon king, Raedwald — can now see a full-size sculpture of the ship and better appreciate the lumpy contours from a 17-metre high observation tower, the discovery for which Sutton Hoo is known isn’t even there. To see King Raedwald’s famous rust-brown helmet you still have to go to London. It’s 90 miles away in Room 41 of the British Museum.
The same is true of many of the most stunning glimpses into the early history of these islands. The famously grumpy Lewis chessmen, found on the west coast of the Hebrides island in 1831, are feet away from Raedwald’s helmet in Room 40, but 600 miles away from Uig, where they were found.
The Mildenhall Treasure, the extraordinary silver service for a late Roman Come Dine With Me, was found in west Suffolk in 1942 but seeing it requires a trip to London as well. So, too, do less renowned discoveries like the Cuerdale Hoard (one of the largest Viking silver hoards, found in the Ribble Valley) and the Fishpool Hoard (gold buried during the Wars of the Roses near Ravenshead in Nottinghamshire).
What if you would like to see the Hinton St Mary mosaic, from Dorset, with what may be one of the earliest depictions of Christ? Or the Mold Cape, a magnificent, gold, chasuble-like garment dating to at least 1500 BC, reflecting a time when north Wales was north-west Europe’s main supplier of copper which, when combined with tin, made bronze? You know the answer. You’ll need to come to WC1 to see them.
And lest I be accused of picking on the British Museum, it’s worth remembering the location of two books that recall the time Northumbria was a northern powerhouse of manuscript illumination. The Lindisfarne Gospel, which was created on Holy Island, and the St Cuthbert Gospel, found in the saint’s tomb in Durham cathedral, and which was almost certainly made in Jarrow, are in the Treasures gallery of the British Library up the road.
At a time when there is renewed speculation about whether Greece will make the return of the Parthenon Marbles a condition of a Brexit deal, we are missing, or perhaps ignoring, an issue underneath our noses. It is striking that many of these objects — and others, like the Vindolanda tablets, the Iron Age Snettisham hoard with its fabulous gold torcs, or the gold Ringlemere Cup found in Sandwich ten years ago — come from precisely the sort of places which have been overlooked in recent years. They have all been hoovered up by the museums of one of the richest cities on the planet.
If we are serious about levelling up in this country, then it is time we returned as many of these extraordinary objects as possible to the places where they were found. I don’t believe for a minute that Chinese guidebooks to London dwell long on any of these local items. And those who have come from abroad specifically to see them will be willing to go the extra mile.
If you have been on holiday to France you will know that the French are better at this than we are. A journey along any autoroute is punctuated with large brown signs that advertise the historical and cultural opportunities if you turn off at the next junction. We need to do something very similar in Britain.
No doubt there will be grave objections from the British Museum, concerning legal implications, the cost of security, and the risks of contravening the terms under which funds were raised to purchase items, or the small print attached to a donation. I imagine some of the legal hurdles could be vaulted if the British Museum itself — of which and of whose experts I am an enormous fan — spearheaded the push to create multiple regional outposts, rather in the way that the Imperial War Museum or Royal Armouries have already done.
These initiatives, incidentally, suggest that the tide is already turning. So too does the successful crowd-funder launched by the Birmingham and Potteries Museums to buy the extraordinary Staffordshire hoard — a collection which bears out details of the poem Beowulf and which David Starkey described as five and a half kilos of Anglo-Saxon “gangland bling”. The question of what will happen to future discoveries is likely to come up again, given the archaeological work that has already started ahead of the construction of HS2.
The short-term economics of adding wings to existing museums or building a constellation of new ones won’t be compelling. But ultimately this is not a calculation that can be easily summed up by numbers, unless you want to try putting a cost to swelling local pride.
In the long-term it seems a fair prediction that reversing a 200-year-old policy of concentrating our commonwealth in London would encourage the kind of people who go to museums to visit corners of the country they do not know. It would also inspire some of the foreign tourists who currently do the London, Oxford, Stratford circuit to break from tradition.
It is not just about incentivising richer folk to visit poorer areas of the country. Imagine you are a primary school teacher in Birkenhead, in the Wirral, planning an affordable new day trip that would inspire your children about our past. Now imagine that the Mold Cape, that powerful symbol of the fabulous wealth that copper mining in North Wales generated 2500 years ago, returned to form the centrepiece of a new Museum of the Bronze Age in the town where it was found.
For a school on a limited budget, a trip to the British Museum is out of the question because of time and cost. But Mold is only half an hour from Birkenhead by coach or car.
The fact that many of these treasures are hoards of hundreds, even thousands of gold and silver coins creates another opportunity for the bold. A few months ago I visited the British Museum on a Saturday with our children. A woman sitting at a table in one of the galleries offered us the opportunity to hold various antique coins. I had never previously seen a Fatimid-era dinar, the tenth-century equivalent of the US dollar. Now one nestled like a golden tiddlywink in my hand.
In an era when museums are chasing each other to introduce ever more sophisticated computer animation and interactivity, the thrill I felt as I held that tenth-century coin in my hand was one of the little moments of last year, not least because I had not expected it.
I might be able to swipe to turn the computer-generated pages of a book about historical artefacts, but nothing beats seeing the object itself, and where possible, having a chance to touch it. That is what a renaissance of local museums should be for.