In two previous blog entries, I have discussed the sad demise of Bede’s World, a superb museum with indoor and outdoor components at Jarrow, Tyneside. Bede’s World closed on 12th February 2016 and I remain outraged given this was such a unique museum for the Early Middle Ages in these islands.
Bede’s World described itself as a social space in the community, and outward-looking museum that was unique in focusing on the life, works and times of the Venerable Bede and the relevance of the material traces of the Early Middle Ages to the modern communities surrounding it. Notably, I stole this graphic above off their website and I hope they don’t mind in the circumstances, since it embodies the aspired ethos of the museum.
Can Bede’s World be saved? If it can be salvaged and re-opened in some form, it is imperative that it embraces this notion of the museum as a living social space with human stories linked to the local community as well as relevant to regional, national and international audiences. In particular, Bede’s World must preserve its educational and research dimensions.
Here I want to complete my reflections on the closure of Bede’s World by highlighting another interesting dimension to the site when I visited in 2006. At the far north end of Gywre is a modern free-standing stone cross, designed and executed by Keith Achford in 1996-7.
This cross looks oddly proportioned to anyone interested in early medieval carved stone monuments. It is also rather oddly situated in a rough-hewn base which jars somewhat with the carefully carved cross and shaft. Still, the aim was to create a monument inspired by Northumbria’s early medieval monuments, including a mash up of figural scenes inspired by surviving early medieval crosses from Durham, Ruthwell, Easby, Otley, Hornby and Newcastle and inhabited vine-scroll inspired by Ruthwell and Bewcastle.
Now much could be critically said about this cross in terms of its proportions and arrangement of images, but here I want to focus on its role in mashing up past and present, the connections between the locality of Tyneside and the entire geographical span of the pre-Viking kingdom of Northumbria: stretching from Lancashire and Dumfriesshire to Yorkshire, Northumberland and Durham.
The cross’s ornamentation not only cites Northumbria’s religious faith and geographical extent. It also contains one scene that connections this early medieval past to Jarrow’s recent history, embodied in its world-famous ship-building industry. Notably on the side facing out over the Tyne, at the base is a welder at work on a boat keel which was described as ‘contemporary’ but is surely now also a relic to a lost recent-past that remains key to the museum’s and the locality’s identity.
Situated on the flood defence bank around the riverside of the museum, its landscape location is significant. Walking up to the cross allows you to view out across the Tyne to the north and the open-air museum to the south. From the museum, the cross dominates the skyline. Therefore, spatially as well as materially, it fossilises the aspired relationship of the museum to connect past with present, the monastic world of the museum with the wider industrial/post-indisturial landscape in which it is now an integral part.