Complementing my recent discussion of the sarcophagi (and some grave-slabs) displayed outside in the ruins of Norton Priory, I here discuss the Heritage Lottery redisplay of medieval funerary monuments within the Norton Priory Museum. Re-opened in the summer of 2016, Norton Priory’s exhibiton houses a striking and distinctive array of funerary monuments commemorating patrons of this prominent Augustinian house during the 12th-16th centuries AD.
Significant collections of medieval funerary monuments housed in specially designed museum contexts are quite rare. The vast majority available for the public to see today are to be found displayed in living or abandoned churches or cathedrals, indoors or outside. Sometimes they augment cathedral treasuries, and far more rarely they are parts of heritage displays. Of considerable interest to me, some striking collections are curated as lapidaria within ruined or functioning ecclesiastical environments, as recently discussed for the ruined monastic sites of Buildwas Abbey, Lilleshall Abbey, Valle Crucis Abbey or Haughmond Abbey.
Against this background, Norton Priory Museum is unique (in my experience) as an example of a modern museum containing a significant chronological and stylistic range of later medieval grave-slabs and headstones. There are also other funerary material cultures and monuments to be seen, as discussed below.
Norton Priory’s medieval funerary monuments constitute an important resource for researchers and for public education regarding the character and variability of medieval funerary practice and mortuary commemoration, as well as the religious beliefs, social structure and economic organisation these monuments represent. Again they iterate how modern museums communicate regarding human mortality through media other than human remains (for the displays of bones and skeletons, see a subsequent post).
How to display these remains? Accessible positioning and lighting are key, to allow the worn and damaged stones, which are frequently now colourless to be seen. They would have once been vividly painted – text, images and ornaments – and lighting and positioning need to be discerned adequately. Relatively low positioning is also essential to allow children and disabled visitors to see them.
For these reasons, displaying funerary monuments is a challenge since they take up so much space. The frequent decision of many churches and ruined monasteries is to display them vertically for modern visitors: fixed against walls. This allows them to be apprehended, but they are thus falsely positioned and their original recumbent character as grave-covers is lost and often poorly explained to visitors. This also prioritises their ‘head’ ends which are displayed at adult visitor height. Therefore, if possible and if space and lighting is available, displaying grave-slabs horizontally is prefered. This is achieved effectively for many stones at Norton Priory, showing a variety of different styles of funerary monument.
Further grave-covers are displayed upon large purpose-built shelves, and a further example is beneath a skeleton and other displays, and partially obscured by the digital interactive screen. While these displays facilitate an even larger number of stones than otherwise would be possible, they are far from ideal and the nature of the decoration isn’t fully visible or comprehensible.
Still, the display of a facial reconstruction, skeleton and grave-slab together does serve to impart different material dimensions of the burial process, and in that example, the partial obscuring of the grave-slab is a justified compromised. Likewise, the placing of one grave-slab over a sarcophagus makes clear and explicit connection between the sarcophagi displayed outside and those within the museum.
In addition to the grave-slabs from Norton Priory, there is also a collection of headstones found during the archaeological excavations of the abbey ruins that also indicate that, while some memorials would have been situated flush to church and chapter house floors, others would have been marked by upstanding markers in the grounds of the abbey. These are well-arranged and effectively lit.
Another striking funerary dimension is the reconstruction of a tile effigial monument of a medieval knight. This is based on fragments of tile found during the excavations and reminds us that, within medeival monastic churches, stone was but one common and enduring medium for mortuary commemoration. It has been positioned so that children can view and touch it, a valuable part of the existing museum and the redisplay. Tile provided another one and fragments of textual and ornamental memorials are on display.
An additional aspect that is especially important is the display of a wooden coffin: these rarely survive in most medieval archaeological sites, and yet wood, as well as stone, provided an important medium for conveying and containing the medieval dead. This plank coffin has little discussion in the display, yet it is a distinctive feature for understanding medieval mortuary practice. Disappointingly, it is not adequately visible with a bar of the shelves breaking one’s view of it.
Finally, we come to the digital dimensions of the displays at Norton Priory. Upon one interactive display screen, the stones are brought to life with details of their symbolism, images and ornament. The colours of medieval monuments are clearly explained and the stones are re-coloured to ‘bring them to life’. Hence, these displays allow the stones to be explored individually and in comparative terms, and the identities commemorated by these carved stones.
In summary, Norton Priory Museum provides a unique and distinctive educational display of medieval grave-slabs. Some themes are clearer than others. Notably there is limited attention to considering the burial geography, tying together the stones inside and the sarcophagi outside. Likewise, how these monuments operated within the mortuary process and subsequent commemorative practices is unclear. Some stones are not fully visible. Still, the intergration of many more monuments together with traditional heritage boards and the interative displays, make them a distinctive example which any future displays will need to critically evaluate and improve upon.