I almost got chucked out of a museum gallery in Brussels in October 2019 and here’s why.
I had been attending the CRUMBEL conference at the Free University of Brussels where I was a keynote speaker and I was keen to visit the Art and History Museum to see the exhibition: Crossroads: Travelling through the Middle Ages. Check this out for another review. You can read the preface of the accompanying publication here. The publication was a joint endeavour between the Allard Person Museum in Amsterdam and partners in the CEMEC project (Connecting Early Medieval European Collections). together with the COBBRA Museum Consortium. For the UK, the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, participated.
The diversity and connectivity of the Early Middle Ages were the crux of this exhibition and its attendant publication, exploring Europe and the Mediterranean from c. AD 300-1000 (Bormpoudaki et al. 2017). There was so much to see and explore in this temporary exhibition and so much to commend it.
I won’t review it all now, but as a far reaching and inclusive narrative exploring the complex history and archaeology of many centuries across Europe and connections beyond, it was a striking and memorable introduction. Yet I do wish to explore the particular reason I was almost chucked out by a security guard for being too loud and critical of the exhibition to my fellow visitor whom, while also an archaeologist, was not an early medieval specialist and was less energised in indignation at what we saw.
The feature that prompt me was near the start of the museum exhibition introducing the story that the themed contents subsequently unfolded. It was a video showing the political map Europe and the Mediterranean which ran on a loop for c. 4-5 minutues, covering the 700 years of the exhibition.
The map was both fascinating and terrifying. At one level it was great for conveying a vast amount of information about the shifting political organisation of the region based on traditional historical sources, inevitably ignoring cultural, economic and religious changes and communications. It focused simply on empires, kingdoms and the invasions and migrations which transformed them. As such, it was nothing different from a Times World Atlas of History style rendition, and it was evident that the fragmentary sources we possess some dates and details are open to dispute and much more in terms of invasions, migrations and diaspora is likely omitted. Still, it was designed for an exhibition and animated in a fashion I hadn’t previously encountered. I was delighted and surprised by the powerful rendition of the European Early Middle Ages it projected to visitors.
Yet both the visual power of the animation of the map, with c. 1 second equating to 2-3 years or so (I honestly cannot remember the precise pace by which it unfolded, but it was mesmerising) was beyond eerie.
At points I wasn’t quite sure what would come next. For while I’m a long-term student and scholar of the Early Middle Ages I don’t know everything across this vast area. Indeed, I’d venture to say that few individuals can grasp the narrative on such a wide geographical scale. This was a further reason why the experience was jolting and uncanny. Other points I knew were coming – as with the Visigoths sacking Rome, the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ invasions, the rise of the Franks, the Justinian invasion of Italy, the Arab invasions, or when the Viking Age erupted all over the map from AD 793 following the raid on Lindisfarne. The sense of horror and fascination were felt in equal measure as the decades and centuries rolled by quickly and without pause.
This was sufficient in itself to give me nightmares, but there was more baked into this horrific cake. The video was based on the crude characterisation of Europe as composed of solid block-colour territories of empires and kingdoms, with non-state ethnic groups were marked as single colour fuzzy patches which every now and again, like a swarm, moved and ‘infected’ other areas, sometimes morphing into solid-colour kingdoms. Now I was used to such renditions on maps from books, but to see them move…. Sometime there were specific arrows of invading armies and raiding parties. It was thus all very ‘Dad’s Army’, but with people represented as moving with an unsettling digital inhuman dynamic like some alien virus, rather than the lumbering pace of the British and German army arrows in the opening sequence of the 1970s comedy show. Indeed in the 5th and 9th centuries, the map was a blur of movement like a frenetic light sabre duel from a Star Wars movie!
With the same fascination and uncanny disgust as when watching a timelapse sequence of a decaying flower or animal cadaver, I realised the animation was perpetuating and reifying very traditional culture-historic frameworks for understanding the Early Middle Ages. No doubt unwittingly, the animation legitimised an understanding of stateless and migrating early medieval peoples as dangerous homogeneous swarms and early medieval states as equally homogeneous ethno-nations, the one morphing into the other only through external and unidirectional population movements: migrations. Therefore, the result was the ultimate realisation of a late 19th/early 20th-century vision of early medieval Europe as a time of constant migrations, enhanced and legitimised through digital technology.
While I completely appreciated and respected the aspirations I was vocally horrified by the unquestionably unintended consequences of this installation. For while the exhibition was supported by generous European funding clearly with a political agenda to explain the inclusive and complex story of early medieval origins to explicitly reflect on its ramifications for appreciating the fluidity of connections and movements in Europe today, I fear this animation might be perceived by some with alternative readings which celebrate the perceived exclusivity and homogeneity of modern ethno-nations and would find legitimacy for such imagined communities in this installation.
This is a challenge I’ve discussed in print myself in my then-soon-to-be-published book: Digging up the Dark Ages (edited by myself and Pauline Clarke). Scholars, researchers and practitioners have a profound responsibility to engage beyond the academy and specialists and try to work with other arts and technologies to create fresh and stimulating ways of exploring the human past. Yet everything we create risks being open to bigots, xenophobes and hate-mongers too from interpretation panels and websites to open-access research papers. Therefore, while we cannot future-proof our research, we must be attentive and responsible in how we term, frame and narrate our findings. Therefore, even though we must not give up trying, we must face up to the ongoing challenge of sharing good information whilst also combating extremist appropriations of the interpretations we create and disseminate. The fact is, we cannot always predict what type of extremists and bigots our work might attract, and what precise form they might take. In cases like this, I fear the technology may have driven the data into new and dangerous interpretive realms without due consideration.
And so we return to this animated attempt at early medieval political geography, invasions and migrations. I would contend its creation was far from neutral and its representation of Europe and the Mediterranean heavily loaded. As such I feared it was out-dated in its conception of early medieval peoples and polities, and thus while undoubtedly good-intentioned it was ripe for misinterpretation. Indeed, the animated timelapse gave me the shivers in a way few museum displays can. Digital technology like this has its own agency and has a tempo which is far from neutral. It fosters the potential of creating a dark and dangerous vision of the Early Middle Ages far from the aspirations of those attempting to educate and engage with it.
Of course, I had no way of expressing these complex thoughts at the time. Instead, it was my utterance in less polite and quiet verbal expressions regarding this immediate sense of fascination and terror in viewing the animation that prompted the security guard to threaten my expulsion from the exhibition if I didn’t shut up!
Bormpoudaki, M. van den Doel, M., Hupperetz, W., Kalafai, F., Morehouse, L, Mulvin, L., Schmauder, M. (eds) 2017. Crossroads: Travelling Through the Middle Ages, AD 300-1000. Zwolle & Amsterdam: W Books/Allard Person Museum.