Historic Scotland Iona conference, 10

Historic Scotland Iona conference, 10-13 April 2012
Enduring lives: crafting stories from Iona’s carved stones
Sally Foster, University of Aberdeen
Note: this is the text for a spoken lecture; it is not properly referenced.
‘in the conservation and curation of objects we need to find the means to acknowledge how
their materiality informs the relationships they embody, and try to find ways to
accommodate how people use these relationships to negotiate authentic places for
themselves in the world .... appropriation [of objects in museums] depends more on the
ability of people to establish relationships with objects and the network of people and places
they embody through their unique cultural biographies, than it does on the sheer authority
of museums.’ (Jones 2010, 199)
My aim is to make the case for bringing cultural biographical approaches into the
research framework and interpretation at Iona. This paper is about why and how we might
best tell stories from the carved stones as opposed to identifying what specific stories the
stones can tell. My reasoning applies equally to any aspect of the site, but the carved stones
present their own peculiar challenges and opportunities. In doing so, I am picking up on
interests I developed at HS in how to interpret and present carved stones.
Recognition of the value of biographical approaches is missing from the circulated
draft Research Agenda and Interpretation Plan, both of which are generally very
chronologically driven – the significance of the early medieval sculpture is apparently when
it was created and how it was first used. In addition, on reflection – but I am rusty and stand
happy to be corrected – this is not I think a feature of Historic Scotland’s new Whithorn and
St Vigeans displays. In a former life, at the time I co-ordinated the drafting of the
interpretation plan for Early Medieval Carved Stones in Historic Scotland’s Care, finalised
back in 2003, this was not a full developed part of my thinking either. Building on more
recent research, not least that by Professor Sian Jones of Manchester University, I will argue
that building in a biographical approach is essential for presentation and interpretation at
Iona to be truly effective, to have ‘bite’. This quote is to give you some indication of where I
am heading.
I come to this in the relatively early days of research exploring the biographies of
early medieval carved stones with a particular emphasis on the replicas – mainly plaster
casts – made of them since the 1830s. This research touches on factors such as changing
attitudes to the purpose of museum displays, curatorial and public attitudes to authenticity
and replicas, and the role of displays of such material in knowledge creation and transfer.
Iona’s St John’s Cross is one of my initial case studies.
I should explain what I mean by cultural biography. One practioner refers to this as
an ‘intellectual virus’ that has spread among archaeologists in the last 13 years or so. In
essence, it means understanding the sum of the meanings and relations associated with an
object and how they accumulate (or are shed) with time. ‘Biography’ refers to the idea that
an object will have a birth, life and death. Unlike people, however, we can expect a single
object or monument to have more than one life – multiple lives – for them to be
reinterpreted a number of times. In fact, an object can have simultaneous lives running
concurrently as it acts in different webs of relations. An object biography can extend over
Page | 1
several human life-spans, and at each point the meaning and role of the object can be
influenced by attitudes and perceptions of the past. The object can therefore undergo
jumps in meaning, indeed meanings can even jump from one object to another as
biographies become entangled. Portable objects build histories through exchange and
circulation, while static objects acquire histories by virtue of their longevity as reinterpretations gather around them. Carved stones are particularly interesting in this
respect because they move between these static and portable states, and because of the
history of creating replicas of them, which can circulate and extend the agency of the parent
In other words, there a lot more to Iona’s carved stones than their initial point of
creation and the question of which schools of carving they belong to. Even a snapshot
summary of landmark events in history of St John’s Cross hints at some of the complex
undercurrents that may exist. This of course is the most copied and most iconic of all Iona’s
early medieval monuments. In what follows I am presenting you with a horribly static
family-tree that charts the relationship between key events in the career of the original (in
blue) and its children (in purple) – direct copies made in plaster and concrete between 1901
and the 1970s. However, I want your imaginations to reign and invite you to think of what
Latour and Lowe refer to as the hydrological complex of a work of art – the ebb and flows of
it and its parts - the need to understand the full watershed and catchment of the original
and its copies – and to tease out the changing meanings and relationships.
 2nd ½ 8C creation, perhaps to mark translation of relics of St Columba
 Ian Fisher argues early structural problems lead to addition of ring.
 Fate up to 1699 when Lluhyd is the first to draw the shaft is uncertain, but clear
involves fragmentation and dispersal of these pieces.
 1895 stump of shaft still erect; many fragments in graveyard of Reilig Odhrain, where
Beveridge Erskine photographs them. The Duke of Argyll’s factor had been
responsible in 1870or shortly before for gathering up sculptures that were lying
around, for their protection.
 1901 Alexander (Alec) Ritchie – of Iona Celtic Art fame – custodian of the Iona ruins,
made casts for the 1901 Glasgow International Exhibition. Perhaps in direct response
to Romilly Allen’s visit and suggestion in 1901 that casts would be a good idea so can
get published to the same standard as the Govan stones – Stirling Maxwell had had
casts made and photographed the casts to get better images. Kelvingrove has a
record of acquiring 4 cast pieces – see photo – seemingly only one side of the cross
head that was exhibited in 1901. Celtic Court in Aberdeen, opened 1905, had both
sides of Ritchie’s casts – museum about to open their crates so I can see how much
of these survive. These could have been a complete record of all sides of the crosshead fragments before further damage in 20th century?
 1927 Professor RAS Macalister who has been cataloguing the sculpture on Iona
gathers the pieces and erects a reconstruction in situ, at his own expense – note the
white bits where reconstructed. He, and probably Ritchie, made more casts of the
upper portions of cross and put them in St Ronan’s Chapel – I’m not sure what
happened to these.
 Alexander Ritchie manufactures and sells a silver cross of St J. I don’t know when,
but imagine this must post-date, if not commemorate in some way, Macalister’s
Page | 2
Reconstruction falls in gales in Jan 1951 with, to judge from photos, some damage to
original fragments
Re-erected 1954 and falls again Feb 1957, the fragments lying where fell.
Considerable documented debate about whether Cross should, as George MacLeod
of the Iona Community suggested in 1958, be ‘allowed to decay in the open in God’s
good time’ or reconstructed, and if so how and where. Many locations were
considered for a lapidarium for all the carved stones – the Infirmary, yet to be
reconstructed - the Refectory, the Nunnery, and a new build. Of all of these, the
Infirmary is arguably considered the worst option, and not at all suitable for the large
St J’s cross.
Ultimately, after lots of public criticism of treatment of such an important
monument, Iona Trustees get funding from various benefactors and arrange for a
concrete replica, installed and dedicated in 1970. Erected where original had stood
(stump of original removed in 1968). Involves well-known artist George Mancini in
reconstruction and casting, plus extended cast of other people who champion and
facilitate the project. Illustrated accounts of how designs reached and innovatory
technical process appear in Concrete Quarterly, Proc Soc Antiq Scot and The Scots
Magazine, down to name of puffer - Kaffir – used to transport it to Iona.
Reconstruction now appears in just about every image you will see of the
(reconstructed) abbey. Arguably, this replica is the contemporary face of early
medieval Iona.
Fibreglass versions made and sold from Mancini mould by National Museum of
Scotland conservators: both NMS and Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries have one,
as does Carlisle Cathedral and perhaps others I have not yet tracked down.
1982 RCAHMS Iona inventory: St J recorded and published to modern standard – the
full art-historical significance can be realised. During recording the need for
conservation of the cross becomes acute and it is temporarily moved to Edinburgh
for conservation, its return delayed while a new home is found for it.
1990 Original fragments presented in Infirmary Museum, the space previously
rejected on grounds of unsuitability for such a display! Assumed when opened in
1964 this would be a temporary measure until more suitable home for lapidarium
Ritchie’s jewellery now collectible, and being nicely reproduced.
1999 HS care and hnd here we are now, at the point that HS is developing plans to
improve presentation and interpretation of carved stones at Iona – which brings me
back to my initial question – what place might the biography of the carved stones
and their casts play in this?
Even such a bald sequence of events gives you a sense of how much ‘thicker’ the
known biography of this monument becomes in more recent times. And of course I’ve only
referred you to a single sculpture. Each of the sculptures has not only its own biography,
linked in various ways to the others and to the cumulative biography of the collection, and
to the institutions dealing with them.
To return to the centrality of biography, this matters because it holds the key to
getting an ‘authentic’ experience from something. Authenticity is the quality that elicits an
emotional response from us in some way because of what art historians and others refer to
as the ‘aura’ of the thing in question. ‘Aura’ is what we appreciate, even if we can’t readily
Page | 3
define or explain it. Above all, the impact of aura is what we hope to take away with us from
a visit to something special – whether to an art gallery, a museum, a stately home or an
ancient monument.
We are obsessed with authenticity on a daily basis, whether we are aware of it or
not, because of its inextricable link to social or cultural identity. Definitions of authenticity
have moved beyond it being thing-centred, the idea that authenticity resides in the thing
and is somehow measurable (the LH column of this table). Authenticity is now more widely
recognised as being something that is subjective, socially constructed and subject to change
because it resides in the discourses about the object (the RH column). Authenticity is the
product of the relationship - networks - between people, places and things. Its power
resides in how it can connect these. What something does – that it connects - is as
important as what it is, and when it stops doing something, its significance abates. (eg K
Forsyth referred to ‘cross does, not just is’). This doing is not limited to the point of creation
of early stages in the career of an object, but extends to its full biography – its multiple lives.
The St John’s Cross began its life with power from spiritual authority, derived from its
associations with the relics of St Columba by which it stood and whose translation its
erection is argued to commemorate; the question is how that authority has waxed and
waned and how it has changed. Locale, context, ambience etc will affect perception and
therefore reception of aura and authenticity. Research shows that authentic does not have
to mean original - a good quality replica of a carved rock may pass for the real thing on the
top of a fort [Dunadd] or evoke a powerful aesthetic and emotional response on the
previously empty walls of the space the original painting was created for [Veronese’s 16C
Marriage of Cana]. But it can make a massive difference if an original thing is moved - ie
where and how something is recontextualised (note, not decontexualised) – which is of
course the case for most early medieval sculpture, particularly that which, as at Iona, is now
fragmented, even if still on the island it was created at or created for.
Context also impacts on appreciation of the materiality of the thing - the subjective
impact of the physical form, substance and properties of material. Not just what something
looks like, feels like, smells like, sounds like, but how people can move around it, the
behaviours expected of them, etc. Sian Jones has explored the extent to which authenticity
is a product of physical state and material substance of something in her ethnographic work
in Nova Scotia. She reports on how textures, touch and personification – linking an object to
a named person – help to create an ‘aura’ and thereby provide an intimate and direct
connection to the past as well as to generate connections to the visitor’s own lives. These
are the sort of characteristics that confer magical qualities, those difficult to understand
‘emotionally charged discourses’ responsible for breathing life and soul into objects.
Biography is how people negotiate the relationship between originality, materiality
and authenticity. To quote Sian Jones, ‘the experience [my emphasis] of authenticity is not
about its date, original setting, design or material fabric in the sense of its geological makeup; it is about its ability to embody networks or relationships between people, objects and
places’. The effectiveness of materiality and authenticity is therefore dependent on people’s
ability to establish a relationship with objects, and with the people and places involved in
their biography. The successful display, presentation and interpretation of a site therefore
connects people, places and things, and does this through the medium of their biographies.
There needs to be more (IP, p 32) that setting ‘them in a historical, art historical and
symbolic context’, particularly if that context is not just early medieval.
Page | 4
This leads us to the fact that there are a series of issues to be addressed in putting a
biographical approach into practice. In one sense these are the sorts of problems that will
always be considered in designing a new museum and interpretation, but the biographical
approach provides a framework and additional rationale for reflecting on them, as well as
placing an emphasis on some different things. My conclusions as to some of the things that
are necessary resonate with the draft IP, but the reasons for this are different, as is the
suggested approach, which is more about letting things speak than using them to illustrate
chronological or other themes.
The overarching challenge is how to most effectively enable the visitor to make their
own connections, to breathe life and soul into fragmentary, displaced, frankly cold pieces of
stone. What sorts of bodily experiences and performances do they need to engage with to
gain meaning from these things? There are a series of overlapping issues that we might
consider. First is igniting the cerebral fire that connects things and ideas, specifically, how to
provide the visitor with what they need to understand the relations that have gone before,
and how to allow them to create and sustain new relations that link the visitor and object.
The power to release the potential of biographies of collections such as Iona are
indisputably in the hands of the staff of institutions, the high priests of the temples (the
sites and museums) to which pilgrims (visitors) come. That’s not wrong, but the challenge is
how to get the right balance between directed education and self-discovery – by which I
mean the difference between visitors as audience and as participants - and between what
Saunderson refers to as ‘Infobject’ and ‘Objectext’. And to do this in a way that meets
visitor’s demand for a lack of mediation between themselves and the things they visit: we
want that sense of being the first to discover something and of not being manipulated or
controlled. The IP recommends a ‘light touch’. Rather than asking visitors about what they
think the themes and stories for interpretation should be, to quote Historic Scotland’s draft
research agenda, I’d like to see more research on what sort of experience they are seeking
from Iona and its different resources (when they know what these actually are, of course).
The IP puts an emphasis on sensitivity to religious expectations and experience, but we need
to widen this. We can then marry (a) how to give visitors the greater seeing power so that
they derive more from their encounter with an object for themselves, and (b) think more
carefully about what information external to the object to provide them with, and how.
There is only a certain extent to which the biography of a sculpture is written on its fabric, or
is readily readable from it, since the accumulated meanings may be expressed in loss of
fabric. The Hilton of Cadboll Pictish cross-slab project’s ability to recover many of its lost
fragments and to reconstruct that history of loss is, sadly, likely to be exceptional, if not
unique. When it comes to Objectext, the challenge here is that we know from research,
such as tracking the eyes of visitors, that people will spend more time looking at things if
there is less text to distract them. We do want visitors to get the optimum experience from
encountering the object for themselves, and that means encouraging them to look, explore
and reflect
Second, armed with a more informed sense of the experience that visitors seek, we
are better placed to consider how the locale, context and ambience can best contribute to
creating an aura and delivering the experience that the visitor regards as authentic. Visitors
search for an unmediated and uncommodified experience, yet as we all know, aura is
something that is frequently challenged at places where commodification - deriving income
or presentation to the public - is the driving force. Visitors love Jervaulx because it does not
have the EH imprimatur.
Page | 5
Third, the qualities of the space in which sculptures are experienced not only create
aura by setting a ‘tone’ and ‘atmosphere’, but directly affect our ability to experience the
materiality of the sculptures, the subjective impact of their physical form, substance and
properties of their material. If not still outside then qualities such as original form and scale,
textures, relief and colours need well-lit, large and uncluttered spaces before they can be
properly appreciated. Our eyes and thoughts need to be able to soar to the heavens, quite
literally. The present Infirmary display only gives a sense of the original size and form of St
John’s Cross, and a cramped one at that. The material qualities of the rest of the collection
are simply lost. As Sandra Dudley points out in her introduction to the 2012 book The Thing
about Museums, there has been insufficient research in general on the physical and sensory
attributes of objects and their implications for the uniqueness – actual and potential - of the
museum experience. Museum studies do, however, show the potentially impoverished
experience of things if the sensual experience is limited to visual material, suggesting that
the most straightforward answer is to allow people to handle material, and the increased
pleasure that derives from this material. .
Fourth and finally, I want to put in a good word for replicas, traditionally rather
derided in academic circles, at least, but undergoing rehabilitation since the 1980s. It’s time
for replicas of early medieval sculpture to stand up and be counted! The National Museum
of Ireland’s High Crosses exhibition is an example of what is possible. They use casts but the
same actually applies to original early medieval sculptures in general. Here the theatrical
display of six casts and one set of moulds for Irish high crosses plays to the auratic, to the
‘wow’ factor, something that this scanned photograph does little to convey. The sculptures
find a voice of their own, their original landscape setting quietly indicated by vertical
banners. The Dublin exhibition has two main interpretative poles, what their iconography
meant to the Christians who created them, and the stories attached to the creation and
display of the casts from the late 19th/early 20th-century to the present. In the latter, we
meet politicians, curators, antiquarians, local communities, visitors and the skilled craftsmen
– formatori – often Italian, as the name suggests, who made them. We travel around the
world, into offices, museums, plaster and haulage yards; we visit Worlds’ Fairs. I confess it’s
here that my own personal engagement with this material is ignited.
Non-original fabric or not, it’s the replica on Iona that I’d place money on having the
greatest impact on visitors of all the early medieval sculptures they encounter. I missed any
reference to it in the IP. That is because of the auratic qualities it derives from its relatively
sympathetic appearance and its location in the open, by the reconstructed later medieval
abbey. It stands where the original stood, and from it we can begin to understand the
topography and axes of the medieval space. The 20th-century story, the recent biography of
St John’s Cross and this replica arguably opens a door, a hook to draw visitors back in time
and into engaging with the enduring lives of Iona’s early medieval sculptures. This is not a
new suggestion – Cruden suggested it in 1970. Importantly, the story is very much also
about changing attitudes to conservation, and the part that individuals and institutions have
played in this. The lessons for the effective interpretation of the rest of the Iona collection
are threefold. That we must sensitively maximise its auratic qualities, invisibly (or is it
surreptitiously) ‘train’ the visitor in how to read more for themselves from the experience of
the object – preferably in a way that allows them to use more than just their visual sense and find a visually unobtrusive way of layering in knowledge external to the sculptures that
illuminates their biographies.
Page | 6
The research that is needed here is not just in establishing the cultural biographies of
the carved stones and existing best practice in making biographical interpretative practice
work. Sandra Dudley points out the potential of museums to research and theorise peopleobject engagements and their implications, and there’s the opportunity to model and test
this in future work here on Iona, and to reflect further, with the passage of a little time, on
the approaches at Whithorn and St Vigeans too.
Page | 7