London: Cabinet of Curiosities @ the National Archives

I should start by saying that me and the National Archives are not exactly friends. Though I like the idea of archives in principle – in practice, I’m not a great one for following the rules, and man, most archives have a LOT of rules. I’ve had to go to the National Archives a few times over the years to do historical research (for some reason, though the surviving attestation papers for servicemen in WWI have been digitised, the service records for officers have not, so you have to go there in person to look at them), and after my last experience there, when one of their employees literally snapped my pencil in half for the “crime” of having an eraser on it (instead of just, you know, telling me I couldn’t have an eraser, and letting me go find another pencil), I was quite happy to just let my reader’s pass lapse.  But then Halloween rolled around this year, and I saw that the National Archives was hosting a special late event as part of the Museums at Night series that takes place in London a couple of times a year. And the event was Edwardian themed, with promises of stories of spiritualism and Egyptology, so I sucked it up and parted with 20 quid for a ticket (which in itself is insane, even without my dislike of the National Archives). But I was unconvinced that ending my unofficial boycott of the National Archives would prove to be a wise decision.

I was admittedly not in the best mood to start with, having not gotten home from work until 11:30 the night before after offering to help with a spooky walk given by my museum’s young persons’ group (I won’t be reviewing it for obvious reasons), so I wasn’t particularly keen on going out yet again after work when all I wanted to do was go home, eat, and go to bed, but it was really my own fault for booking tickets, so I ignored my grumbling stomach and caught a bus out to Kew.  The staff were all dressed in Edwardian outfits for the event with big roses pinned to their lapels so you could identify them, and though they had encouraged attendees to dress up, very few had (I wasn’t strictly speaking specially dressed up, since I just wore what I’d been wearing all day at work, but I have kind of an office-goth vibe going on most days anyway, so it did sort of look as though I’d made an effort). Though Eventbrite (with whom I’d booked the tickets) had promised to send over a schedule of events earlier in the week, they never did, so I only got a look at the programme after arriving. When I initially booked, I had to choose a time slot to watch the “mummy unwrapping,” and opted for the earlier slot in case the event was so lame that I didn’t want to hang around til the late one, which meant we were handed a colour coded sticker when we arrived to gain entrance to the earlier showing. Unfortunately, it also served as a kind of beacon for certain staff members to try to dictate to us how we should spend our time.

Since we had about half an hour before the unwrapping, we first tried to view the Keeper’s Gallery, as the programme promised it held special oddities, only to be turned away at the door because I was still carrying my purse (I was evidently going to steal something, despite everything in the exhibit being behind glass). So I duly stowed it away in a locker, and returned, only to realise it was just the same crap in the Keeper’s Gallery that’s always there, and in fact nothing special had been put out for this event. So we instead headed for the Case Studies room, which was meant to have materials relating to spiritualism, only to be turned away there too, because apparently “we might not be able to get upstairs to the mummy unveiling in time.” I realise they were probably just trying to be helpful, but c’mon – I’m a grown-ass woman, and I really dislike being bossed around at an event that I paid a bundle to attend. I had plenty of time to see the handful of ephemera in that room and get upstairs when I needed to, and I’m perfectly capable of doing my own time-keeping, thanks. I mean, it wasn’t like you were only allowed in once – if I didn’t have time to see everything then, I could have come back later. And it turned out that the mummy unwrapping ended up starting late, so we definitely would have had plenty of time to look around the Case Studies room beforehand. As it was, we just stood around the outside of the room where the mummy unwrapping was due to take place like idiots for twenty minutes. I guess the only positive was that it gave me time to take a stupid photo in their Egyptian background with one of the straw boaters that were provided for some reason.

So, the mummy unwrapping then. Though my expectations at this point were not high, it was actually better than expected. It was a presentation by Odette Toilette, who does various scent-themed immersive experiences around London, and some man who professed to be an Egyptologist (it wasn’t really clear if he actually was one in real life, or was just an actor, since he did seem to know a lot about mummies). It was based on actual mummy unwrappings that took place in Victorian England, where people would gather to watch an archaeologist basically desecrate a mummy (after they were unwrapped, they were either sold to be turned into medicine or made into paint, mummy brown apparently being a popular colour with the Pre-Raphaelites), though obviously this event did not involve a real mummy. They took us through the process of unwrapping a “mummy” by removing a few layers of bandages and describing the scents that would have arisen during the process, and we were duly given scent cards for each one, so we could smell along. These were not as gross as you might have expected, and included things like juniper, pine resin, beeswax, and myrrh. They actually gave quite a good performance; especially the poor “mummy” who came very close to having his skull cracked open (I was really impressed that he managed to lay perfectly still for so long, especially with people touching his hands and feet!), and I left feeling slightly less pissy at the National Archives.

Because of the way the talks were scheduled, you really only had time to attend two lectures in addition to the mummy unwrapping. Despite the Edwardian theme, we actually had a choice of talks on medieval witchcraft, the second Pendle witch craze (17th century), female Egyptologists, and the alleged curse of Tutankamun (1920s), which was fine, because those are all things I’m interested in, but I feel like there was enough spooky stuff going on in Edwardian Britain for them to have stuck to the theme, especially since they were the ones who chose it, and it was all people working for the National Archives who gave the lectures. I believe there were also lectures by the Cemetery Club, as noted on a sign inside the archives, but for some reason they weren’t listed on the programme, so I’m not sure if they actually took place.

We had about forty minutes to kill before the first lecture started (having missed the first round of lectures during the mummy unwrapping) so we headed back to the stupid Case Studies room that we were initially denied access to, and surprise surprise, it only took about five minutes to see it (not that I’m salty or anything). It was just a collection of documents relating primarily to prosecutions of Edwardian fortune tellers (for fraud) and Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in spiritualism and many letters in defense of it. And if you dared to try to turn one of the pages, someone came up and yelled at you and made a show of doing it for you with gloves (I didn’t dare touch anything after my pencil experience, but I saw someone else being shamed). I understand wanting to protect the documents, but then either have them behind glass, or have a sign out saying not to touch them, because scolding people for showing an interest is not a good way to change people’s perceptions of archives, and the documents were just sitting out on tables like normal books, so it wasn’t obvious that you weren’t allowed to turn the pages if you weren’t familiar with the ways of archives. Since we finished with that so quickly, we went to claim our free drinks (fortunately, the choices included semi-fancy soda, because I would have fallen asleep on the spot if I’d had alcohol), and then kind of just milled about listening to some Cockney old-timey style band (who complimented my tights, so they were alright with me!), and attempting to play a ball throwing game that was harder than it looked.

We chose to attend the lectures on medieval witchcraft and Tutankamun’s curse, and they were actually pretty good, especially the witchcraft one. I took an online course on medieval witchcraft a couple of months ago, so I wasn’t expecting to learn much here, but the lecturer told us about specific trials for witchcraft that I hadn’t heard of before (one involved a hand of glory, and the man’s “confession” is thought to be the first short story written in modern English), most of which involved trying to kill the king, which is why the people were prosecuted in the first place (witchcraft wasn’t necessarily frowned upon in the Middle Ages if you weren’t actually trying to harm anyone; for example, some men allegedly summoned a spirit and used it to find the location of some treasure, and the authorities were angry not on account of the necromancy, but because they didn’t declare the treasure once they’d found it. Their penalty was only a fine, rather than execution or something as you’d expect in the early modern period). He also chose some pretty good images to illustrate his talk, and I left feeling pleased with it.

The Tutankamun talk was somewhat less successful, mainly because the lecturer spent the talk trying to debunk the notion of a curse, which isn’t much fun around Halloween (I’d much rather hear about using the parts of a dead man to work magic). She was interesting enough, it just wasn’t really what I wanted to hear, I guess. But still, after my experience at that awful robot event last year, I’m glad I got to attend both talks, because the programme warned us that the lecture theatres had limited capacities and I was worried enough about it to show up early to both lecture rooms (I suppose the 20 quid entry fee helped keep numbers down, but it is London, and tickets had sold out, so I think the National Archives actually did place a reasonable limit on the number of tickets sold instead of being greedy). The witchcraft talk was completely full, but the Tutankamun one had lots of empty seats, probably because it was at the end of the night, and a lot of people had already gone home.

Even though the staff weren’t overly welcoming when we arrived, they seemed to mellow out a bit as the night went on, and I was pleased with the quality of the talks and presentations overall, though I really don’t think it was 20 pound’s worth of entertainment, and I definitely think they could have done a much better job of sticking with an Edwardian theme if they were going to bother to give it a theme at all. Why not some talks on spiritualism (as there was clearly material in the archives relating to this), or Edwardian murder cases (like creepy Crippen)? I also think there could have been more entertainment provided between talks, because the Cockney performers were more just background noise than something you’d actually sit there and watch, and though there was a magician, he was kind of hidden over in a corner rather than front and centre putting on a show. It just wasn’t enough considering how much we’d paid. If it had only been a tenner, I’d have left feeling reasonably satisfied with the evening, but it sure wasn’t worth twice that. I also think they could have had better props in the “photo booths” and maybe got a professional photographer in to offer actual prints for a reasonable fee, because I love that kind of thing, and it would have been better than relying on my own poor efforts. And it was completely freezing in there the whole time, like they had the air conditioning on or something (I get that archival materials probably have to be kept in a specific environment, but they could have at least turned to heat on in the lecture rooms) so I had to cling desperately to my jacket the entire night, which I was only able to get away with because it was a hoodie, as they apparently frown on jackets as well for security purposes (turn the heat on then!).  3/5 for the event overall, but I wish it could have been Halloweenier, better themed, and that some (though not all, one of the stewards was really nice) of the staff could have been friendlier.

11 comments

  1. Goodness, they sound like horrors. I thought the idea of gloves had been discredited these days anyway since you’re more likely to tear something wearing them. Certainly, I’ve been places recently where you can handle documents directly.

    I like your tights too! And the skirt. They look good with the hat.

    1. When you’re actually using the archives, they don’t make you wear gloves for most things, so I have no idea why they were being so ostentatious about using them in this gallery. I was looking at an Elizabethan manuscript in there before, and they let me touch that with my bare hands, so I don’t know why they were being so precious about hundred year old books of which there is presumably more than one copy out there.
      And thanks! It’s one of my favourite skirts – the pattern on it actually glows in the dark!

  2. Wow, your “office Goth” style is fantastic! They should have been nicer to you for raising the event’s style quotient alone.
    Man, after that pencil incident I can see why you’d boycott the National Archives. So obnoxious and unnecessary. I’m kinda pissed at them now too. But I would’ve liked to see that “mummy unwrapping” – it does sound like it was fun. I’ve always been fascinated with the idea of those parties and the horrible things they’d do with the poor mummies afterward – like using them for firewood. I didn’t know about the paint bit – gah!

  3. Thank you! I do spend virtually all my time in pajamas when I’m not at work, so it’s nice to make an effort sometimes.
    Firewood is worse than paint I think, because at least the paint was used to create various masterpieces, so at least the mummies kind of live on in that sense. But yeah, the people who actually ate mummies as medicine or burned them as wood were kind of the worst. I don’t know why you would even want to eat mummy, but they used to roast puppies alive to extract their fat for medicine, and all kinds of horrible things, so I guess at least the mummies were already dead, and it saved an animal from being horrifically killed.

  4. That outfit is gothtastic!
    Can’t blame you for boycotting archives after that pencil incident. It’s a shame the archives didn’t fully redeem themselves with this disappointing halloween event. Sounds like they tried though! At least it sounds better than the event with the awful ghost cupcakes! You make a good point about them straying from the Edwardian theme, which sounds like a waste of resources.
    Museums/archives are so paranoid about handling collections, a stark contrast to the for profit art/antique world. I was really surprised by the difference when I unexpectedly ended up in that industry after years of glove-wearing museum internships. What a relief to handle artifacts without a death stare!

    1. Thank you! Actually, I think Hever Castle was probably better value for money than this event, and at least their ice cream was OK, even though the cupcake was lousy.
      It seems like the consensus about object handling is changing, and a lot of places agree that gloves can do more harm than good, depending on the material the object is made from. And to be fair, the National Archives don’t make you use gloves when you’re in one of the reading rooms, so I don’t know why they were being quite so snobbish about it on this occasion.

  5. I admire your self-control. I think that I probably would have had a few choice words with the archive workers, and it probably would have ended with me getting kicked out. Especially after I demonstrated how the pointy end of the pencil can also cause damage – by sticking it in their eye. Some people just suck.
    Love the outfit, though. Very cool.

    1. I would have dearly loved to have said a few choice words, but I wasn’t there on my own account during the pencil incident – I was doing work for the project I volunteer on, and I really did need to look at those documents, which they stubbornly refuse to digitise, so I had to play nice. And thanks!

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