Guesswork fills historical gaps;Scottish Heritage

24th April 1998 at 01:00
The class gathers round the Viking grave. There are the remains of the body and the artefacts, practical and symbolic, which were buried with it a thousand years ago.

Some have rotted away till only a few shreds of leather or rusted flakes of metal are left. Others, stone and bone, remain unchanged from that incredibly distant day when the body was closed in the earth.

The class looks at the fragmentary evidence, works out what it might have been and why it is here. They discuss how a picture of the Viking's life can be built up by such supposition and guesswork. They are discovering what it is to be an archaeologist.

The Viking burial site is just one of seven or eight activity areas which Sue Mitchell, the museum's education officer, is planning for the Museum of Scotland's Discovery Centre. "It is all based on investigation and people learning for themselves," she says. "The Discovery Centre is very much integral to the Museum of Scotland: it is a good starting point to helping pupils get more out of the main galleries."

Just as the museum itself is organised as a historical chronology, so the Discovery Centre may move from the earliest geological evidence through the history of Scotland to the present day. Or it may go the other way. Mitchell is tempted by the idea of starting with an exploration of Scotland's multi-cultural present, focusing on real children around the country who have different cultural backgrounds, but who are still Scots, and then tracing that theme of cross-fertilisation back through history.

"Scots have always interacted with other cultures, other countries. There has always been the movement of people, ideas and goods. Throughout history Scotland has been influenced by and has had influence on other parts of the world."

Whichever way the history finally flows, the Discovery Centre will be a tremendous resource for teachers and pupils. School groups will be guided through the structured programme by the centre staff, who can use the activities to provide an introduction to the museum as a whole, or to focus on a particular theme or period which the class is studying. "We want the centre to look bright, lively and enticing. We want people to know this is an area where they are going to be actively involved, where they will be able to do things they cannot possibly do in the rest of the museum," enthuses Mitchell.

While the activity areas have been selected to support and reflect what is being taught in Scottish schools, the centre is not just for teachers and pupils. Mitchell likes to think of it as a family area, and on Sundays, Tuesday evenings and during the school holidays, the centre will be open to the general public, with no need to book.

The education department will also reach out beyond the museum itself in a mini touring Discovery Centre which will take the hands-on, investigative element of the museum to schools, other museums and communities across the country.

It is tiny: a decorated silver box shaped like a child's drawing of a house. Almost invisible on its sides are etched Pictish patterns of writhing, intertwining beasts. Gaelic filigree bronze and enamel plaques, exquisitely crafted, punctuate the metal. It was made on Iona some time before 800 AD.

For Hugh Cheape, curator of Scottish history, the Monymusk Reliquary encapsulates how we should present our past. "In the late 20th century, we think we know it all, but with something like this we inherit beliefs we can't begin to explain."

The reliquary was already considered to be an ancient and powerful object when it was carried before the Scottish army at Bannockburn in 1314. By that time it was in the care of the monks at Monymusk, a village 20 miles from Aberdeen, where it had been brought after the sacking of Iona by Vikings during the 9th century.

The reliquary's journey from West to East across the country is symbolic of the great cultural and religious movement of that time, and the unique combination of Pictish and Gaelic decoration suggests the cross-fertilisations that were taking place.

Reputedly, the reliquary contained a relic of St Columba, but it is empty now and Cheape is having doubts. "I'm beginning, cheekily, to empathise with the people who made this, and it seems too beautiful to hold an old bit of bone. The shrine itself takes over. The container becomes a temple."

The Monymusk Reliquary will be at the heart of the new museum. "It stands on the threshold of history," says Cheape, "between the prehistoric past and the past we can recognise of named individuals and battles and places. And when you consider that, you begin to realise that the threshold is not all that long ago and that, possibly, people were not that different.

"Looking at this, you realise they had the same spirituality, the same admiration for material things, the same trust in hierarchies. As the first thing people will see when they come into this Museum of Scotland, we haven't got something that everybody will immediately recognise as Scotland, so we go the other way. Here is something relatively obscure, but which is absolutely central to everything that comes after."

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