What’s left of Londoners

LONDON BODIES – the changing shape of Londoners from prehistoric times to the present day, Museum of London, 1998

Bookcase 9, shelf 4, book 6

I am surprised that this is the first exhibition catalogue the dice have presented me with, given that I used to work in museums and galleries, and have an incurable catalogue habit (well, I’ve cured myself of it now – largely, OK, I’m cured for this year).

It raises all sorts of questions about the nature of exhibition publishing – possibly not of general interest, ho ho – and it also sent me to my other shelves, pulling out old catalogues, new catalogues, big catalogues, catalogues that set themselves up to become the definitive work on X or Y, catalogues that are little more than a flyer… What are exhibition catalogues for, when it comes down to it?

I can only answer for myself. I find that unless I visit an exhibition several times – and that’s been known, quite apart from the time I effectively lived with exhibitions every day – I later forget about things I would prefer to remember. And I miss things, especially at blockbusters where seeing anything through other people is next to impossible. The enormous tomes are also useful reference books, though they do break your back and lead to other problems: I had a nasty fight with an Air France steward about Le Siecle de Titien being too heavy to go in an overhead locker. Or even fly. She did have a point.

This, happily, is not such a breezeblock of a book, nor is it a straightforward list of everything that was in the Museum of London’s fascinating 1998 archaeological and historical show. The show was based around their extensive collection of human remains, but it was more than that – they have equally extensive collections of all sorts of other things connected to physical appearance, from Roman leather knickers and an Elizabethan child’s knitted vest to Victorian underwear. Unsurprisingly, London Bodies is one of those discursive catalogues, rather than one which details the exhibits one by one and then tells you something about them.

There are seven chapters on various aspects of the show, starting with one on excavation, and then moving chronologically through to a photo-essay on modern London (superfluous, in my opinion). However, because the chapters are all written by different people there is little unity of tone; one chapter is a bit dry, another chatty…

But having said that, there’s still plenty to chew on. Each chapter throws a light on a specific aspect of the time it discusses – the Black Death and famine in the Medieval chapter; costume in the one on Tudor London; the question of a ‘London look’ in the one on the Georgian and Victorian city. In addition there are feature spreads covering all sorts of subjects from recent work in Roman cemeteries and what it tells us about Londoners (most people ate comparatively well, and only a small proportion show evidence of deprivation, or of parasites) to what made you sexy in Elizabethan London (minute waists and large cod-pieces). So inside this particular exhibition catalogue is a wealth of interesting information.

Human remains – and what you do with them – are a controversial subject in archaeology, and this is little explored, but I recall the the show as being both fascinating and comparatively sensitive in the way it dealt with the issue. The book is quite clear – the remains are valued for the information they can give, and they give a lot. This woman, for instance, was a Saxon. She was about 30 when she died (of what, we do not know), and was buried dressed in an overgown fastened at the shoulder by a brooch. The brooch is still there, but we also know that she wore a bracelet – her wrist bones are stained by the metal – and that she had a congenital back disorder, had once broken her collar bone but been treated well since the mend was good, and that she had enjoyed quite a bit of sweetness in her diet (bad teeth – the sweetness could have been from beer or honey). At the same time, I am sure that more attention would be paid to the ethical side of displaying human remains were the book (and the exhibition) to take place today. I know where I stand – I trained as an archaeologist, after all.

On a less profound level, one of the things I recall most clearly from the show was the corsets, and of course they are reflected in the catalogue. I know quite a bit about Victorian dress, but I found things here to inform me further, and amuse me (like one corset manufacturer in Berners Street, who won a medal at the 1851 Great Exhibition – the wonderfully and apparently anachronistically named Madame Roxy Caplin). Oh, by the way, her corsets were ‘beneficial to the weak, delicate and imperfect’. Just about everyone, then.

I have really enjoyed revisiting this catalogue and, through it, remembering the show. Not all are so interesting, of course, and I’m not sure this could properly be described as a ‘catalogue’ anyway – it’s more a ‘book to accompany the exhibition’. But there’s nothing wrong with that. Perhaps it’s time to pull out a few more and renew my acquaintance with Ancient Greek gold, the effects of light on fabric or Russian Constructivism. Sigh…

(Apologies for the slight hiatus in posts – not idleness, an exotic holiday or a sudden weakening of resolve on the book-buying front. More mundane: problems with WordPress…)

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