Kings and Scribes: Winchester Cathedral new exhibition

There’s been too little attention given to one huge revolution in our field: the evolution of cathedral sacristy collections into treasuries (thanks largely to the efforts of the Goldsmiths’ Company), of treasuries into ‘galleries’, and of galleries into visitor centres. The motives for each changed too: storing cathedral plate to be used, displaying it as artistic and historic, promoting it as an add-on attraction for visitors, and using it to help explain to visitors what they are seeing. Today many (most?) cathedrals have a display of their treasures, but they vary greatly in the approach they take.

When the late and much-missed John Hardacre was appointed Curator in Winchester Cathedral in 1984, he seems to have been the first full-time qualified curator in an English cathedral. He published a description of his job (Hardacre 1993, 331), describing the cataloguing of the collection, his role as ‘housekeeper’, advising on the handling and storage of objects in everyday use, the commissioning of professional conservation of the collection, and the creation of a new gallery in the cathedral’s triforium. He put much emphasis on scholarship, describing the curator’s role as ‘one of an enabler, a catalyst that allows a reaction to take place between the scholar and the object’. He published an excellent catalogue of the collection: Hardacre 1989.

Last year Winchester Cathedral’s collection was radically redisplayed and made less arty and scholarly, and more story-telling and appealing. There has been quite considerable architectural work, including the insertion of a (very discrete and elegant) lift. The new display – still mainly in the South Transept triforium – is called ‘Kings and Scribes: the Birth of a Nation’.

A ground-floor gallery is devoted to the four great volumes of the 12th century Winchester Bible. The interpretation talks much about its production, and the Old Testament stories that prefigure the New, but oddly fails to mention the book’s (presumed) intended purpose: as the cathedral’s Great Bible used in the liturgy.

Above that is a gallery devoted to the Priory and its monks: ‘Here you will discover more about who they were and what they did.’ The story is supported by documents, and there is an imaginative focus on ‘supplying the Priory’ with food etc.

Passing the magnificent 17th century Morley Library, you come up to the triforium level and two great galleries under the Norman vault: one presenting the building, the other Winchester’s links to medieval kings.

The former displays the wonderful late-15th century heads of figures from the Great Screen – including the stunning Virgin and Child – as well as Romanesque capitals and fragments from the shrine of St Swithin. These are the carvings once seen primarily as beautiful, but now helping to tell the story of the building: ‘Decoding the Stones’. The story is told, too, by a full-size replica of the shrine, a series of cathedral models, a big interactive ‘create your own stained-glass window’ and so on. The message is that:

The cathedral is a sacred space. The medieval builders were working for the glory of God, and wanted to use the latest techniques to demonstrate their faith and commitment.

The post-Reformation story is told as ‘Loss and Renewal’, using fine Laudian and Restoration wooden figure-sculptures. At the gallery’s end one can listen to recordings of people involved with the cathedral today, talking about their role and what it means to them. This sounds dull, but I found it very powerful and moving.

The other triforium gallery is ‘The Birth of a Nation’. It celebrates the Wessex dynasty, from the 6th to the 12th centuries. Their family tree dominates the space, but the highlights are two of the famous 16th century mortuary chests, and a 3D-printed replica of the skeleton of (?) Queen Emma. There’s also a display on the recent scientific analysis of the bones in the chests. It’s all very interesting historically, but some might find it an odd story to foreground in a 21st century Christian place of worship.

Wondering why things are presented like this, and imagining the discussions that led to the design brief, is one of the pleasures of visiting any exhibition. Every cathedral wanting to display its treasures has an initial decision to make: do we put the objects first, or decide first on the story to be told and use the objects to tell that story? Inevitably it’s usually a compromise, but the contrast between Winchester’s old and new exhibitions illustrates the choice dramatically.

Crispin Paine

Crook, John. 2019. ‘Beneath and Behind Kings and Scribes’. Winchester Cathedral Record 2019, 88.

Hardacre, John. 1989. Winchester Cathedral Triforium Gallery: Sculpture, Woodwork and Metalwork from Eleven Centuries. Winchester: Dean & Chapter of Winchester.

Hardacre, John. 1993. ‘Caring for the Collections’. In Winchester Cathedral: Nine Hundred Years, edited by John Crook. Chichester: Phillimore.

Oakeshott, Walter. 1945. The Artists of the Winchester Bible. London: Faber.


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