Past present future
The tide of time governs everything we do, and always has. We might measure its passage more finely than our ancestors, but we still plan for the future even as we act in the present. This helps to explain why a prehistoric circle of standing stones in England and a liner that sank a century ago near America both continue to exercise a grip on our imaginations, and by chance aspects of each are explored in two current exhibitions in London.
At the British Museum The World of Stonehenge is carefully titled because the henge itself is almost incidental to a portrayal of the culture or cultures that made it from about 2,500 BCE. Initially hunters and fishers, they were mobile and heavily dependent on their axes to survive. Exquisitely shaped, these were painstakingly ground against much larger, fine-grained stones before being polished with spit and sand. Available in a range of sizes, styles and qualities, certain places became recognised for the excellence of their making.
Migration from the continent brought new technologies – the concept of farming, and how to deep-mine flint. This in turn required the repurposing of antlers as picks, their shafts coated with a chalky slurry that when dry forms a textured surface to provide grip. By this time people lived together in settlements and reflected that pattern of life in their rites and routines. Burials and cremations were clustered in particular locations, which exploited convenient natural formations and alignments that were soon enhanced with earthen banks, timber constructions and, eventually, great stones. In this way ancestors – and perhaps the wider past – were remembered collectively whilst the next spring was nervously awaited, aided by tracking the movement of sun and stars. Though the former’s return was never certain, such efforts must have helped ease fears for that future.
The movement of goods, workers and merchants was also critical. Orkney was a centre of artistic and cultural output and importance, exporting its distinctive grooved ware; their circular, sunken village of Skara Brae influenced tomb architecture and henge construction. Whether families sheltered from the sea winds in the far north or sat under wooden roofs in the warmer south, they crafted beads to wear as jewellery and carved geometric shapes into stones in the landscape. When other newcomers arrived with the ability to turn stone into metal, gold was seen as capturing the power of the sun and objects made from it allowed that power to be portable. This, increased trade via better boats and a move toward individuality saw an end to group efforts to recognise events and a gradual abandonment of Stonehenge. Land was now enclosed for other reasons, as fortified places to live and farm, and warfare became more organised and more violent. Time remained vital to reckon but for new reasons.
A rich, dark display uses the sounds of birds but also ancient Irish bells, a simulated sun cycle backdrop and other clever visuals to create an atmospheric backdrop for these items and this story. Together the evocation of a lost era is highly effective.
Across town a former dockyard hosts Titanic: The Exhibition in London and tries to achieve the same effect. By 1912 civilisation reckoned time very differently, thanks to railways, the aeroplane and radio, and with a greater sense of surety following centuries of telescopic astronomy and mechanical clocks. It was an age where the future was no longer feared but embraced, even pursued, for what it would bring. This hubristic sense of superiority fashioned the world’s largest and fastest passenger liner, paraded her as unsinkable and enabled a maiden voyage troubled by warnings and poor practice.
The ship was equipped with every conceivable luxury, from a swimming pool via a Parisian restaurant to electric lifts, the passenger list held names like Astor and Guggenheim and cargo ranged from a bejewelled book to a Renault car. With stops in Cherbourg and Queenstown the start was routine; the end, when it came five days later, was as devastating as the global conflict that would follow in a few short years.
The objects say a great deal, inevitably recalling those seen earlier. Thus a chunk of steel hull plate now stands like a stele from ancient times – both were hammered and cut and considered. A china saucer from the first class restaurant is lavished with gold, not so different from grooved ware. Protection from the water once came from raised wooden trackways when crossing marshy land; a geared bulkhead door was intended to perform the same function at sea. But unlike that far-off past, where we have to extract meaning from mute items, we also hear the voices of those who sailed or can read their writing, since there are also letters, telegrams and tickets. Unsurprisingly many are shot through with unintentional irony, such as relief over a narrowly-avoided collision in harbour, and even mundane pre-printed matter such as menus, guest lists and programmes acquire an extra charge.
The past, remembered now by photographs, recordings and film as much as stories and ritual, now had several functions. For the White Star Line it inspired the ship’s interiors and became propaganda as the building and launch were extensively publicised. This adds an extra layer of poignancy and relevance, especially once survivors were landed and interviewed and sister vessels Olympic and Britannic – themselves heavily documented – acted as references after Titanic’s loss. Finally, of course, television allowed the ship’s discovery more than seven decades later to be experienced more or less immediately.
Despite some powerful moments this was a thin exhibition, weakly and occasionally amateurishly displayed. The audio guide, playing as a single 90-minute track if desired, was helpfully practical though the actual narrative suffered from grammatical and spoken errors.
But ship and stone alike address the depths of time, and so each deserves consideration for this and how very different ages experienced and shaped the ideas that suggests.
The World of Stonehenge continues at the British Museum, London WC1 until 17 July
Titanic: The Exhibition in London continues at Dock X, London SE16 until 17 April