Lindow Man in Manchester : On Display

It was in the summer of 2005 that HAD first contacted the Manchester Museum about various issues, including Lindow Man.  At that point we were not aware that a loan from the British Museum was already planned.  Our first meeting was that October, two and a half years ago.  Shortly afterwards, I got in touch with Gordon the Toad, asking if he would be willing to get involved in what we hoped would be a positive engagement with the museum about the return, albeit temporary, of this ancient ancestor.

HAD’s local group were part of the consultation in February 2007 (see the article on this meeting); HAD contributed to the museum’s application to the HLF for funding; a feedback session on progress was held in February 2008, and all the while emails, phone calls and meetings continued.  The intention and commitment to keep the flows of communication was good.

During the month prior to the exhibition opening on 19 April 2008, I was approached to do a number of media interviews, both local and national.  Again and again, I found the journalist or presenter pushing me to express indignation or confrontation, either with the British Museum or the Manchester Museum, but essentially with the notion of displaying human remains at all.  In fact, in every instance I came away with the distinct impression that it wasn’t simply a fight they were after: the journalist was genuinely uncertain about whether or not displaying human remains was respectful.  But each time I refused to go down that route, for after all the work we’d done with the museum, it felt somehow sour now to be saying, to the media, ‘but they’ve got it wrong anyway’.

It was only at the official By Invitation opening, on Friday 18 April, that I first saw the exhibition, however.  The museum tell me it was the biggest opening they have ever had, with some 500 people eager to hear the speeches and take a look at the gallery.  While Nick Merriman, the Manchester Museum’s director, gave a beautiful personalised and personalising talk, the TV personality Julian Richards gave a talk that was flecked with well-worn and tiresome remarks that reveal only ignorance about modern Paganism.  I sneaked out towards the end and made my way into the exhibition.

My first response was shock.

The gallery is arranged into four corridors by almost painfully simple dividing walls crafted of rough MDF boards.  In three of the corridors, the stories of two of the seven narrators are presented, with one having just one narrator and Lindow Man himself; the voices are those of the peat digger who first found him, a woman who was a young girl in Lindow Primary School at that time, an expert on bog bodies and landscape archaeology, one of the physical anthropologists who studied his body, a curator at the British Museum under whose care he’d been when there, the Manchester Museum curator who has headed the loan team, and myself, as a Druid leading the Manchester project for HAD.

The voices are almost eerie.  At first glance the whole exhibition area seems strangely bare, and what is there seems strangely irrelevant.  The corridors are low lit, sparse in their contents, with a few cases containing items carefully chosen as expressions of each narrator’s story, his or her connection to Lindow Man – scientific, social and religious – relating their involvement in his story of when and how he was disinterred, studied, and put on display.  On the MDF boards are key quotations from interviews with these narrators.  In large archlever files are the full transcripts of the interviews, together with a wealth of related information.  There are books to refer to, to flick through, some chosen by the narrators to express or support their perspective.

The rough dark boards add to the sense of the whole exhibition being half completed, or even half conceived.  It would be easy to feel that it gave a profound impression of a lack of respect.

On that first visit, filled with uncertainly, having been through the first two corridors, moving into the third the glass case in which he lies was suddenly before me.  His mutilated half body, deep brown, his foot at an angle, his blank expression is like that of a man utterly broken.  I was overwhelmed.

This was not the sickened rage I had felt at his display in the British Museum, where his case was one amongst many in the Iron Age gallery, his body little more than another artefact of the era.  What flooded through me here was a rage drenched in grief.  I have no doubt this was, in part, because my relationship with him is now more personal, but it wasn’t only that.  More poignantly, each narrator in this exhibition is presented as an individual offering the visitor their own personal story, sharing insights into their own personal relationship with him.  The accumulation of those stories keenly adds to the very real sense that this withered piece of body preserved in a glass box is a human being: he is a person, an ancestor, a son, perhaps a father, a lost grandfather, a man who has been taken from his damp grave, to be experimented upon, drenched in chemicals, and placed on display to be stared at, laughed at … ooh, yuk, weird, cool, freaky.  I didn’t have the time or space in that moment to read through every archlever file, thick with their information, but I know if I had, the impact would have been all the greater.

Making it all the more powerful, it was my own voice that the designer had chosen to place in the same corridor as his glass case, my words, my photograph, my perspective.  I was to overlook him throughout his stay in Manchester.  And from the little MDF cubby hole where a three minute loop of each narrator’s words can be heard, my voice murmured into the clatter of visitors’ footsteps and conversations.  On the tape, I am speaking about the deep and instinctive religious craving I feel that he should be reburied.  And as, on that day of the official opening, I made my prayers to him, I was aware that those words of mine would continue to play into the gallery, across his glass casket, during the entire year of the exhibition. I breathed in deeply and felt a longing to disappear.

Pleased to see an offerings box HAD had requested beside him, I left my gifts – a handful of coins and a gold ring to symbolise nature’s own deep need to fulfil each cycle of emergence and decay.  Leaving the gallery, I felt as if I’d just witnessed an assault, a cat killed by a passing car lying dead on the empty road, a child slapped into stinging silence by an incapable parent.  As ever in these situations, people wanted my opinion, but I had no words.

Yet, if reading this you intend to take my words and quote them elsewhere, I ask you to pause, to read on, in order to respect what it is that I am saying.  For as human beings we are blessed with a capacity for emotional response, yet also with reason, an ability to grasp an overview, to reflect.  While I couldn’t (and didn’t wish to) dismiss my emotional reaction, I needed to understand too.

The museum did hear what the consultation group had said in February 2007; the views expressed were very clear, Pagans and nonPagans agreeing on every one of the key issues.  There were, however, two elements that their design team appeared not to have taken on board, and had here failed to implement into the exhibition.  The first was that his case is right in the middle, allowing the visitor to come across him unexpectedly.  The consultation group made it plain that each visitor should make a conscious decision as to whether or not to see him, over and above the decision to enter the exhibition and read about him.  Acknowledging this as a flaw, the reason given by the museum was simply the lack of available space.  I am not convinced.  I am aware that many of the project team at the museum have taken a considerable journey over the last year of considering and creating the exhibition; in practical terms, Lindow Man was perceived by many as an artefact at the start, an ‘it’ to be put on display; by the time he was unpacked and placed in situ, he was very much an individual.   It is a real shame they weren’t able to find a solution with regard to this crucial point.

The second point emphasized by the consultation group that wasn’t immediately and obviously expressed in the design was the importance of the landscape and his connection to it, both through his long burial and the religion of his era.  Yet this is not so simple an issue as the placing of his body in the gallery.

Instead of creating, as had been done in the previous exhibition, an environment that was rich with the ecology of Lindow Moss, what this one explores is a different vision of that place where he was found: the depth of the peat itself.  The MDF is painted in deep rich brown and soft green, and low-lit it gives a sense of being once more within the peat: it is a whisper of reburial.  The rough cut of the boards speaks of the way peat was (is) cut, into dark and damp rectangular chunks, but also it reflects the geometry of an archaeological dig, with its lines and rectangular holes.  There is a sense of that raw mud, the rough simplicity of nature, being somehow addressed by humanity’s need for order.  And seeing this, letting that vision seep into me, I could feel too the richness of the peat, its scent and oils that contain so much, as I looked around the twilit sparseness of the gallery.

If this were an art gallery, the designer or director would not be asked to explain his vision.  It would be a part of the visitor’s mission to experience and explore that subjective experience.  As a museum, however, all too often we expect to be given information in a wholly simple form, obvious, and without the need to consider the voice or vision of those involved in its presentation.  We assume we shall be educated, given crisp clean knowledge on readily available labels, an array of statements and proven facts.  In Paganism, as in so many other arenas of learning, however, the scientific is not paramount; equally important are the emotional responses, the spiritual insights, the religious experience, the sense of community, of connections, of life in its fullness and emptiness, its certainty and lack of it.  This exhibition asks that little bit more of us.

Equally, if someone were to glide in, expecting to be presented with a handy bowl of bitesized nuggets and a spoon, they are likely to be disappointed.  This exhibition requires the visitor to pause, to read, to consider, to explore the files, to listen to the interviews, to feel its landscape of stories, images and emotions.  It asks us to give some time.  In respect to this ancient ancestor, to do so is not just honourable, but I think it worth it.

I don’t like it, the exhibition.  It is deeply discomforting.  But I am not convinced that I would like anything they could possibly have come up with.  Recreating the soft magical greens of Lindow Moss, the flickering of light in the leaves, and laying him within that, as if he were Oberon awaiting his Titania, may have felt more respectful.  But his story is one of brutality; whether murdered or sacrificed, perhaps within a landscape tight with the threat or horror of invasion, he was buried in the peat for almost two millennia, unable to dissolve fully into the realms of the dead, dug up (quite possibly sliced up) by mechanical diggers, and so his story continues.  Do we now offer him the niceties of a pretty environment wherein he can lie in his sterilised glass box?  I fear such gentle surroundings would only pacify our culture, allowing us to believe a little longer that keeping our ancestors preserved in glass boxes, to be gawped at, is acceptable.  This exhibition doesn’t offer us such comfort.

I would rather see him reburied.  With dignity, with honour, with thanks for all he has given us, as an ancestor, a grandfather, I would ask that he now be returned to the land, that he may rest in peace.  This is a sacred, precious and unquestioned gift we give every member of our community.  Why not him?

Extricating myself from the crowd at the official opening, I returned 8 days later.  HAD had arranged with the museum that, on Saturday 26 April,  local Pagans might  have a few hours after closing time to make their own ritual within the gallery.

Following the initial consultation in 2007 and our earlier correspondence, Gordon the Toad had stepped in to organise the rite.  We limited the numbers to around 35 in order to ensure we didn’t crowd him or find ourselves too many within the space, and each of those places was quickly filled.  Given a room in the museum in which to prepare, we gathered and shared our responses to the exhibition, catching up with news, changing into ritual robes and finalising ideas.

Orchestrated by Gordon, the rite lasted around an hour and a half.  Once the public had left, the group processed through the museum, with rattles and drums beating the sound of our footsteps, voices joining in a chant that called for blessings upon the tribe and the land.  Many had made flags and banners honouring the event and these were held with pride.  There were Druids, Wiccans, Witches, Heathens, and those of various other Pagan traditions.

Within the gallery, local groups from regions around Manchester – Lancashire, Yorkshire, Cheshire and Merseyside – brought forward mosses, leaves, bark and earth from their own tribal grounds, each making prayers in turn, speaking for and to the four winds, bringing blessings and stories, to honour the ancient ancestor.  A local Pagan ecologist stepped forward to speak of and for the mosses and peatlands, reminding us how endangered they are with all the wildlife dependent upon them, and again prayers and offerings were made.

I was then asked to make the calls to the ancestors, and I did so, speaking to those of the landscape, those of our blood, our tribes, and those of our religious and spiritual heritage.  Turning to Lindow Man, there in his case, it was hard to say the words aloud: in him I felt the whisper of the wind on the moss, I felt his mother’s loss, and I longed to collapse into the keening of our tradition, howling grief from the depths of my soul, expressing that mud-rich and deep-rooted respect for the dead.

Once I’d made my offerings, Gordon asked who would speak for the future, for the dreams and gifts that would guide us from here, and two stepped forward, their voices gently asking the unanswerable questions.  Their energies led us into a period, exquisitely accompanied by the harp, where any of the gathering could step forward, make prayers and present offerings.

Once thanks had been given to all those who had attended, the spirits, the gods, the group left the gallery, their banners and rattles, drums and chanting filling the air.  Regathering outside the museum, beneath the skies and within the hum of the city’s song, there Lindow Man, his tribe, the land, the gods, were toasted with mead and seedcake.  This was then shared amongst all who were present, with apple juice for those who preferred not to drink alcohol.

It was an honour to attend the rite and to be a part of it.  Many were moved to tears, feeling the strength of the moment, the discomfort and connection.  All were enormously grateful to the museum for allowing us to do it.

It will be interesting to see how people perceive the exhibition.  Already it has caused consternation, indignation, debate, it has provoked thought.  I would like to acknowledge the courage of the Manchester Museum, for not only is their vision radical, the way in which they reached it was profoundly ethical: with sound consultation.  That the remit provided by that consultation didn’t produce quite what was expected is perhaps a useful reminder about how we communicate and what it is that we share.  The most important elements were in place: this young man, who so brutally died, is back in the north, amidst his own tribe once more, honoured and most welcome.

I am pleased the exhibition is not pretty or easy, for how strange it would be if it were.  And I am glad it is not comfortable to see him: it shouldn’t be.

Emma Restall Orr
April 2008