Assembling Bodies

This is a review of an exhibition at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge which was written for the Journal of Museum Ethnography. However, as it looks like it will be published after the exhibition closes, it seemed like it might be worth putting up here while the exhibition can still be viewed:

Assembling Bodies: Art, Science & Imagination, at Museum of Archaeology & Anthropology, University of Cambridge, from 10 March 2009 to November 2010.

For further information see:

Atomised – Jim Bond, 2005

Finding your way into the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge means entering a gated archway. Passing through this creates a sense of leaving the public space of the town and entering an arena that belongs to the university. As a ‘townie’ growing up in Cambridge, I had the sense that all the exciting things that ever seemed to happen in the city took place behind such gates. Once inside, you are confronted with a courtyard dominated by the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, which appears to have landed in the middle of the lawn. Out of sight and tucked away in one corner is the door behind which lies the museum. The museum’s ground floor archaeology gallery is lit up by the orange and green hessian lining its cases, and there is little here to suggest much of the art, science or imagination of this exhibition’s subtitle. However Assembling bodies is displayed in the museum’s second floor gallery, and getting there means leaving this space and climbing a staircase. As you climb, you glimpse people entering and leaving passages and doorways, and on the second floor landing, opposite the entrance to the gallery, you can make out the massed volumes of a department library behind the glass of a door.

This is very definitely a university museum, and you can’t enter it without being aware that it exists alongside and in relation to the university as a site of teaching, learning and research. Rather than attempting to dumb down for a contemporary public, bloated on a diet of celebrity news and reality TV, Assembling Bodies embraces this position and catapults its visitors into the midst of a conversation between people living and working across the departments, colleges, hospitals and artists’ studios of this city. In the Foreword to the exhibition’s catalogue the museum’s director Nicholas Thomas notes that this is the most ambitious exhibition it has ever attempted, and suggests that it ‘exemplifies what university museums do best… a visual and sensory feast that we hope will excite everyone, but is also above all a research-driven, question-raising exhibition.’ The exhibition has been timed to coincide with both the Museum’s 125th anniversary and the University’s 800th. Most of the city’s other exhibition spaces seem to be dominated by marking another anniversary, the 150th since Darwin’s publication of the Origin of Species and the 200th since his birth. Rather than dwell on the achievements of one of the University’s more famous alumni, who is also claimed by a large number of other places, Assembling Bodies positions itself firmly within Cambridge’s present. It could even be argued that this exhibition forges a path into the future.

Much of the work underlying the exhibition has taken place during a recent cross- disciplinary research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust on ‘Changing Beliefs of the Human Body’ and this is perhaps why the exhibition creates such a sense of ongoing and unfolding exploration. Like Darwin’s explorations and experiments on the Beagle, this experiment in exploratory exhibition-making also feels like it may continue to generate insights for a while to come. This is no bad thing since the exhibition will be in place for a period of around twenty months. The research interests of the exhibition’s three curators Anita Herle, Rebecca Empson and Mark Elliott are made prominent in the exhibition through the use they make of Haddon’s Torres Straits photographs, a household chest from Mongolia, as well as an array of Indian sculptural busts made by the sculptor Marguerite Milward. As well as collaborating to produce the text of the exhibition, website and catalogue, each of the curators has contributed an individually authored essay to the catalogue. These are joined by other essays written by archaeologists, anthropologists, classicists, artists, and sociologists who were involved in the research project, most of whom work for the University of Cambridge. While this journal now has separate review sections for exhibitions, books and electronic media, in this case the relationship between all three is so close, that it seems sensible to regard them as different parts of the same overall body of work. A visit to the exhibition in Cambridge feels like a ‘first contact’ which can be developed through further engagements with the website as well as with the more reflective essays in the catalogue.


According to the website, the exhibition ‘explores some of the different ways that bodies are imagined, understood and transformed in the arts, social and bio-medical sciences.’ Entering the exhibition-space one is faced with a kinetic sculpture, Atomised, which assembles and then disassembles the steel outline of a human body as visitors pass in and out of the exhibition. This contemporary artwork forms part of an introductory installation which brings together a plaster cast of the nude female Aphrodite of Knidos, a French anatomical model and a New Ireland malangan sculpture all from the nineteenth century with a model of the DNA double helix, a shaman’s costume from Manchuria, and an ancestral effigy from Vanuatu from the twentieth century, as well as a middle Bronze Age funerary urn from Cambridgeshire and a print of a South African acrylic painting produced in 2003. That the curators choose to describe this as an installation is significant, since it seems that they understand their role in assembling this exhibition as simultaneously artists, scientists and imaginaries. Displayed on the wall above the entrance are a number of texts relating to the laws governing the treatment of human bodies in contemporary Britain, and these flag up another sense in which the curators intend the title of the exhibition to be taken – drawing attention to the assembly as a gathering for a common purpose as in the case of a legislative ‘body’. Each of the bodies on display in the museum is simultaneously the product of and the reason for a process of material assembly, but also for an assembling of humans, whether they be scientists, classicists, South African AIDS activists or mourners from New Ireland, Malekula, or Bronze Age Cambridgeshire. The bodies on display assemble a body of humans around them, but are also an assembly of such a body. This is a fractal exhibition in which the sense of the terms Assembling and Bodies recur and resonate at many different levels and scales of meaning.

Fa`a fafine: in the manner of a woman – Shigeyuki Kihara, 2005

After this introductory section, the exhibition consists of six further thematic zones located around the circular balcony gallery. The curators declare that there are many pathways through these, describing the groupings as overlapping ‘clusters’ that draw on the comparative method to ‘throw differences into relief, to identify similarities between diverse materials and to make the familiar appear strange and open to investigation.’ The website lists these clusters in one order and the catalogue in another, neither of which was that in which I encountered the exhibition. Body & Landscape suggests ways in which bodies can relate to the landscapes in which they live by displaying a number of archaeological materials as well as a model Haida totem pole and a print by Jo Stockham which suggests an analogy between human body and the globe, as microcosm and macrocosm. A video installation shows, in accelerated time, the process by which a number of living bodies unearthed a dead one during an archaeological excavation during summer 2007. Genealogies & Genomes brings together a number of forms for reckoning the relationships between bodies, including twelfth and seventeenth century European diagrams, an aboriginal bark painting from Arnhem land, a Maori cloak, a Chinese spirit tablet and a Tibetan rebirth mural. Alongside these is displayed a volume of the printed version of the DNA sequence published by the human genome project in 2005. This anonymous coded text sits in counterpoint to a portrait by Marc Quinn of the geneticist John Sulston who led the project, which includes his photograph alongside a sample of DNA in a bar of agar jelly. Alongside this is an installation of bilum string bags and pearl shells which explore Melanesian modes of relatedness, outlined further in a catalogue essay by one of their most important interpreters, Cambridge’s recently retired Professor of Anthropology, Marilyn Strathern. Extending and Distributing includes interesting sections on votive body parts, relics & memorials, prosthetics and organ transplants. The Body Multiple includes four further ‘body maps’ produced by the Bambanani Women’s Group in South Africa, which document the lives of a number of women with HIV who have had access to antiretroviral therapies. The maps began with an outline of each woman’s body, but layers of interpretation are built up around these detailing the multiple ways in which each woman thinks about her body. Measuring and Classifying includes display sections on Instruments & Analogies, Typologies, The Body & Its Capacities, Phrenology, Brain Imaging and Anthropology & Photography. The last of these draws heavily on the museum’s own history and collection and becomes a self-reflexive installation by the museum’s curators. Art & Anatomy includes the Milward portraits, a set of Roman busts, a Mende mask, a number of anatomical diagrams and devices as well as a display on sounding bodies that includes a number of stethoscopes. Alongside these is the striking photographic triptych Fa’a fafine: in the manner of a woman by Shigeyuki Kihara, which was also exhibited in the last exhibition to be shown in this space: Pasifika styles.

The re-presentation of this artwork made me think of the ways in which a part of one body may become reconfigured as part of another, suggesting permeability and leakage between bodily formations. The central space of the gallery is filled by a sculpture commissioned from Jim Bond who also made Atomised with which the exhibition begins. From most angles in the gallery Anamorphism appears as a number of disconnected steel pieces, but when viewed from one end these come together to give the outline of a human form. The photograph of this in the catalogue shows it against a black background, but in the gallery the museum’s large totem pole, appears to be looming up behind it, another whole formed from many parts. The curators use the hollowed out reverse of the totem pole as a convenient place to mount an interactive monitor showing images of brain scans, but it is not the only object from the museum’s collection which permeates into the space of this exhibition without being given a label. Hanging from the roof is a canoe which suggests itself as both an extension to the human body and a way in which bodies relate to their environment. Because bodies touch and are touched by so many things, I found myself struggling to think of an object that could not have found a place somewhere in this exhibition. As a result, it is not only the boundaries between this exhibition and the rest of the museum that are permeable and the objects displayed in the exhibition come from the collections of other Cambridge museums, college collections and even the National Portrait Gallery and the Science Museum in London. The interchangeability of bodies means that many of the objects displayed in this exhibition would have worked equally well in a number of the exhibition’s other thematic clusters.

The Head of the Blue Chip II – Dianne Harris, 2009

The exhibition’s introductory panel asks its visitors ‘How does the encounter with these different human forms influence the way you think about your own body?’ This question occurred to me on three occasions while visiting the exhibition. The first was
when I caught sight of my own reflection in one of the glass case fronts. The second was as I encountered the lifelike gaze projected by Head of the Blue Chip II by the artist Dianne Harris. The third occurred on leaving, when rather than looking at the doorways that led off the staircase, I was faced with my own reflection in the mirror of the lift. My body, unlike those I had been looking at is alive and its actions, such as entering by the stairs and leaving by the lift, are not uniform enough to be predicted by the laws governing the movements of other kinds of bodies. Isaac Newton famously assembled these laws of motion in Cambridge, and his presence in the exhibition is marked by his death mask, which features in the exhibition’s display of relics. The body responsible for assembling this exhibition, Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, is in many ways more like my body than those it has assembled, since it is hard to predict what it will do next.

Birmingham – A City in the Making

This week I attended a meeting of the Historians Advisory group for a major new suite of galleries at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery. Birmingham – A History in the Making will take its place on the third floor of the museum and replace the history galleries that were hastily assembled when the museum’s natural history collections were removed in 2003.

View of the proposed entrance to the new galleries. Copyright Redmans Design. See:

Even though Heritage Lottery Funding was only announced in November, and even though the galleries aren’t scheduled to open until 2012 or 2013, the plans seemed to be pretty advanced. We were asked to comment not simply on ideas for galleries, but on a particular case and its contents. I was in a group looking at how slavery was going to be represented in a gallery on the eighteenth century.

We struggled with how to represent on the one hand the way in which Birmingham manufacturers and consumers benefitted from the slave trade, but on the other hand the way in which the movement against the slavery became particularly strong among the non-conformist manufacturing elites in the town.

The real problem was how to get across all this complexity in a single glass case. In my group was Catherine Hall, Professor of History at UCL whose fantastic book Civilising Subjects covers some of this ground in relation to Birmingham in the nineteenth century. That book, however, runs to over 500 pages and only deals with the period 1830-1867.

As historian after historian suggested textual documents which might be used, I started to realise the real challenges involved in creating a good museum display. It’s nothing like writing a book since you can’t rely on, and refer to endless other texts. Finding the right objects to display makes all the difference, but sometimes these can be terribly elusive.

The problem with slavery in eighteenth century Birmingham is that much of the time it was happening elsewhere. Goods were made there but exported. Sugar arrived there, but almost mysteriously from afar. Making slavery present in Birmingham is not just a problem that just confronts 21st century curators but was also a problem for anti-slavery campaigners such as Josiah Wedgwood.

Campaigning materials are some of the most eloquent objects that Birmingham has to display, but these only tell one part of the story. The other is the everyday, taken for granted nature of slavery, the way in which it was tied into all sorts of business practices and investments. I couldn’t help but thinking of commodities such as ‘blood diamonds‘ or the mineral coltan, which like sugar in the eighteenth century is central to all sorts of new consumer behaviour in Britain. While we might read about the connections between our behaviour and horrific acts of cruelty and violence, we still can’t quite believe that our mobile phones and engagement rings are really responsible.
In the end, as a group, we argued that you couldn’t really deal with slavery by separating it out and placing it in a case called ‘taking a stand’. Instead you had to try and also make its presence felt in other sections of the gallery that focussed on trade and manufacture, and the prominent men of the city such as Matthew Boulton. You also can’t really deal with it by confining it the eighteenth century, as if the 1807 abolition of the trade in the British Empire marked the end of Birmingham’s involvement in supplying goods that were traded for slaves.
Since the bicentenary, three years ago, slavery has almost become too prominent in the museum world, presenting a now well-known story with a happy ending. By telling this story, you can almost get out of telling all sorts of other stories about the way in which life in Britain has been intimately connected with the lives of people in other parts of the world for a very long time. One has to wonder how many people have died at the end of a gun that was made in Birmingham. 
However, unlike the slave trade, that story may be a more difficult one to tell, since the UK continues to export arms around the world. BAE, one of the largest arms producers in the world, continues to have factories at Wolverhampton in the West Midlands, just down the road from Birmingham Museum. 

Rebuilding Tradescant’s Ark at Sea

I went to the Ashmolean Museum today. I was keen to see what the £61 million refurbishment had ended up looking like.

I have a soft spot for the Ashmolean since I had my very first undergraduate tutorials there. They were with the inspirational prehistorian Andrew Sherratt, in his dingy attic office with views across the Oxford roofscape. We had eight weeks to cover the whole of human history from human evolution to the silk route, by way of the origins of farming, cities and metal-working. This was an exhilarating ride – the task for my first week in Oxford was to produce a diagram showing the significant events in human history – all of it!

Tutorials were epic events at 2pm on a Friday afternoon, sometimes lasting upwards of three hours. I remember Andrew repeatedly boiling an old kettle next to his desk and making himself cups of black coffee. He never thought to offer a cup to the two first year undergraduates sitting across the desk from him. By 5pm, gasping with thirst, we would be turned onto the street by the museum security guards, locking up the galleries for the night.

That was in 1997, and in those days many of the galleries at the Ashmolean still featured arrays of countless objects with handwritten labels and explanatory panels. There were galleries of material from Egypt and the Near East, from the ancient Mediterranean, from India and China, as well as galleries of European fine art. They were all in the same building, but each space had a very different look and feel, reflecting the preoccupations of the different departments of the museum. To connect the dots, and think about how what was happening in China related to what you could see in the European galleries, or how the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia related to Minoan crete or Ancient Greece and Rome, you needed someone like Andrew.

As a pioneer of world-systems thinking in Archaeology, he was happy to move from one part of the world to another, following the trade routes. He would drag us between the galleries to compare different types of pottery. When talking about stone tools in one tutorial, Andrew decided that the best thing would be to get the feel of them and dragged us into the bowels of the museum where he made us hold a series of stone tools dug out of a dusty storage boxes. Today, some of this connecting up has been attempted by the new displays. The welcome text declares that the museum’s new ‘display approach – Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time….reveals how the civilisations of the east and west have developed as part of an interrelated world culture.’ Glass panels and balconies allow you to look from one gallery to another and make the imaginative leaps yourself.

The atrium that you arrive at from the main entrance encourages the visitor to make connections between the different areas of the Ancient World that are displayed on the ground floor: the Mediterranean, the Near East, China, Egypt and India. In the basement a series of new displays make connections through themed displays on money, reading and writing and the human image. The key gallery on the first floor is called ‘Asian Crossroads; while the second floor has one called ‘West meets East’. The third floor seems to be preserved for European art of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and it is hard to escape the feeling that European modernism appears to have transcended the inter-regional influences of previous centuries (While in reality the influence of African and Pacific art on European modern art has been enormous). The third floor is also still largely empty, with some expansive (but unused) temporary exhibition spaces. Although the museum was formally opened by the Queen a month ago, it is still clearly a work in progress. Many cases were awaiting their labels and a number of positions in the cases remained unfilled. Like a venerable old ship, the Ashmolean continues to move, but attempts to impose a new display approach, like setting a new course from the bridge, isn’t going to happen quickly.

A lot has happened in museums since 1997, the year in which Tony Blair became the first Labour Prime Minister since 1979. By signing up to the New Labour social inclusion agenda, museums have been able to access pots of money for large capital building projects and new museum buildings have emerged all over the country. Pushing my son in his pushchair I was more than happy to find the new building dotted with lifts. However, I did have to work hard to find them and they are quite small, (we just squeezed in a pushchair, a wheelchair and two people standing at one point). Because of this, much of my afternoon seemed to be spent waiting at lift doors. These are the ubiquitous brushed metal, with plenty of mirrors inside which my one year old son could use to make faces at me.

The archaeologists of the future will surely marvel at the last decade as a boom period for museum building and renovation, inaugurated by the opening of the British Museum’s great court in 2000. It is of course paralleled by the contemporary and related trend of rebuilding those other great public buildings of our age: shopping centres. Both trends are perhaps symptoms of the consumer boon of the last decade. The stark modernist architecture in both cases features white surfaces with lots of chrome, stone and wood. The Ashmolean even has chrome baby changing stations. The only problem with shiny new buildings is that they make slightly less shiny, slightly less new buildings look much older than they actually are. They also show up dirt incredibly badly. With areas of the building still something of a building site, it wasn’t hard to find evidence of dirt and dust around the Ashmolean.

While the refurbishment of Oxford’s Westgate shopping centre has been put off due to the economic downturn, the Ashmolean redevelopment has managed to slip through the net of the impending age of austerity. As the UK’s oldest public museum, founded in 1683, the Ashmolean has seen recessions before. It has seen new museum buildings and reorganisations that have led to transfers of the natural history and ethnographic material from the University’s collections to other museums in Oxford. One can’t help thinking that for those curators who manage to hang on to their jobs, the shift away from big building projects, which the next decade must surely bring, may be something of a relief. The main beneficiaries of the bundles of cash spent on museums in the last ten years have been designers and architects, who have expected curators to supply them with objects, ideas and text, which they then mould into a design that has to look modern and up to date. Most museums have the same number or fewer curators than they did in 1997, but like the NHS, museums have employed armies of managers to see that the curators keep up with their increased work loads. While the redisplayed Ashmolean, and its new ‘display approach’ appears to embrace so many of the ideas of Andrew Sherratt, it is hard to imagine him working there. Discovering and following connections and patterns between different parts of the world requires an enormous amount of research time, but also quite a bit of fortuitous discovery that results from apparently purposeless exploration and lateral thinking.

At the end of a long afternoon exploring the galleries, I decided to visit the Ashmolean’s new rooftop restaurant for a cup of coffee, while I fed my son his dinner. Having managed to find the one lift that actually went to the fourth floor, I arrived to find the waiting staff packing up for the day. They told me that the coffee machine wasn’t working, denying me, once again, the chance of having a coffee while looking out from the roof of the museum. Once again we rode the lift back down to the basement cafe. My son is just learning to walk and following an afternoon strapped into his pushchair he was keen to cruise around the cafe from chair to chair for a bit of exercise. For a brief moment he dropped to the floor crawling over to something that had caught his eye. He reached up to me, his tiny hand clasping what looked like one of the obsidian flaked tools Andrew Sherratt had made me hold in my own hands. What he had actually found was a piece of broken glass, and a trickle of blood slipped slowly from the thin slice it had made in his one-year old thumb.

What a reminder, if one were needed of the origins of human culture and technology along the cutting edge. While the Ashmolean museum presents a celebratory account of human borrowing and influence under its motto ‘Crossing Cultures Crossing Time’, arguably the Ashmolean museum is not really about cultures at all, but about civilisations. As Andrew Sherratt would no doubt have been pleased to point out, while large states with urban centres manage to produce some pretty impressive objects, they also have well armed military forces ready to impose their will, particularly when their trade routes are threatened. It is no surprise then that the Chinese navy are currently looking for a permanent base on the African coast to take on the Somalian pirates. While culture is a word used most often by those who are trying to escape the influence of their former imperial powers, civilization is one most often used by empires. The French Anthropologist, Marcel Mauss has declared that ‘Societies live by borrowing from each other, but they define themselves by the refusal of borrowing.’ It is the conflict, and the cutting edge that appear to have been left out of the Ashmolean’s vision of ‘how the civilisations of the east and west have developed as part of an interrelated world culture.’

In getting to grips with the redevelopment at the Ashmolean Museum, a better analogy than steering a ship, might be rebuilding the ship while at sea. You can replace a few sections at a time, but try to do much at once and you start to spring some serious leaks. I wasn’t at all convinced that the Ashmolean wouldn’t require quite a lot of bailing if it were a ship at sea. The different departments’ displays, while more integrated than they once were, still seemed to be pulling the museum in different directions. As I left the baby changing area at 5:45pm, having cleaned up my son’s cut thumb, I found that although the museum officially now closes at 6pm, I had been locked into the empty galleries. As I waited for a security guard with a key to come and let me out, I reflected that despite its shiny new building and ‘display approach’, it was clearly still the same Museum. I hope that one day soon, I’ll manage to have that coffee with a view from the roof.

Finding gold at the end of the rainbow

I went to see the Staffordshire Hoard yesterday.

The hoard is an extraordinary find and deserves most of the excitement that has surrounded it. However there is much more going on than straightforward archaeological interest in the objects and their manufacture.

Arriving at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, soon after the museum opened on saturday morning met a long queue that stretched down the main stairs and into Chamberlain Square. The previous day, when the display had opened, the museum had around 2000 visitors coming to see the finds, and is now letting small groups see the objects for controlled amounts of time.
 These are small things, mostly sword fittings, so people have to crowd around the cases and peer at the delicate craftsmanship (See photos by my friend David Rowan).

However, now that the hoard has been discovered, and once the initial excitement dies away, further questions will arise about who it belongs to. Possession is an important part of the process by which archaeology and history become converted into heritage and put to work politically.

An inquest on 24th September found the hoard to be “treasure trove” and it therefore belongs to the crown. The finder and landowner will be rewarded to the value of the find. Such a discovery would once have been moved directly to the British Museum in London, as the nation’s main repository for archaeology. However questions have increasingly been raised about whether things that come from other parts of the British isles are necessarily best displayed in London (such as the Lewis Chessmen).

The last decade has seen the BM engaged in a series of partnerships with regional museums, such as Birmingham, and this seems to have tempered some of the acquisitiveness of the London curators. The decision to display the find in Birmingham before it has been valued in London is unprecedented and recognises the importance of the regional interest in the find, as well as the work that has been done at Birmingham Museum. However although the finds liason officer to whom the find was reported is based at Birmingham, the hoard was actually discovered in Staffordshire.

It seems that the Staffordshire County Council and the Stoke-on-trent City Council are interested in the find and are keen to claim it for themselves. The leader of Staffordshire County Council has declared “This is our heritage and we need to do it justice”.

Meanwhile, the leader of Stoke on Trent City Council has declared “This… will entice people from around the world to visit Staffordshire and the potential for this find to stimulate learning and regeneration is simply incredible.”

The leader of Birmingham Council Mike Whitby is on Youtube suggesting that the horde displays “the level of civilization within the midlands” and has suggested that it will teach us about “our heritage” but has urged for unity “so that we can keep the majority, if not all of this collection here in the midlands, its rightful home”.

Although it is the declared aim of all three councils to attempt to acquire the collection jointly, how this will work and who will display which objects will only be resolved by long and complex negotiations. Council funded museum services are under major financial pressure across the country, and curatorial posts have been cut under the watch of some of the same council leaders who are now so interested in acquiring the hoard.

Finding a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow may only be the beginning of this story, as people will now have to decide who it belongs to and what should happen to it. Given the rise of groups such as the English Defence League, who have recently been protesting in Birmingham, it probably won’t be long before people start connecting the Anglo-Saxon origins of the objects and their important as heritage for the ‘English’ as an exclusive ethnic group.

Aston Hall in Birmingham

I went to Aston Hall today.

Built between 1618 and 1635, its showy Jacobean architecture is a bit of a surprise in north Birmingham. The hall overlooks Villa Park and the Hall is closed on match afternoons. It is not far from spaghetti junction and the A38M Aston Expressway runs along one edge of the park, generating a constant buzz of traffic noise. However some clever tree planting has created a leafy environment from which the surrounding city seems distant.

The house has a long and complex history, being attacked during the civil war, and once the home to James Watt junior. The house has been owned by the city of Birmingham since 1864 and has been used as a museum since that time. However, it was only after the second world war that the house has been furnished as a period house, very similar to a National Trust property.

According to information panels in the house, during the 1990s the Hall and Park suffered from “reductions in funding and problems with vandalism and failure to respond to the needs of the local community.” In 1996, following the establishment of the Heritage Lottery Fund two years earlier, a £12 million redevelopment programme was planned.

In 2002 an application was made to the HLF, co-funded by the local development group Aston Pride. This is a local body set up with government money to tackle the area’s poor job prospects, high levels of crime, educational underachievement, poor health and problems with housing and the physical environment.

In October 2006 the Hall closed for the work to begin, and it re-opened earlier this summer. Having last visited the hall before it closed for one of the popular Aston Hall by candlelightevents, I wanted to see what had changed.

Most obvious was the new entrance in the old stable block. This now has a new reception area and shop, cafe and toilets. It is fully compliant with Disability Discrimination legislation, providing a route into the Hall which avoids the front step – really useful when pushing a buggy.

On the first floor, accessible by a shiny new lift is an exhibition called ‘Astonish’ which engages with the history of the local area, and particularly with its significant history of immigration, industrialisation and urbanisation. The refurbishment has also focussed on the park with the construction of a number of sports pitches and an impressive looking new Sports Pavillion.

As well as the Astonish gallery, the redevelopment has attempted to engage with the area’s diverse community in a number of ways. A new garden draws on 17th century European and Persian forms, with fountains reminiscent of the Alhambra, and bright new benches designed by the artist Anu Patel.

In addition the ‘World Room’ includes displays on the ‘Influence of the East’ on design and furniture styles. There are also sections on ‘oriental carpets’ as well as tea drinking and the relationship of European sugar consumption to transatlantic slavery.

Despite these touches, and the Hall’s free admission it’s hard not to feel a bit like Aston Hall is not entirely comfortable with its position in the middle of north Birmingham. The overwhelming focus of the room settings is still on the Jacobean period, when the Hall existed in a largely rural English landscape.

The local area is felt most strongly in the stable block, but according to the Duke of Wellington, being born in a stable does not make you a horse. I couldn’t help but wonder whether the children born in Aston, with family roots elsewhere, would grow up thinking of Aston Hall as their heritage or not.