I find the Mold Cape troubling, a beautiful, inspiring, technically brilliant, but ultimately troubling object. For the next few months, you can see the Mold Cape in Wales. Take the chance while you can, such occasions are few and far between, and duration of such visits are frequently ‘blink and you miss it’ moments. Before you know it, it will be packed up, shipped off, and back on display in London. Yet the ‘return’ of this object to Wales, initially to the south and then up to the north, does not really feel to me like something that should be celebrated. Instead it should be something that forces anyone in Wales with a love of culture, archaeology, or Welsh history in general, to ask some serious questions, of the object, and perhaps ourselves.
I won’t disguise my delight at being able to peer at the cape at close quarters in Cardiff this week. It is a stunning example of Bronze Age gold working, and rightly placed in the company of the British Museum’s – ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ series. I had the comfort and space to explore the object for roughly half an hour during this last week [while managing to drop into the Origins Gallery at other points in the week as well], after all, there was next to no one else looking at the object while I was there, so no competition for viewing rights, no shoulder barging required. And while twitter trends are probably not the most reliable means of gauging public interest in an object or collection, a grand total of some twenty tweets on the objects return to Cardiff, at the very least indicates that the social networking communities are yet to be inspired by the cape coming to Wales. So why the lack of interest?
Perhaps I should put my cards on the table, if you hadn’t already guessed it, I strongly believe that this object should be living permanently in Wales, if anything, Welsh museums should be loaning the object to the British Museum and not the other way around. I have never bought into the notion that this key Welsh object being displayed in central London somehow does anything beneficial for wider appreciation and understanding of Welsh archaeology/history/culture. Yet, what might be perceived as a lack of interest at the cape’s return, perhaps indicates why it should not be here, if audiences in Wales don’t care enough to come and look, what right do any of us have to argue for its return?
Well, plenty of right. I have long feared that the disconnection between audience and object is symptomatic of the lack of engagement between audiences in Wales, and Welsh history. How are Welsh children, year on year, supposed to be encouraged to engage with our prehistoric narratives, inspired by the great artistic achievements to be produced on Welsh soil, when the greatest tangible products of those periods are behind glass case, some 150 miles away, in another country? This factor I fear is the key component in understanding why interest is so ephemeral. How might we be expected to launch a meaningful repatriation campaign when so few people in Wales seem to have any awareness that this object originated in Wales? The Mold Cape troubles me, because it should be in Wales, we should be fighting for it to be in Wales, but we don't, and we seem to have no inclination to ever do so - a situation which will only be reinforced through the continued absence of such works in Wales.
Political representatives in Wales seem pretty happy to go along with the status quo as well. Culturally, we remain the junior partner, in spite of a decade of devolution. This is the ideal opportunity for political and cultural voices to make the claim – but none will. In turn, this should really challenge us to ask why bother loaning the object in the first place? If we don't care enough to fight for Welsh cultural heritage to be on Welsh soil all the time, why should we then care about such items dropping back in for several weeks – as suggested above, having spent some time with the collection in Cardiff, it seems that we don't care, and that should be the most troubling element of all.
We should value the Mold Cape, we should appreciate its return, but then we should do one of two things. Fight for its return, or try to understand why we are content in Wales for such objects to reside outside of the daily reach of Welsh audiences? One or the other should be considered essential for the future of archaeological and cultural collections in Wales.