Staging the world

The celestial spheres, as illustrated in Peter Apian’s Cosmographia, 1539

But els in deep of night when drowsines
Hath lockt up mortal sense, then listen I
To the celestial Sirens harmony,
That sit upon the nine enfolded Sphears …

John Milton, ‘Arcades’ (1634)

I spent a great three hours yesterday afternoon at the British Museum’s exhibition Shakespeare: Staging the World. It’s been their blockbuster Cultural Olympiad event of the year, and I’m a bit late in the day getting to see it, and it looked like many others were anxiously catching up on it before it closes in a few weeks’ time, because it was quite full. Indeed was a bit of a scrum, and careful contemplation was a challenge.

The exhibition is not so much about Shakespeare as the world that he inhabited, reflected through his plays and illustrated by museum objects. This didn’t just mean the actual physical world but the mental one too, and not just the Elizabethan/Jacobean period (which I’d been expecting) but back into earlier centuries where these were covered by the history and Roman plays. It was like a journey through that standard academic text of my time at school, E.M.W. Tillyard’s The Elizabeth World Picture, though more grounded in the physical than the cosmic. The exhibition takes us through nine ‘imagined worlds’: the city of London, the countryside, national identity, Rome, Venice, race, superstition, kingship, and the emerging new world. The cosmic world wasn’t covered, which was a surprise, for the number nine either consciously or unsconsciously echoes John Milton’s ‘nine enfolded Sphears’ of celestial harmony which Tillyard makes much of. The exhibition grows from the kernel of London (with the Globe theatre at its heart) outwards in time and space to a much wider world, with this globe then viewed by ourselves whose own world and its preoccupations we find reflected in the world that Shakespeare knew.

What particularly interested me was how this concentric world picture was reflected in the exhibition’s design. It is set within what was previously the round reading room of the British Museum, that hub of the world’s knowledge that has now moved to 96 Euston Road. The designers write how they aimed for a synthesis between theatre and exhibition:

In the theatre, the audience remains in a fixed location as the spectacle changes everyone starts the play at the same time and finishes at the same time. The experience is a shared one that unfolds over time.

In an exhibition, the spectacle is fixed. It tends to be an individual experience that unfolds as the visitor moves through the space at his or her own pace, encountering new points of view with every step. Our challenge was to blend the visual language of performance-based stage design with that of object-based exhibition design and to come up with something new and unexpected.

Model for the Shakespeare: Staging the World exhibition by RFK Architects Ltd, from the British Museum blog

The result was not concentric as such, but more akin to the spiral of a shell, into which we are drawn in to its centre then by some geometric magic led out again without having ever retraced our steps. Much has been written about the cosmological world of Shakespeare’s plays and the Globe theatre as microcosm of the Elizabethan world. The exhibition ingeniously and rightfully expressed this in design. This was a world view on exhibition.

Another part of the design that interested me was its use of moving image and sound. As one enters the exhibition along a spiralling, dark corridor, the sounds of playgoers at today’s Globe are played through speakers, introducing us to the idea that this is to be as much theatre as exhibition. Sound recordings of speeches from the plays, and occasionally videos variously projected onto the walls are provided by Royal Shakespeare Company performers (Harriet Walter, Ian McKellen, Patterson Joseph and others). It is an exhibition full of sounds as well as sights.

This is a quite bold thing to do, because a lot of people do not like sounds in their exhibitions – as various commentators on Shakespeare: Staging the World have made clear. At the British Library our exhibitions usually endeavour to include sound and video, but usually tucked away almost shamefully in dark corners, with headphones provided to preserve the hallowed hush (our recent Evolving English exhibition was a bold and welcome exception). People want to look at the objects (if they can peek through the heads of the crowds) and not be distracted by noise.

Patterson Joseph as Brutus, one of the videos featured in the exhibition

But Shakespeare: Staging the World is a stage, as well as an exhibition, as the designers explain. Performance lies at the heart of it. Personally I was thrilled to encounter sounds playing out over the exhibition spaces and found them not intrusive but rather integral to the whole experience. The volume levels were judged rightly; the positioning was apposite. I found it really encouraging that sounds might not be hidden away but could impart context and understanding equally with objects, text, images and maps. It was a richer, fuller experience – a richer, fuller world on show – because of it.

It is our great loss, of course, that we do not have archives of the sounds and life in motion of the Shakespearean era. How much closer we would feel ourselves to be a part of that world if we did! The British Museum of a future age, when recreating life in early twenty-first century Britain for some blockbuster exhibition (see how strangely people lived back then, yet how close they are to us if we only have the imagination to see it), will have so much more to call on when illustrating an age that compulsively recorded itself through every medium. Our stage will not be the Globe, however. It will probably be a mobile phone, placed in the heart of the exhibition space, out of which will pour forth everything.

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