From the Lindisfarne Gospels to Stephenson’s Rocket: The case for a National Museum of Northumbria

Stephenson’s Rocket comes in first at the trials competition held at Rainhill Bridge, 1829. Image: Getty.

A thought experiment: imagine the National Museum of Northumbria. What would be its contents?

The idea came to me as I visited the Discovery Museum in Newcastle where the Stephensons’ Rocket is on display as part of the Great Exhibition of the North. The engine has been loaned by the Science Museum for 80 days to be displayed alongside Parsons’ steamship Turbinia.

It is a powerful juxtaposition. Although incorporating many previous technical advances, Rocket has an unsurpassed claim to be the world’s first steam locomotive. While popularly associated with George Stephenson, who commissioned it for the Rainhill Trials in 1829, it was designed by his son Robert and built at the Forth Street Works, a stone’s throw from the where it is on display. The world’s first turbine powered steamship, Turbinia was built at Charles Parson’s shipyard on the Tyne in 1894. Its unprecedented speed astonished spectators at the Navy Review for Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee at Spithead in 1897 and a new industry was born. Turbinia is part of the Tyne and Wear Museum Service’s permanent collection, although the vessel’s original powerplant is owned by the Science Museum. In short, these artefacts are potent symbols of North East England’s role as a crucible of the steam age.

The industrial revolution was one of two key moments when the region achieved world renown. The earlier occasion was in the mid-seventh to mid-eighth centuries, during the Golden Age of Northumbria, an independent kingdom and cradle of civilisation in what used to be known as the Dark Ages. Its greatest relic is the Lindisfarne Gospels, produced at the monastery on Holy Island in 715-720. This illuminated manuscript, created in honour of Cuthbert, bishop of Lindisfarne and patron saint of Northumbria, is one of the greatest works of early medieval art.

Originally, the manuscript was housed in Durham Cathedral, as part of the shrine of St Cuthbert, after the monks of Lindisfarne relocated there. The shrine was destroyed during the Reformation and the Gospels disappeared. In 2013 they returned briefly to Durham, when they were loaned by the British Library, the current owners.

A page from the Lindisfarne Gospels. Image: Getty.

The Gospels are only one of the great Northumbrian treasures now located in museums in London and around the world. The British Library owns the St Cuthbert Gospel which was found in the saint’s coffin. The Franks Casket in the British Museum was also made in Northumbria in the eighth century. The Codex Amiatinus, the oldest surviving Latin Vulgate version the Bible, now in the Laurentian Library in Florence, was created in the monastery of Wearmouth-Jarrow, the seat of Northumbrian learning. (It will be loaned to the British Library for its upcoming exhibition on the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. See it, if you can.)

Why are so many of the region’s treasures lost to it, and why are so many located in London? The main answer lies in a bigger story of British imperialism. The British Museum contains artefacts looted from many parts of the world: the Elgin Marbles, the Benin Bronzes and the Gweagal shield are the best known, and most controversial, examples.

In this sense, North East England has a (post)colonial cultural relationship with London. When a campaign was launched to return the Lindisfarne Gospels to where they originated, a British Library spokesperson said: “The gospels are of fundamental importance to a heritage that reaches far beyond the region in which the manuscript was produced.”

This is a statement of the obvious, but the barely hidden assumption here is that only in London can the Gospels be fully appreciated. In London, though, the Gospels are abstracted from the context of their production and mobilised into a generic (inter)national story that negates their full meaning.

Similarly, Rocket is only fully understood as a product of the distinctive regional industrial milieu. Stephenson’s great rival at Rainhill was Timothy Hackworth whose locomotive works was in nearby Shildon, County Durham.

The kingdom of Northumbria is long gone, but as the historian Robert Colls has shown, in the 19th century, many leading industrialists and opinion formers cast themselves in the role of ‘New Northumbrians’. Through science and industry, they were recovering the lost status of the region and reinventing it for modernity. Great attention was paid to history; evident in John Clayton’s ‘conservation’ of Hadrian’s Wall, Bishop Lightfoot’s sermons on the Northumbrian saints, and the lectures on Northumbrian identity by Robert Spence Watson and others given at Newcastle’s Lit and Phil in the 1890s.

Perhaps the greatest expression of this movement is William Bell Scott’s Pre-Raphaelite mural at Wallington Hall,featuring scenes from Northumbrian history and using Clayton and others as models for historical figures.

The idea of the national museum emerged in the 19th century at the time the New Northumbrians were at work. The Swedish historians Peter Aronnsson and Gabriela Elgenius have shown how, as the great empires disintegrated, any self-respecting territory with pretensions of political autonomy sought to build a national museum.  

In Finland, for instance, once part of the kingdom of Sweden and then of Russian Empire, the building of national museums preceded the achievement of independence in 1919. The creation of the Finnish state was not guaranteed – it may have remained a region of Russia – but museum building was a component of claims to nationhood. Today, stateless nations project their identities through new museums, such as the Museum of Catalan History in Port Vell, Barcelona which opened in 1996, the National Museum of Scotland (2006) and the Museum of the Bavarian Kings at Neuschwanstein (2011).

So, what would the National Museum of Northumbria look like? It would look very impressive if it gathered the important objects mentioned above. Our thought experiment might be extended to consider what other exhibits the Museum might include to tell rich and multifaceted stories of the region’s distinctive culture and achievement to create truly a great exhibition.

But the most important artefacts typically are retained in London. Reclaiming them would require a radical reconfiguration of curatorial assumptions. Grace and favour loans would not suffice. London would need to shed its colonial dispositions and learn to share.

John Tomaney is professor of urban & regional planning at the Bartlett School of Planning, University College London.


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