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.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.