Celts: Art and Identity

This week I visited the British Museum in London to take a look at their exhibition ‘Celts: Art and Identity’. Having studied many of the artefacts that were on display, it was always going to be a real treat for me. I arrived in great anticipation: I was finally going to see the Gundestrup cauldron, The Snettisham Torc and the many other fabulous treasures I had only so far seen in photographs. And I wasn’t disappointed in this respect. The objects themselves are well worth a visit. Sadly, the interpretation of Celtic identity left me feeling rather frustrated.

I originally started this blog to discuss Celtic myths, to open them to deeper readings, to help others appreciate them as much as possible. But for once I’m going to try and dispel a myth, in particular the myth that lies at the heart of this otherwise amazing exhibition.

The narrative created by the curators was based on the idea that over the millennia Celtic identity has been very ‘fluid’, and this word crept up consistently throughout the presentations. From Classical references to exotic northern tribes to a style of modern art, the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ have been used for many different things and in many different ways, making them terms that are apparently ‘fluid’ and quite nebulous. As a result, the exhibition claimed that the “concept of a fluid Celtic identity” was a “powerful political tool”, the suggestion being that it simply served a superficial nationalism and in reality didn’t have much validity as a description of a historical people. What the curators failed to grasp was that the terms ‘Celt’ and ‘Celtic’ have regularly been used to mean very different things, but usually with no regard to what the Celts themselves have to say on the subject.

Regardless of its apparent instability, the term ‘Celtic’ has been used in a remarkably consistent way at crucial points in time. The ancient Greeks used it to describe a particular group of people. Then, many centuries later, the Welsh scholar Edward Lhuyd (1660 -1709) used it to refer to the descendants of these same people. So it was used as a name for the same group of people in the first millennia BC and then again two millennia later. Nothing fuzzy or mysterious there. After Edward Lhuyd, ‘Celtic’ was used to designate a language group and resulted in the idea of the Celtic nations, those folks who were on the same branch of the Indo-European languages family tree. None of this is contentious. ‘Celtic’ is still used as the name for the same people the early Greeks were talking about.

It’s true that the Celts for most of their history didn’t call themselves Celts. But neither did the Germanic peoples necessarily call themselves Germanic; that doesn’t lead us to make claims about the ‘fluid’ nature of the English identity. Far from being so nebulous, the Celtic speaking nations have preserved historical identities that are so far some of the oldest in Europe. The apparent instability of the term ‘Celtic’ in an English context doesn’t mean that what it refers to is itself unstable. Celts exist independently of whether the English language can fully grasp them or not. The Welsh have always known that they are descendants of the early Britons, who were themselves descendants of the people the Greeks called the Celts. Again, this isn’t contentious. The Welsh identity is rooted in a very old idea that has remained coherent for a very long time. There is nothing ambiguous or ‘fluid’ about it. Yes, Celtic identity has changed, but it must be asked: relative to what is Celtic identity ‘fluid’? Relative to English identity? Relative to Germanic identity? Are these in any way less fluid?

The confused thinking of the curators was seen at it’s worst in their giving so much attention to the Celtic ‘Revival’ of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The assumption was that this strand of mainly English culture was a reflection of Celtic culture. This is a bit like claiming that Disney’s Sword in the Stone is an accurate retelling of the Welsh myth of Arthur. They are related, one is obviously rooted in the other, but neither are they the same. Disney’s film is a filtered, simplified version of the myth adapted for the modern Anglo-American audience, whereas the early Welsh texts preserve the original cultural phenomena. The Celtic Revival is just the same. The actual Celtic culture of the time was alive and well in the towns, villages and farmsteads of Celtic speaking communities, but was quite different to what the English speaking bourgeois assumed it to be. At the time, the Celtic Revival served to confirm an English stereotype, and did very little to preserve what remained of the Manx and Cornish languages, or reverse the steep decline of Welsh, Irish, Scotts Gaelic and Bretton. The exhibition is simply perpetuating this same ignorance.

Whereas the quasi-pagan fetishes of English Romantics were given a place of honour at the exhibition, very little space was given to the actual history of the Celtic nations after the Roman occupation. There was no hint of how remarkably coherent the Celtic cultures were throughout the medieval period, and how many early, pre-Christian elements were preserved by the medieval Celtic tradition. In contrast, the modern Celtic Revival was sighted as proof that modern Celtic identity was a fluid and unsteady phenomena, indeed nothing more than a romantic reinvention of the past. Which it was, but one that took place almost totally within an English context! In this respect, the exhibition did more to reaffirm an English attitude than it did to actually reveal Celtic cultures in an English setting, something that’s clearly still desperately needed.

The ancient Celtic art on display at the museum is stunning, but the exhibition itself is strung together with the same nonsense that has caused so much confusion between the English and their closest neighbours over the centuries. I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of visitors came away thinking that bards and eisteddfodau were invented by Welsh Victorian romantics, or that the Anglo-Saxons simply ‘emerged in Britain’ (I assume they popped out of a hole in Kent), or that the Celts were dreamed up by renaissance scholars. The English curators’ unconscious attitude to their Indo-European cousins is akin to how many old people are treated these days: their memories are unreliable, they’ve lost a few marbles, and because they can’t be trusted we’ve confiscated the family silver.

What the curators failed to acknowledge is that those of us still living in Celtic cultures are quite capable of defining our own national identities, diolch yn fawr iawn. The Celts are not a senile culture of self-deluding romantics, we are alive and well and doing things in the world right now. Let us speak for ourselves, we may then believe that the museum is actually British in the full sense of the word.

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5 thoughts on “Celts: Art and Identity

  1. Yep – ‘Yma o Hyd’!

    But, as you say, you wouldn’t know it given the filters through which Celtic identity is viewed and the ignorance of a tradition which is invisible to most, even, to some extent, within Wales itself.

  2. Thank you for your coherence in describing what had bothered me about the exhibition. I was enthused and delighted by the exhibits themselves but found the curator’s commentary annoying – I stopped reading it 1/4 of the way around and simply focused on the items themselves.

  3. Hear hear – just reading this now but I made the very same comment back to the ‘English’ Museum at the time. I’m cornish myself and while impressed at the famous objects they had gathered together was sorely disappointed to see barely anything at all from Brittany Wales, Devon or Cornwall. This is reflected in the permanent display as well.

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