Following the signing of an Anglo-French agreement, the Bayeux Tapestry is closer than ever to returning to the UK. Here, David Musgrove investigates what challenges face curators of the tapestry, and asks: how should it be displayed in the future?
The Bayeux Tapestry is, according to Antoine Verney, the chief curator of the Bayeux Tapestry Museum in the Normandy town of Bayeux, “one of the most important parts of the historical patrimony of England”.
He is undeniably right about that, given that it relates the story of the Norman Conquest of England and the victory of the Norman duke William over the last Anglo-Saxon ruler, Harold, in 1066. This explains why 20 per cent of the 400,000 people who visit the museum each year come from Britain. It helps that it is but a short hop across the English Channel to get to Bayeux (which is, in itself, a very pretty historical town), and that it is in the heart of D-Day country, which brings a steady flow of historically-inclined tourists on the trail of the 1944 landings.
Verney also points out that the tapestry means something quite different to French visitors (25 per cent of the footfall) who come to view the UNESCO-inscribed artefact. The British, he thinks, tend to view the tapestry as a monument that marks the end of a period, while the French consider it more as the start of a story of Anglo-Norman expansion. He also sees a very different level of knowledge about the Norman Conquest story across the Channel: for the British, the one date everyone knows is 1066; for the French, it is 1789. “A lot of French people think that Hastings is actually in Normandy,” he notes, “and that the battle took place in the Hundred Years’ War rather than the 11th century”.
On top of that, the Bayeux Tapestry Museum is catering to an international audience of visitors who are perhaps coming to visit as an aside to their main aim of exploring the D-Day landing sites, and for whom the 1066 story is really quite unknown.
This makes for many challenges in displaying and explaining the tapestry. It isn’t helped that it is a very fragile almost-thousand-year-old piece of embroidered linen (it is not actually a tapestry, but the name has stuck) that is nearly 70m long and just half a metre high. The display needs to be very sensitive to the conservation demands of preventing damage to such an artefact. Visitors to the museum today walk alongside the tapestry in a narrow, low-lit, U-shaped corridor, taken along at a fairly brisk pace by a handheld audio-guide (available in numerous languages) that gives a brief narrative account of the key points to look at. You need to keep moving to keep pace with the story as it is described to you. At busy times of the day, you will find yourself in the room with a lot of other people and perhaps feel pressure to maintain your progress. You can stop and peer through the thick glass, and you can get a close-up view of the work to see how the stitches sit raised up off the linen backing, but you will not be able to linger for long before the line behind you starts to build up.
This is one of the issues that Antoine Verney hopes to address as he plans for the development of the new museum that will replace the current exhibition space. The tapestry has been in its place there since 1983, but by 2024 there will be a new, purpose-built facility. Funding has been promised, and the plans are now with the French government for approval. 2024, incidentally, will coincide with the 80th anniversary of the D-Day Landings and also the Paris Olympics, both of which provide a hard deadline for when northern France can expect to see a big surge in tourists.
This new museum should allow for a very different way of showing the tapestry. Verney wants to see a space that allows for the visitor to get a sense of the monumentality of the artefact. At the moment it is not possible to see the whole thing in one gaze, as it might have been originally intended. There is much debate about how the tapestry may have been shown after it was first stitched in the late 11th century. Current theories focus on the idea that it would have been hung around the walls of either a secular great hall or church, so that visitors would have been able to see the entire length of the object and be impressed by its very magnitude, as well as the quality of the artwork and the drama of the story that unfolds along it.
To allow for this, the tapestry would need to be displayed along the edge of a large open space, perhaps a semicircle, with a viewing area in the centre, but also with the possibility for visitors to walk along and follow the narrative as they can do now. Verney thinks such an approach could be transformative for the way modern people see the tapestry. The museum team are also working on a new digital replica of the tapestry, which will allow users to see both front and back of it, along with various overlays that will highlight, for example, where later repairs have changed the original. This will be linked through to a database of information about each part of the tapestry. It is anticipated that this digital replica will be available in some form to visitors to the new museum, to allow them to interrogate the tapestry in whatever way best suits their level of knowledge.
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One of the main hurdles Verney, and his team, will have to tackle is whether it is still acceptable for the tapestry to be suspended vertically as it is today. There is a conservation study going on now to see how much of an impact on the fabric it is having to display the artefact in this fashion, and whether it is being adversely exposed to stretching and pulling pressures. If the study shows there is a negative effect, then the tapestry may have to be exhibited horizontally or at a slant in the future, which would create significant display challenges, and particularly inhibit this idea of allowing the tapestry to be shown in the round as he desires. Antoine Verney awaits the results of the study with considerable interest…
Interestingly, although Verney is the chief curator, the final decision on the nature of the new museum display comes down not to Verney but to the French government. It is the state that owns the tapestry, while the city of Bayeux is entrusted with its care on a very long loan. This has been the situation for over two centuries, but actually it was only last year that a document was signed to formalise this agreement. The signing ceremony was significant not only for its political dimension, but also for the fact that it wrote into law that the Bayeux Tapestry is held in a museum in the town, rather than an interpretative centre or a heritage hub. The designation that the tapestry is in a museum means that its curator can treat with other museums, for example the Louvre and the National Museum of the Middle Ages in Paris, on a formal footing and, particularly importantly, arrange artefact loans.
This matters to Verney because another aspect of the new museum that he anticipates is a series of rooms displaying objects and documents of the period, which will enable key questions about the tapestry and its times to be addressed for the visiting public. Currently there is a contextual display area on the floor above the tapestry, and a short film as well, but there are not many contemporary artefacts and documents within that. If the architectural plans of the new museum allow for such a suite of rooms associated with the tapestry, then they would have to be filled with objects from other collections. This means loans from other museums.
Should the Bayeux Tapestry come to Britain?
Speaking of loans, that brings us to the small matter of the idea of the tapestry itself being allowed to come to Britain, as was announced by President Macron in advance of the summit with Teresa May in January of this year. Does Antoine Verney think that the loan is going to happen? Well, he is circumspect about it. He has concerns about the impact of the extensive manipulation of the tapestry that would need to happen in order for it to cross the Channel, but equally he recognises that it is a ‘legitimate’ idea to be under consideration, given that the historical consensus is that the tapestry was made in England and that it holds such particular importance in British history, as well as the fact that there will certainly be a time when the tapestry has to be off display as they develop the new museum for it in Bayeux.
The situation now, though, is that he is awaiting the results of the conservation study into whether it is feasible for the tapestry to undergo the move. Until that study reports back, he isn’t in a position to make any further pronouncements. It is noteworthy, however, that the plans for the new museum in Bayeux do require the loan of documents and objects to complement the tapestry and illustrate the broader story of the 11th century, so any institutions in the UK that aspire to be the venue for the tapestry loan, which will surely be one of the most popular exhibitions ever to be put on, would do well to be thinking about what they have in their collections that would be suited to display in a long-term loan to Bayeux.
David Musgrove is the publisher and former editor of BBC History Magazine.