Interpreting King Arthur at Glastonbury Abbey #1

4537891138_c5ace5011e_b

Sculpture of King Arthur by Mike Chapman

So… I am speaking at a history event at Glastonbury Abbey this Friday. I’m just finishing up my paper and thinking about a few things. There are some big names there and I don’t class myself as an Arthur specialist. I’m focussing on what I do know about, interpreting objects and places. My paper is called ‘We don’t want Disney’ and it’s all about how hard it is to interpret Arthurian sites. Do you go for an all out ‘immersive experience’ and pull away from the archaeology and history? Or do you use sceptical academic analysis to illustrate that, now your visitors have paid their ticket price, they have bought into a historical fabrication?

There’s a great article in ‘Public Archaeology’ by Orange and Laviolette (2010) A Disgruntled Tourist in King Arthur’s Court which examines some of these tensions at Tintagel. For many visitors, consuming Arthurian heritage is about connecting to your own sense of identity. Tackiness or scepticism can kill the magic.

At Glastonbury Abbey while it is very difficult to demonstrate any hard facts, stories have had a real impact on the political and religious history and archaeology of the site. Today the Abbey still attracts people who are seeking out an experience which is greater than themselves. Will an exhibition or a text panel really achieve this? Can we can learn from the rest of the world when examining how ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ is interpreted in this country? Live story-telling, dramatic performances, music, poetry and art may acknowledge the importance of stories without pinning them down to a specific perspective.

As I will discuss in my talk, Arthur is never going to be ‘easy’ to interpret. These stories are the focal point for centuries of debate about British identity and spirituality and that’s why they continue to be important today. If you want to witness me grappling with these issues in person, tickets are still available for the Foosteps of Arthur event at Glastonbury Abbey.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.