Review: ‘What’s in a Name’ at Museum of London
Hot on the heels of recent celebratory events timed to coincide with the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death, Tom Buxton visits the Museum of London’s new Shakespeare-themed exhibit to discover whether it’s A Midspring Night’s Dream or Much Ado About Nothing…
As if BBC1’s recent TV extravaganza Shakespeare Live! From the RSC wasn’t a fitting enough way to commemorate the four-hundredth anniversary of the beloved Bard’s passing, the Museum of London are joining in the celebrations too with their insightful new display, What’s in a Name.
Taking its name from perhaps the Stratford-upon-Avon-born playwright’s most iconic production, Romeo & Juliet – wherein the titular Capulet famously asked “What’s in a name?” as she lamented her lover’s scorned name being the only obstacle keeping them apart – the collection can be found in the Looking for Londoners gallery opposite the venue’s reception area, where it shall remain available to experience (free of charge, no less!) until August 9th.
Any mini-exhibition based in England’s capital which doesn’t cost a single penny to enter should of course be regarded as a novelty in and of itself nowadays, but even so, it’s the seamless combination of Renaissance-era artifacts and fascinating contemporary anecdotes which serves as by far the display’s main selling point.
Rather than taking the tried-and-tested route of showcasing well-worn pages from Shakespeare’s original Quarto and Folio playbooks, the team behind the exhibit have instead opted to showcase objects with which the man behind King Lear, Hamlet and so many other dramas (not to mention memorable works of poetry) might have come into contact during the time he spent in London from around 1592 to his death in 1616.
At first, the idea of glancing at everyday domestic items such as combs, knives and jugs – or bombards (pictured right), as their 17th century counterparts were more commonly known – might not seem particularly enticing to even the 400-year-old writer’s most intense devotees, regardless of whether he used these during his stays in Southwark, Canary Wharf and other areas of the city, but thankfully, there’s far more to What’s in a Name than first meets the eye.
Indeed, take a glance down the glass cases housing these superficially arbitrary objects and the display’s true appeal should instantly become apparent. Far from merely speculating as to whether Shakespeare laid eyes upon 1600’s jewellery such as the posy ring – a “glimmel ring” designed to look like a pair of hands carrying a romantic heart – or the aptly-named Death’s head, which sports diamonds sharp enough to fatally wound one’s adversaries, the curators reveal in the accompanying textual labels how these symbols of affection might have influenced his plays themselves.
Whereas in isolation, these lavish trinkets might have originally seemed to hold little real meaning beyond their status as remnants of a bygone age. But by revealing that Hamlet once asked “Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?” and that Henry IV‘s Falstaff commanded Doll Tearsheet “not [to] speak like a death’s head” or “bid me remember mine end”, the curators imbue both items – as well as every other piece of unlikely memorabilia they’ve seen fit to showcase – with a far greater significance on account of their seemingly substantial impact on one of the most acclaimed minds of the time.
Better yet, the effect is twofold. Much as certain segments of Shakespeare Live centered on how Shakespeare’s works might have been influenced by the sights encountered in and around Stratford-upon-Avon during his younger years, so too do these succinct but impactful chunks of supplementary text allow visitors an almost unparalleled insight into the dramatist’s much-debated psychology.
One might argue that the minds who first conceived the display are practically daring us to wonder whether old Bill might have wandered his lodgings in search of the most basic visual inspiration for his relentlessly compelling lines of dialogue; certainly, in this reviewer’s case, this ambitious approach seemed to pay off in abundance, allowing for a far wider scope of interpretations than the plethora of identikit Shakespeare documentaries which seek to convey – often in the least subtle of fashions – but a single, closed-minded meaning and in doing so leave no room for other viewpoints.
Of course, such is the nature of any successful exhibit that the consumer comes away wanting more, but while What’s in a Name unquestionably meets this criterion (and then some), even the most time-pressed visitor will most likely come away wondering why the Museum of London couldn’t have afforded a little more space and / or money to what could easily have formed the centre-piece of their offerings for the majority of 2016.
Instead, though, the display might well be passed over by many attendees due to its unceremonious placement amidst the regular Looking for Londoners galleries (pictured left) as well as the confounding decision of its designers not to include any artwork depicting Shakespeare’s face or silhouette in the collection’s vicinity.
Add in the lack of multimedia elements – these days, expecting perhaps the odd TV playing modern adaptations or interactive menus doesn’t seem too great of an ask – and it’s not out of the question that those expecting a fully-fledged homage to the Bard’s work might consider this something of a missed opportunity.
Nevertheless, even if the display lacks the spatial or interactive bombast of the MoL’s current flagship exhibition, Tattoo London, What’s in a Name still accomplishes more than enough with its small but fascinating collection – not to mention its deliciously insightful textual accompaniments – to warrant a look from anyone in the area.
And perhaps that’s largely the point: the man himself once said that “brevity is the soul of wit”, after all, and if nothing else, in the brief time visitors spend delving into his life here, they’ll discover more about England’s most lauded storyteller than they might ever have thought possible.
‘What’s in a Name’ runs from 25th March – 9th August 2016 at the Museum of London, 10am – 5.30pm, free entry.