‘The dead shall look me through and through’
Tennyson, In Memoriam A. H. H.
As a boy, I read excitedly about the Egyptian Rooms at the British Museum, where night watchmen reported unexplained drops in temperature, feelings of being watched, and, on at least one occasion, a terrifying apparition of a bandage-clad mummy with contorted face that glided towards the fainting guard. Now, the Economist’s 1843magazine brings news of an appropriately-named American artist, Noah Angell, who has been collating eerie tales from the Museum since 2016. The magazine section is called ‘Life and Culture’, but perhaps ‘Afterlife and Culture’ would be equally appropriate.
It has been said England has more ghosts per square mile than any other country. The British ghostly tradition is impossibly rich, a product of Celtic, Saxon and Norse superstitions mingling with Christian legend. King Arthur walked in the West with Joseph of Arimathea – King Lot rode across Lothian while seal-spirits sported in the Minch – the dreadful dog Black Shuck padded East Anglia’s lanes while drowned revenants climbed back out of dykes. Bede wrote of a ghostly abbess visiting the nun Torgirth, and in Chaucer’s Prioress’s Tale, the abbot is hair-raisingly addressed by a child who confides, ‘My throte is cut un-to my nekke-boon’. The best-known English literary ghost is the one in Hamlet, but every generation has dreaded or panted to see ghosts. As the Duchess of Malfi cries passionately in Webster’s play –
O that it were possible we might / But hold some two days’ conference with the dead.
Robert Burton devoted a segment of Anatomy of Melancholy to classical, Christian, Hebrew, hermetic and Islamic evidence for and against the existence, nature, number and powers of ‘Spirits’. As he reflected,
Our subtle schoolmen…are weak, dry, obscure, defective in these mysteries, and all our quickest wits, as an owl’s eyes at the sun’s light, wax dull, and are not sufficient to apprehend them
But if 17th century people didn’t apprehend ghosts, they did see them. The battle of Edgehill was legendarily fought more than once, in October 1642, then several times over Christmas in the sky over the battlefield, witnessed by local people and several of the King’s gentlemen, who recognised some of the celestial combatants.
Britain’s first ghost-hunter was Joseph Glanvill, who investigated the mysterious 1661-62 drumming at Tedworth House in Wiltshire, and wrote about it in his posthumously published book, Saducismus Triumphatus – which was sceptical about the ‘haunting’ but strongly averred the existence of witches, and strongly influenced Cotton Mather’s Wonders of the Invisible World). Christopher Wren travelled from London to hear this spectral sound, and Samuel Pepys thought it ‘a strange story of spirits and worth reading indeed’. In his 1695 Miscellanies, John Aubrey recounts the story of a Mr Lilley who asked an apparition he had encountered on the road to Cirencester whether it was a good spirit, or a bad, only for the vision to disappear with ‘a curious Perfume and most melodious Twang.’ Aubrey’s friend, Sir Thomas Browne, was more fearful than Mr Lilley, shivering in Religio Medici,
I believe…that those apparitions and ghosts of departed persons are not the wand’ring souls of men, but the unquiet walks of Devils.
That epitome of the succeeding century’s good sense, Samuel Johnson, took his usual briskly brilliant approach on the existence of ghosts – ‘All argument is against it; all belief is for it.’ Johnson took a keen interest in the celebrated Cock Lane poltergeist of 1762 – where a spirit called ‘Scratching Fanny’ communicated news of her murder to 12-year-old Elizabeth Parsons, a case which only ended when the alleged murderer took legal action. There had been an earlier, even more famous, poltergeist, at the vicarage in Epworth in Lincolnshire in 1716-17, where John Wesley’s family (although not John himself) reported knockings, rappings, broken and thrown objects, violently shaken beds, and a noise like that of a clock being wound and wound. The events centred around John’s 19-year-old sister, Hetty. As Sacheverell Sitwell observes in his 1959 Poltergeists: Fact or Fancy,
The mysteries of puberty, that trance or dozing of the psyche before it wakes into adult life, is a favourite playground for the Poltergeist
In the 19th century, London had a succession of ghost scares – the Hammersmith Horror of 1803 which resulted in the killing of a man suspected of being the ghost, 1804’s headless woman of St James’s Park, and spasmodic outbreaks in poor areas like Bermondsey and St Giles’s, whose residents often banded together in dangerously panicky mobs to confront the suspected spectres. That century, the English ghost story really came alive, with Scott writing The Tapestried Chamber in 1829, and Dickens his Christmas Carol in 1843. Victorians sought refuge from fast-moving modernity in cod-medievalism and reimagined magic, from Puginesque interiors to the Spiritualist craze. Ghosts and ‘spirit-guides’ spoke through Ouija boards and tarot packs, tapped on walls and processed down decaying staircases, thrilling audiences conscious of a colourful Britannic past under siege from science. Peter Ackroyd observed in The English Ghost (2010): ‘The quintessential English ghost story is alarming but also oddly consoling’. The Archbishop of Canterbury told Henry James the story that would become Turn of the Screw.
Twentieth century writers perfected the art; it has been estimated that 70% of all ghost stories have been written by Britons. M. R. James published Ghost Story of an Antiquary in 1904, the first of four hugely popular collections of reassuringly English stories about tweedy antiquarians and Anglican vicars having unearthly encounters in cathedrals, graveyards and country seats. After reading about the fighting at Mons, Arthur Machen published a 1914 story called The Bowman, about a soldier at Mons seeing Agincourt-era archers helping repel the Germans – and his throwaway patriotic whimsy was enthusiastically taken up as a real-life account. In 1929, Essex’s Borley Rectory was fêted as ‘the most haunted house in England’ because of three ghosts and poltergeist occurrences – these latter again centring on a young woman (who, it later emerged, hated the house and wanted to move). In 1936, photographers from Country Life captured one of the most famous ‘spirit photographs’, the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall in Norfolk, and Lord Halifax’s Ghost Book became a bestseller. Algernon Blackwood, Dennis Wheatley and others rode out to do battle on the astral plane, while the 1960s and 1970s saw a boom in ‘real-life’ hauntings, folk-horror books, films and plays, and long thoughts from the likes of Colin Wilson. Romantic retrospection made up partly for present pains, identities were imperilled, and to many it seemed desperately important to remember. As Edward Parnell agonised in last year’s Ghostland, his brilliant survey of eldritch Englishness and his family’s history,
If I stop looking back everything that ever happened to us will cease to exist.
Back in Bloomsbury, in the shut-up Museum, this rich corpus of native superstition is augmented by the folk-beliefs of all the countries whose artefacts, or ancestors, are present in exhibition cases or stored unseen in the cavernous vaults. Killian Fox, author of the 1843 Magazine article, notes the uncanny incongruity of being able to ‘bridge chasms of space and time simply by walking from one room to the next.’ Here, where you can find anything, maybe ‘anything’ could happen. Egyptians who ages ago, as Egypt’s Book of the Dead expresses it, ‘entered into the habitation which is hidden’ are neighbours to empty-eyed Anglo-Saxon helmets, Assyrian human-headed bulls, Aztec demon-masks, Congolese forest fetishes, and Easter Island monoliths. People have always ascribed emotions to inanimate objects, and what objects could be more likely to somehow retain engrams of old ‘lives’ than these stelae and symbols from the world’s graves, portals and places of sacrifice?
They ‘look’ out enigmatically and eternally at those passing, especially when the visitors have gone, and the 1820s building is left to its night-noises. Plumbing gurgles, humidifiers hum, bulbs and cables fail, timbers creak, damp makes doors stick and draughts push them open, mice and insects stir, ancient objects ‘stew in their own juices’ – while on-edge, tired cleaners and guards move alone among the dead and along ill-lit corridors, dingy back-offices and stairs. Even monitors may not dispel darkness, because technology reflects rather than alters human nature, and ghosts update themselves. Ghost cars followed shortly after motoring became widespread; poltergeists have established themselves in semi-detached 1970s houses; phantom hitchhikers have been seen in anoraks.
Reports of supernatural encounters generally come from the less-educated of the Museum’s staff – ghost-seeing has a class aspect, and Angell sees his task as a kind of democratizing project – but nobody could do those nightly rounds unaffected. Even during the day, in among the restless flicker of school parties, selfie-takers and gift-shoppers, these artefacts have majestic presence. At 2am, they must shimmer like mirages, subject to tricks of light or sound, bad reputation, bulk, ugliness, the mental state of witnesses who may want to see or hear something – because they are bored, or want attention, because they have been told this particular spot is haunted, or to prove to themselves that this materialist world is magical after all. As Dr Johnson indicated, all argument may well be against ghosts, but argument is an unsatisfactory ally in the small hours, the witching and wolf-hours, when reason badly wants to sleep. One may become accustomed to being surrounded by memorials to the dead, but probably never blasé.
Disquieting ideas can intrude themselves even during the brightest day, and the busiest galleries. One tourist couple photographed a model ship, only to find a reflection of a female dwarf with missing clumps of hair, wearing 16th century clothes, on the image. Was this strange figure in some shape already in their minds, as seekers see Jesus’ face in foodstuffs? Just as aerial armies reflect real life anxieties, and séances reassure the bereaved, certain exhibits are pre-surrounded by a sinister aura, based on knowledge or rumour of their context. One CCTV operator saw orbs of light floating in a stairwell, while guards standing on the spot saw nothing. They immediately intuited an association with a then-current exhibition on the Third Reich, a mental connection strengthened because the lights were never reported again after that display had finished. ‘You get objects that hold energy’, one security man declared stoutly. ‘When Germany went, they went.’
Similarly, ideas about the Egyptian Rooms are coloured by jumbled awareness of the colourful exoticness of that civilization, its priest-ridden and death-obsessed nature, and Pharaonic ‘curses’ reputedly visited upon Egyptologists. If you expect emanations, you are more likely to see them. Charles I’s gentlemen would have wanted to see their dead friends above Edgehill. The novelist Frederick Marryat saw Raynham Hall’s ‘Brown Lady’ after he had spent days in her room gazing at her purported portrait. Likewise, guards may sense soughing shades of slaughtered Jews, or Egyptian necromancers angered at having their long sleep broken. Angell confesses to being ‘somewhat psychic’; if he were not, he probably would not have undertaken this project.
Angell filters unearthly ideas about out-of-place objects into an earth-bound disquiet, a stirring real discomfort about things bought, looted or salvaged centuries ago from colonies which are now countries. Angell’s democratizing project is also an anti-colonial one, focusing on the emotive area of ‘restitution’, and swelling that most powerful of all modern phantoms, existential guilt. There is a famous campaign to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece, and now Ethiopia wants old icons, Nigeria the Benin bronzes, and Australia’s aborigines their ancestors’ disjecta membra. According to the artist’s fanciful yet culturally resonant reading, the objects themselves are ‘restless’, as if these lumps of wood and stone want to go home. Expecting emanations, he has seen them – just as an Easter Islander activist can look into the eye-sockets of the four-tonne moai Hoa Hakananai’a and seems to see them blinking with intelligence.
Angell is far from the only person making this kind of oblique critique of Western civilization. He quotes American academic Jeffrey Weinstock, an admirer of Edward Said and Jacques Derrida, who sees fantastical art, monsters, science-fiction films, and hauntings as expressions of atavistic Occidental fears, hatreds and longings – means of enforcing mores, and maintaining traditional racial, religious and sexual hierarchies against outsiders and transgressors. Weinstock says spectres are often seen because people feel authorities are lying to them, that they are a projection of alienation and exclusion.
To many working in anthropology and the arts, the ghosts of Great Russell Street are surrounded by equally spectral British redcoats, reproachful reminders of injustice unaddressed, and restitutions deferred. These are political poltergeists – uneasy noises off. Everything is political, even the deadest things – and supposedly redundant symbols shape contemporaneity, as Puritans knew when they were smashing rood-screens, and Islamists acknowledge every time they dynamite pre-Islamic works of art. ‘The past isn’t dead’, as William Faulkner said. ‘It isn’t even past’. Ghosts of the kinds described by Museum staff feel almost as immediate as social psychology’s social representations or philology’s symbolical interactionism. Apparitions become appropriations, appropriations apparitions. Alongside unquiet Egyptians, British collective consciousness trembles in Bloomsbury’s half-light, and rustles in the pages of Shakespeare’s first folio and Captain Scott’s diary. To borrow again from Peter Ackroyd, this time from his Albion –
The English tradition may…be glimpsed as a revenant, reaching out to the living with uplifted arms.
The Museum will always seem unacceptable to some, with its roots in gentlemanly ‘cabinets of curiosities’ and aristocratic bequests, but today it clings to an Enlightenment ideal of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. It has to date withstood all passive-aggressive promptings, citing needs to preserve collection ‘integrity’ and the ability to be able to make historical ‘triangulations’ – wanting above all not to set a potential Museum-emptying precedent. Indeed, it still collects objects, although these now are assessed carefully for ‘acceptability’; for example, items cannot have any potential ‘purpose’ in their countries of origin.
Some staff argue it is better that the pieces are in London, because if they were returned they might not be so well looked after, or could be lost to revolution and war (an argument others see as definitely patronising and probably racist). Emily Taylor, who worked in the Egypt department for ten years, often handling human remains, puts up a spirited defence of unburied spirits:
In Ancient Egyptian culture…they wanted people to be spoken about – that’s how you kept them alive. Even though this person is not in their proper resting place, they are being kept alive by being written about, being spoken about, by being shown in the museum.
Hoa Hakananai’a, for example, influenced Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Henry Moore and Ron Mueck, and inspired a poem by Robert Frost (although lines like ‘That primitive head’ and ‘Yet so rude in its art’ probably don’t please activists). But the statue indubitably has a kind of ambassadorial function as a representative of a culture now all but extinct even on the Island, and was featured in the Museum’s former director Neil MacGregor’s lauded 2010 Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects. Last year, a delegation from the Museum went to Easter Island to discuss the possibility of lending the statue or, more likely, buying quiet by helping pay for the restoration of those still in situ.
Other staff seem less certain. The once baldly factual information in the display cases is constantly being fine-tuned to excise ‘insensitive’ phraseology, and acknowledge or pre-empt ‘concerns’. A collections manager in the Britain, Europe and Prehistory department gives a fidgety sort of answer when asked what he thinks of Angell’s concept of ‘restless objects’ –
I would agree with him to a certain extent. It’s very important the pieces are here. But having said that, there are pieces that I think are out of sync being here.
And his department is the least controversial in the place, its exhibits, from the Lewis chessmen to the gold cup of the Kings of England and France, essentially ‘at peace’ because the countries there represented are settled to the point of complacency, feeling no need to forge new identities or erase historical humiliations. It is other departments which are increasingly confronted with the clamouring considerations and demands of modern mythmaking and shapeshifting strategic ‘realities’ – Africa’s, the Americas’, and Australasia’s curators as exorcists, expected to lay geopolitical ghosts with gestures.
As the guards of the museum walk their disconcerting beats, there really are unseen presences moving inside and all around them, as folk-tales feed into fashionable nostrums, lore into laws, and primal fears into pragmatic politics. Looked at through this glass, we can suddenly see it is not just London W.C.1, nor even just London, but the whole of the West that is stalked by spirits.
This article first appeared in the June 2020 issue of British Intelligence, and is reproduced with acknowledgements