The Great Bayeux Tapestry Debate

The Museums Association reports on 6.3.18 that several British institutions are vying to be chosen as the premier spot to display the Bayeux Tapestry when it comes visiting – hopefully in 2022 (see here).

The institutions hoping to be picked include the British Museum (naturally), Battle Abbey in Sussex (makes sense) and Historic Royal Palaces at ToL (a bit off the mark, but ok…) An impromptu Twitter poll indicates that the front runner is currently Battle Abbey, with 53% of the vote and the British Museum coming a fairly respectable second with 27% (correct as of 5.30pm on Wednesday 6th March). HRP sadly limp into third place with 5% of the vote.

Comments from voters range from “It should stay where it is” to “Of course this poll is pointless. It will go to central London as everything always does!” – not a hint of bitterness there then….

Just like the ongoing debate over repatriation of cultural artefacts from around the world (some of which I talk about here), choosing the appropriate location for the tapestry will come down to numerous factors – some of which, will no doubt, not sit entirely comfortably with the museum fraternity. Accessibility, income generation and visitor numbers are likely to bulldoze over any notions of displaying the tapestry in the place where it has the strongest historical links.

The general consensus on Twitter is that context is key. After all, what better place to display the tapestry than at the location that is actually depicted on the legendary embroidered piece. Although Battle Abbey may not currently have the facilities for displaying the 68-metre-long tapestry, surely they have the strongest claim for being able to offer the visitor a ‘complete experience’ of that fateful day in 1066.

Battle Abbey is one of those sites that stays with you. Having visited on a damp and dreary autumn day, I could almost feel the misery of battle seeping out of the site. Interpretation at that time (several years ago) was minimal, with panels telling the story in sequence as you walked around the site. The lack of interpretation let the site speak for itself – and it certainly spoke to me, loudly and clearly, from the depths of history.

Battle Abbey
Battle Abbey – Image courtesy of

Having the tapestry at Battle would offer another dimension of historical interpretation – after all, the tapestry itself was an attempt to interpret the event itself in a medium that is consistent with the age in which it was created. It has more than stood the test of time. It may be fragile, but it makes up for it in the importance stakes.

Displaying the tapestry anywhere other than Battle strips the piece of its contextual worth. It will always be priceless and will no doubt draw a crowd wherever it is, because it’s the Bayeux Tapestry. But displaying it in the British Museum is a lost opportunity to unite historical landscape and historical cultural interpretation in a unique and potentially inspirational experience.

This may of course be academic, if the tapestry is too fragile to travel – in which case, there will be no battle for Battle…