John Cogan on the Joys of Stewarding an Exhibition

 

The talk is of beer. Not the dilute stuff that passes for beer in Australia or Belgium or amongst the lager-drinking public, but heavy-duty stuff from one of the many new micro-breweries… or Masham. Of the two protagonists neither of us can drink now: his heart is as problematic as my liver. We also talk about orchestras and the capacity of the brass section to consume copious amounts of alcohol commensurate with the size of their instrument… needless to say the tuba ranked highly. And as for the violins, don’t be fooled by the coy smiles and glass of Tia Maria. The man’s wife continues to look at the collection of photographs. The husband and fellow ex-real ale comrade is the managing director of the Philharmonic Orchestra. After all this they both comment about the wonderful quality of the exhibition.

We have a family connection with the Society,” says the woman. She and her spouse live in Easington Lane. I write down the name of an ancestor who was one of the early members of the Durham Photographic Society: John Thomas Goymer from Easington Lane. “If we find any of his old pictures we’ll be in touch,” she adds.

This can’t be a photograph,” says the Geordie in the flat cap. He and his wife are looking at the HDR of the information desk. I explain about the need for various exposures and how they can be merged to give you a very detailed and well-lit image. “That’s really clever,” he says. “I used to take photographs back when it was all film.” We talk further about his pictures and it transpires that he still has his Rolleiflex. “Can you still get film?” he asks. He has a printer-cum-scanner so could he use that to put his prints onto his computer? Discovering that this is possible, his wife is overjoyed. “You’ll be able to get out and take some more pictures,” she tells him. “It’ll do you good!” From the way she talks to him I feel certain he will be out there with his Rolleiflex snapping away… or else!

Aren’t they beautiful,” says the girl with the confusion of hair and well-used back pack. She’s looking up at the disjointed pieces of stained glass. “Why don’t they make sense?” So, I tell her about naughty Puritans and Non-Conformists who hated the idea of images in churches. She had no idea. Being from the USA, she hasn’t ever thought the Puritans could have a negative side. “We’re not told that in school,” she adds. The conversation continues, aided by the brilliant input from Dr Brian Crosby who fills in the details about Cromwellian Levellers who used the various statues for target practice then blamed the Scots. The girl drifted away leaving Dr Brian once more trying to bribe me to have his picture removed… though he doesn’t mention what it’s worth.

Is that Cuthbert over there?” asks a visitor from “down South,” but I tell them that’s just an “add-on” tomb sort of thing, in front of the old West Entrance. “Saint Cuthbert lies at the far end of the Cathedral, just behind the Altar. You have to climb a few steps but there’s a wonderful and very colourful canopy over his tomb.” I then point out the photographs from the exhibition that portray this. “Oh, these photographs are all to do with the Cathedral,” says the husband. “We wondered what they were.”

And the people in their ones and twos and little groups ebb and flow amongst the displays. Some notice the DPS card swaying from my neck and smile but most are absorbed in quiet conversation with their companions as they point to a particular image. Some even make a big show of ignoring the photographs altogether as if they are a secular aberration to be avoided. Such a deeply religious place deserves the attention focused solely on the fabric of the chapel. However, one lady becomes obsessive about the photograph of the Moses Window and a steward is detailed to show her where it is.

A small group of Spanish students gather round me like a tribe of Apaches surrounding a wagon train, wanting to know if the answers to their questionnaire are correct. No, Harry Potter was not born just across the road from the Cathedral. Yes, Mr Bean was a character developed by Rowan Atkinson and not an archetypal Northern chap. Ah! There is also no such saint as Alan… as yet. Half an hour later, over 50 Spanish teenagers surge amongst the exhibition stands and lap lethargically amongst the benches at the far end. Gradually, hands emerge from pockets holding mobile phones. Texts are exchanged with friends left behind in Valencia. Nervous Spanish teachers flit from group to group like sand flies amongst the drying seaweed. Only the British host teachers remain aloof and calm: Herring Gulls watching and waiting. Eventually, the group vacates the chapel and for brief moment there is a palpable calm.

This is short lived, as a father tries hard to extract his toddler from behind one of the display boards. “Come on!” The child giggles. “If you don’t come there’s a man here and he’ll shout at you!” More giggles. Even the ultimate threat of the naughty step fails. Perhaps the intention is to place the child’s bottom on the cold, dark slab that is Bede’s tomb in the hope that, by some process of osmosis, good behaviour and improved intelligence might compensate for poor parenting.

We are looking for the Saint? This is not the Saint? This cannot be the Saint?” The ever hopeful and perfectly correct German visitors still do not wish to find Saint Cuthbert under such a dull, dark slab of slate. However, this small group were from Austria. I usually get asked this by Germans so I guess being Austrian makes a change.

This is not a camera so how can it be a photograph that I am taking?” Not being allowed to photograph the interior of the Cathedral irks many of the visitors, hence their sudden need to check their smart phone by holding it up to the light, or pretend to be Charlton Heston with their iPad as a ten-commandment substitute.

I’ve been told by an American visitor that the Castle, when I pointed it out to them, couldn’t be the castle because what we were looking at was built by Walt Disney for a film!” The stories these poor stewards have to tell… they’d fill a book. One of the women stewards had been in the Monks’ Dormitory when a male visitor had insisted that all monks were dwarves and you had to be a dwarf to be a monk!

People still wanted to open the little cupboard on the wall hoping to find Bede’s bones in there.

Robin Wilson, well-known artist, PhD, alumni of Durham University, anthropologist, printmaker, and artist in residence at Oxford University speaks very enthusiastically about the exhibition as does David A. Cross, who accompanies Robin and his wife (Rosie). David Cross is an internationally renowned expert on the artist Romney and a respected writer on all things artistic.

The stewards who visit the exhibition voice pleasure upon seeing the “behind-the-scenes” aspect of the life of the Cathedral. They are well aware of the continuity of care and that back “in the day” when pilgrims came to visit the shrine of St Cuthbert there would have just as many stewards needed. Some suggest it might be good idea to have selected photographs strategically placed around the Cathedral to provide information to visitors. Comments from many who come to see our exhibition indicate that they had no idea of the history behind the travels of St Cuthbert’s body, the significance of Lindisfarne or the “human face” of the Cathedral. To many it’s just a mass of stone and symbolism.

When the dust has settled, the display is dismounted and packed away, what will be the legacy? From what I can discern the way the exhibition has been physically presented (the arrangement with the unified mounting and frames) helped not only to create a professional look but a sense of coherence. The fact that this was an exhibition with a strong central thread running through it provided the audience with a narrative. A few comments from fellow DPS members intimated that the thought and the planning involved in gathering the images was personally stimulating. As a learning curve for us it added another dimension to the exhibition.

The comments book, though ignored by many, did reveal that for many visitors it had been an education. “Where do we go to see this Lindisfarne and is it far?” I was tempted to say it wasn’t farne up the road, but I was a good boy and kept my mouth shut. Others were pleased to tell me that they thought the exhibition was “first class!”, “full of little gems!” and “excellent!”

Like last year and the year before, the experience of being the “face” of the DPS while stewarding was very satisfying. As one of our members tells me, I look like an aging, bumbling professor so that’s why they think I have answers to the most arcane questions.

It’s always a pleasure and you meet the nicest of people. It’s one of those magic afternoons when you see the world and its wife parade before you and realise that what your friends from the DPS have on display is bringing pleasure to so many… except, of course, for the Spanish teenagers and naughty toddlers.

John Cogan ARPS

Durham Photographic Society’s Exhibition, Into the Light: from Lindisfarne to the Shrine of St Cuthbert was on in the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral from to 4th to 26th July 2013

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