Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Visiting the Yorkshire Museum

During a September trip in York, I visited the Yorkshire Museum, so today's post is Celtic and Viking -themed, with a bit of female representation and a  female armour review thrown in.
  • Celtic
The museum's items were mainly Roman, Viking and Medieval, plus an exhibition about extinct species (and because I was reading the Doctor Who novel The Last Dodo at that moment, seeing dodos and dinosaurs there added a Whovian twist to the museum, which is always welcome :)!).

In the Roman section, there were some Celtic items, featuring the Stanwick Horse Mask, a small bronze model of a horse's head from the Iron Age AD 40-80, and horse harness pieces from the Stanwick hoard, part of a Brigantian chariot from the same period.

I had seen this horse model in more than one book about the Celts, and it was awesome to see this lovely piece in person (even though the glass reflection didn't make for the best pics):

Another thing that I liked about this part of the museum was the fact that the info panel about the Roman invasion and the creation of Eboracum (York) actually critisized the Romans' invasion of Britain and their treatment of the Celtic peoples they invaded ("Most tribal leaders accepted Roman rule in exchange for continued control of their land" ; "They also enjoyed the trappings of Roman society" - loving the sarcasm there ; "ruthless measures by the army" ; "to dominate"). 

All cultures are capable of invading other peoples' territories while being barbaric and power-hungry about it, the Celts are certainly no exception, and we shouldn't think in 'good' vs 'evil' or 'light' vs dark' simplistic terms when it comes to history. But too often do I see the British Celts being portrayed in a rather bad light (the 'barbarians' and 'uncivilized' peoples Romans had to fight against and try to 'coexist' with), instead of telling it like it was: The Romans invading the then indigenous peoples in their let's-build-the-biggest-Empire quest (same as the Celts had done centuries before!) and being pretty barbaric, ruthless and narrow-minded (other invaders actually tried to assimilate with the indigenous peoples a bit, like the Vikings in Ireland) during it all.
  • Vikings
Another part of the museum I was excited about was the section about the Vikings, who invaded Anglo-Saxon York in 866 and 867 (because everyone invades everything all the time :/), and renamed it Jorvik when it was given to them as part of the Danelaw.

The items in this part of the museum included weapons, coins, ornaments, buckles, decorated vessels and inscriptions (click for larger pics):

One highlight of the collection is the York helmet, made of iron and copper alloy and dating back to the 8th Century:

Another central item was the Gilling Sword, a two-edged iron sword from the 9th Century:

  • Medieval
And because I love swords, here is another interesting one from the Medieval-Norman part of the exhibit, the Cawood Sword, dating from the 12th Century, borderline between the end of the Viking period and the beginning of the Medieval period. This sword is in remarkable condition and has some kind of inscription in the blade which has not yet been deciphered, as it seems.

  • Female representation and stereotypes in the jousting game:
And to finish with this post about the Yorkshire Museum, I'm going to comment on the jousting game at the end of the Medieval section. In this interactive game you, as patron, choose one knight out of four options and purchase for them three items before seeing them joust (and invariably win, it seems xD). Most of the items you could choose are objects from the museum, so the game explained their background to you as you chose them.

Now, what I liked about this game was the female representation. We're used to seeing strict gender roles when it comes to Medieval settings, with active male knights and passive (and beautiful) damsels. However, even though this was the status quo of the time, history  nearly always seems to forget about all the remarkable women. They might have been a minority (thanks, once again, to the patriarchal status quo, which forbade women from doing pretty much everything), but still there they were: Warrior-women, wise-women and loremistresses, leaders and politicians, artists and writers. Gender bias sistematically ignores those existing women and refuses to create new ones in current Medieval (or other time period)-inspired games, films and other media, thus robbing young girls and women from yet another opportunity to identify themselves with an interesting and powerful female character. In fact, when the media (especially films and videogames) do include a Medieval (or historical)-inspired female character, she's usually clad in unrealistic armour and clothing, suggesting that her role as a 'strong female character' - more like 'sexy love interest' in most cases- is a façade and more male-oriented than anything else.  

In this game, however, out of the four knights one is a woman, Lady Eleanor, described as "an excellent horsewoman highly skilled in the use of a bow" (and apparently also highly skilled in the use of other weapons, judging by the pics and animations, where she is seen carrying a spear, sword - if you buy her one - and another weapons). This female knight also appears in a realistic suit of armour, complete with a reasonable shelf-plate in order to acommodate her bust (instead of the more questionable (and dangerous) 'boob plate'); plus reasonable shoe-wear, and no vital areas exposed (neck, collarbone and chest area, midriff, thighs). Her hair being loose is the most unrealistic part of her design, although there were some male knights who also sported flowing locks. She also lacks any kind of sexualized pose or gaze:

Seeing a woman, clad in realistic armour, as an option in an interactive game in a museum was so refreshing. Young girls (and women!) don't have to invariably choose a male character because there's no other option. And what's more, the female character isn't eye candy for anyone, she's wearing a highly realistic suit of armour and standing in a pose that's as active as the poses of the other male characters. Representation is so important.

Not everything is awesome here, though. The description of Lady Eleanor's character includes some questionable stereotypes as well: 

-For starters, she's described as 'beautiful', while the descriptions of the male knights don't comment on their appearance - Women's appearance, and the demand that they be beautiful, are still considered to be essential in all contexts, apparently. 

-She's also described as being 'too proud', another negative connotation that is too often aimed at active women, and another double standard, because many male characters can be active and capable without pride being their downfall, apparently (even though it often is in these kind of tales!).

-The worst part of the description, though, in my opinion, seems to try to undermine this female knight's warrior abilities by feeding people (and potentially a lot of children) the idea that women primarily use their 'feminine guiles' of seduction in order to get the upper hand. While it is sadly true that women have been, and are, forced to use their attractiveness and sex appeal in order to gain power because in this strictly gendered patriarchal society they literally don't have any other means in too many cases...I think it's sexist to assume that even a capable warrior-woman who seems to be allowed to go jousting in this Medieval-based scenario without having to pass as a man is going to use seduction as a weapon simply because she's a woman. It's also pretty unhealthy to teach children this.

-And to finish, the 'skills' section of the description mentions that Lady Eleanor can 'save her energy' because she has 'many servants to cook and clean for her'. This is omitted in the case of all the male characters in the game (but all nobles, and males more than anyone, all had servants to do stuff for them!). Why is it relevant only in her case and how is this a 'skill'? Another of her 'skills' include the fact that people bring her jewellery (and armour) because she's well-known. How is this relevant, especially the jewellery part, when it comes to her jousting skills, and why is it being called a 'skill'? 

 The 'skills' part of this description is seriously flawed, in my opinion, as awesome as the introduction of a realistic female knight is. Her 'skillset' includes people gifting her jewels (and OK, armour), having servants who cook and clean for her, and using her beauty as a weapon :/. This section definitely needs some work, equality-speaking. 

But apart from that, I was very happy to see more female representation in this historical games area :)