Talking pictures

Steven Gunn | June 27, 2013

One of the features we are trying to produce for our exhibition in Thetford is a talking portrait of the third duke of Norfolk. In giving advice to his grandson, who succeeded him in 1554, he will explain some of the history of the Howard family and convey something of what mattered to them. It’s a nice idea, but how should he talk? Can we let him use only words or expressions the real third duke could have used? If we did, would contemporary visitors understand him? Should we strike a provocative modern parallel, by making him talk like, say, a mafia boss in a film: ‘Listen up kid, I’m gonna be straight with you…’ That doesn’t appeal to me. But it would be equally painful to have him addressing visitors in spoof Shakespearean lines: ‘Then was the peril of our Flodden Field made glorious triumph by this lion of Howard’. Even basic vocabulary is a problem. He would not have called the Howards his family, because family until the eighteenth century generally meant all the residents of a household, servants included. He would have talked of his kin, or of the house of Howard, but both those expressions sound strange or antiquated to us. So this is a challenge with no easy answers, and it’s not clear yet how we’ll steer our way through it. I’m glad there are others on the team with more experience of presenting history in museums and school education than I have!

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