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Love and human remains

An old pair of spectacles, a stained waistcoat, a faded love letter... Why do the lifeless artefacts that make up cultural memorabilia have such a hold on the imagination?
Charles I and Oliver Cromwell, rex and regicide, make for uneasy bedfellows, but that has not deterred the Museum of London from mounting an exhibition of memorabilia of the two men in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Cromwell's birth and the 350th anniversary of Charles's execution.

"Cromwell: Warts and All" includes the death mask, a fragment of buff jerkin, and an elaborately mounted leather button from Cromwell's doublet, accompanied by a parchment label which reads: "This is one of the buttons that was on the coat of Oliver Cromwell when he sent to judge King Charles, taken off by my grandfather, John Hardingham, who was one of Oliver's lobsters [Redcoats] and attended him in all his wars in England and Ireland." That degree of awkward plainness has the ring of truth about it.

Other items such as the florid French portraiture and all those statuettes that were in the wake of Thomas Carlyle's famous 19th-century edition of Cromwell's Letters and Speeches lie somewhere between hagiography and special pleading. What is undeniable is that the face of the statuettes looks little like the man whose features speak volumes from the death mask: that powerful nose, those broad cheeks, the brutality of the long mouth...

Memorabilia is always a shock, but especially those artefacts that have been worn, owned or used - such as the waistcoat displayed here that Charles is said to have worn to his execution, with its eternally intriguing pattern of ghoulish stainings. "Did he kneel, lie or stoop over the 10in- high execution block?" we are invited to speculate. It is only as time passes, and the individuals are captured by later admirers for partisan reasons, that the artefacts, mere lifeless objects of commemoration now, lose their hold on our feelings.

But why should this be so? What is it about the spectacles used by John Wesley that we can see in the Wesley Chapel on City Road? Or the couch on which Emily Bronte died that is still to be seen in the chilly parlour at the Haworth Parsonage? Or the various touching love tokens to Fanny Brawne at the Keats Museum in Hampstead? Or Wordsworth's ice skates, displayed in that cabinet in Dove Cottage?

As far as writers are concerned, the problem lies with the art of replication, and what that comes to signify. A book or a poem, though usually written by one person, loses the distinctive imprimatur of its maker as soon as it is circulated. If it is successful as an act of communication, it becomes the property of its readers by virtue of its content. If it appeals widely, it is because its creator, by successfully exploring universally interesting themes, has touched the minds and hearts of a great audience. It is now as much the reader's property as the writer's. The book is now out in the world, a universal document, and an abstraction, not bound to its particular maker as it was during those days, months or years of its painful, private gestation. It has gained a peculiar authority of its own which a mere man or woman, haranguing us from a high stool in a pub, would find it more difficult to claim. After all, mere human brings are imperfect. We can see that with our own eyes, or examine our consciences. An excellent book represents, by contrast, a kind of cold, finished perfection, almost inhumane in its ruthlessly successful designs upon our time.

What happens, then, when we come upon that lock of hair, that pair of small spectacles, that strangely small and narrow ice skate? First of all, doubts assail us. What had seemed almost universal - some idea of the greatness of William Wordsworth and his poetry, for example - is, all of a sudden, particularised once again, and we experience a strangely mingled variety of feelings: were we right to have such reckless trust in the words of this man or woman? It also reminds us that the words we had read were written in particular circumstances, amid mildew down the walls, the brawling of young children, the inquisitiveness of stray dogs. After all, in so many respects, this writer must have resembled you and me. At first, this may cause us to question the power of print. What right had it to seduce us into believing that what appeared before our eyes had any authority?

And then other, mellower feelings supervene - the thought that we could perhaps have done the same sort of thing ourselves if had we had only had the talent, the luck, the perseverance, or the rich, aristocratic friend... And also the thought that it was surely some kind of a miracle that so much came out of so little, out of a mere human life, whether - in the case of Oliver Cromwell - for good or ill.

That is a question which remains undecided to this day.

To 28 Feb. Information: 0171-600 3699