Objects already in a museum’s collection are often overlooked for exhibitions, rejected for tantalising new arrivals or glamorous loans. The Paston Treasure at the Norwich Castle Museum is a classic example, languishing in museum backwater until a ten-year project turned the painting into a detective story
What is it?
A vast, strange ‘visual inventory’ of the wealthy Norfolk Paston family’s most valuable assets, The Paston Treasure looks like a giant decoupage-panel of riches. Alongside golden cups, silver plate and priceless jewellery, it depicts riches of the day, such as alchemical equipment, musical instruments and a globe, as well as more tangible luxuries including exotic fruit, a parrot, a gibbon and a lobster.
‘Human treasure’ takes the form of an unknown girl and a young black African man, presumably a servant.
A nice painting, but why the exhibition?
The painting is the only tangible reminder of a dramatic downfall. The Paston family, though once favoured by royalty, made poor political choices, and rising debts and a lack of male offspring – and a failure to make gold through alchemy – saw the family’s star wane and their treasure lost.
The project saw researchers setting out on a literal treasure hunt: to track down as many of the items shown in the painting as possible. Five exquisitely crafted cups, flagons, dishes and vases are worthy of close scrutiny, even more intriguing when compared to their artistic counterparts.
What else can you see?
Divided into sections, the show takes visitors through the rest of the painting, using contemporary examples of the objects and explaining why each is a ‘treasure’.
During their study, however, researchers discovered more mysteries. Some were solved, others are yet to be deciphered.
The piece of music, at the front, for example, turns out to be a rare musical work by 17th-century composer Robert Ramsey, which visitors can listen to. They can also ponder over the identity of a strange woman. Painted-over in favour of a rather unexciting clock, she reappeared when the painting was x-rayed.
Anything for children?
Kids will love trying to find the objects in the painting, aided by their own choice of cuddly toy available for loan at the door: monkey, parrot or lobster. And no one, young or old, should miss the crocodile crawling across the ceiling…
The Paston Treasure exhibition runs to 23 September 2018. Travel to Norwich with Greater Anglia from London Liverpool Street. Advance fares cost from £10 each way.
For further information on Norwich, see www.visitnorwich.co.uk