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Refurbishment is an impenetrable science, and quite why most of the National Museum of Scotland should be shut down for over two years whilst they knock up a few more display cases remains a mystery. In China, the work would be probably completed overnight, but here the proceedings seem to unfold without any unsightly sense of urgency. One may be suspicious of the museum’s ambitions to make its collections more “accessible” and “interactive,” which seemingly betrays an assumption that the presentation is more important than the exhibits themselves, but the NMS promise that in the new building “80% of the objects on display will be shown for the first time,” whilst they simultaneously reassure us that “the main hall will be maintained in all its glory!” Judgement is accordingly withheld, with the warning that this had better be good.

One may be heartened by the fact that the unrefurbished rump of the museum which remains open is hosting one of the most valuable and fascinating exhibitions to visit Edinburgh for years. In a single room on the third floor, over thirty of the walrus-ivory and whale-tooth chess pieces – which were famously discovered in the sands of Lewis’ Uig in 1831 – provide the subject of an informative and engaging exhibition. Twenty five of the pieces are on loan from the British Museum, whilst the remaining eleven come from the NMS’ own collection. But, with a weary groan, let us firstly deal with the politics behind the exhibition.

The chess pieces will spend over a year “touring” Scotland – visiting Edinburgh, Aberdeen, the Shetlands, and Stornoway respectively – and all of this seems to amount to a craven appeasement of the frog-faced numpty, Alex Salmond, who has previously demanded that the pieces should be “returned” to Scotland. In 2007, Salmond declared that “I find it utterly unacceptable that the Lewis Chessmen are scattered around Britain in a bizarre parody of the Barnett Formula.” The British museum countered that they were prevented from disposing of their assets by an act of parliament.

Salmond’s call for the “repatriation” of the chess pieces is not logically nationalistic. If one believes that the pieces are part of a people’s history and culture, then they should be put on the first boat back to Norway, since they were most likely carved by Norsemen on Norse soil. After their 1831 discovery, the chess pieces quickly departed Presbyterian Lewis amidst a cloud of suspicion that they were “graven images” and “idols,” they were displayed briefly in Edinburgh, before being flogged to the British Museum. For whatever reason, they had been most likely buried in the sands of Uig by merchants en route to Dublin – the idea that they were the treasure of the Lewis aristocracy seems to be gainsaid by the fact that over four chess sets were buried together, suggesting goods exported in bulk. Yet even if the chess pieces had exerted any discernable influence over the cultural history of Scotland – rather than merely being lost there for a bit – Salmond’s demands that historical artefacts are returned to places where they were “found” would leave the NMS full of empty shelves, as a lot of its exhibits are, of course, sheer colonial plunder.

Perhaps the chess pieces have been sent on tour just to keep Salmond quiet and to prevent him from waving about these beautiful works of art as props in a lame SNP performance of victim politics, but this still leaves one with the unhappy impression that Salmond has far too much power. The exhibition’s visitor book contains several demands that the “thieving” English send the chess pieces “back home where they belong,” and it is unfortunate that the pieces inspire visitors to sabre-rattling rather than wonder. But we should look our gift horse in the mouth no further, for the chess pieces truly are wondrous.

One contributor to the film accompanying the exhibition describes the chess pieces as “a one off” and “at the top of their tree,” and whilst the exhibits may provide a uniquely sophisticated and well-preserved example of medieval chess sets, it seems equally exceptional that their incredible artistry has been put to achieving a realistic portrait of a medieval ruling class. For me, there is nothing comic about these chess pieces, although they derive a certain stocky, cartoon-like quality from their absence of necks (the foremost weak point in statuettes). With their fixed bulging eyes, their tight little mouths like those of small children on the verge of tears, and their hunched and clenched postures, most of these chess pieces are not triumphant warriors, but figures of complete and utter melancholy.

The kings look as forlorn as if they have eaten several of their own sons, and they lean somewhat too protectively over their soon-to-be unsheathed swords, although it remains unclear whether they are poised to stab their enemies or themselves. Whilst the exhibition is bizarrely entitled “Lewis Chessmen – Unmasked” (making them sound like Slipknot) – and the word “Chessmen” is plastered over all the exhibition’s promotional material – the observant visitor may notice that several of the chessmen are actually queens. They sit defeated, with their heads in their hands, apparently lost in the futility of existence. Grumpy-looking knights trot about on cute little ponies. One gets a hearty blast of war from the wild-eyed berserkers, who bite into their shields as if they were gigantic biscuits, and there seems to be a deliberate contrast between these fearsome warriors and the altogether more tranquil bishops, although the latter still strike one as intensely serious and important.

It seems unlikely that anybody has played chess with these pieces since the twelfth century – not least because most of the featureless pawns are missing – but the kings, queens and bishops have themselves assumed the intent, enwrapped expressions of chess players. Not only that, but they look like chess players who are losing. The monarchs and bishops give an impression of great loneliness, but when put together all the pieces look thoroughly sick of each other. They have, after all, spent centuries buried together in a cramped and exiled court under foreign sands, with too many kings and no discernable flunkeys.

Perhaps this court has been banished from the ancient regime, for, when imagined in this context, there is something increasingly subversive about the chess pieces – a godly ruling elite have been transformed into the subjects of lesser and less godly men. They are moved forwards and backwards, and they may triumph or be sacrificed or be lost through some stupid mistake, just as medieval rulers once played with their subjects’ lives. Maybe the melancholy of these chess pieces reflects some sense of their ironic slavery. The exhibition speculates that the pieces were manufactured in a single workshop, perhaps by up to five separate pairs of hands, and despite the tremendous skill required to produce such figurines, they have something of the quality of modern children’s toys. The exhibition notes that the pieces have inspired children’s authors such as Oliver Postgate and Rosemary Sutcliff, as well as featuring (at least in image) in the Harry Potter movies.

[The Lewis Chessmen are in Edinburgh until the 19th September and they have a fabulous website here. Tychy has previously reviewed Lewis and Harris here. Ed]