Repairing damage to an 800-year old coffin at Prittlewell Priory – who should pay?

Repairs to an 800-year old coffin damaged by visitors to Prittlewell Priory Muesum in Southend will cost a “negligible” £100 to fix, according to Southend Council.1

For those unfamiliar with the story, the sandstone sarcophagus – found in the Priory grounds in 1921 complete with buried occupant – was damaged accidentally in the museum

Prittlewell Priory

when a visiting family lifted a child over the barrier and into it for a photograph. The incident and the damage was captured on CCTV, but the perpetrators fled the scene – leaving the damaged coffin behind, a story that went global with reports published as far away as the US,2 and the museum to pick up the bill for repairs.

Why on earth anyone would want a macabre picture of their child in a dead monk’s coffin is baffling, and perhaps this particular aspect of the story has been neglected – but the fact that this idiotic act has damaged the artefact is of course the main concern from the heritage viewpoint. Anyone who watches the Antiques Roadshow will understand that the monetary value of an object decreases when it is damaged, and where heritage is assessed for its significance rather than its value, it’s clear that damaging an object detracts from its overall importance. From this point on, this will not simply be the 800-year old coffin of a probable monk from Prittlewell Priory: it will be the 800-year old coffin of a monk that’s been glued back together. This suffix diminishes its integrity as an historic object: no longer viewed “as discovered” in the state that the passage of time handed it to us: it’s now an altered object.

Whilst the repair fee might be classed as negligible, the damage itself should not be. This is a heritage crime like any other and there is a principle here that needs to be articulated: our historic environment is fragile and finite and vulnerable to change. The threats to its survival are considerable and range from enormous issues like climate change and wholesale development, through to thoughtless Government cuts, unlicensed excavation, treasure hunting, erosion and even microscopic assaults from bacteria, pollution or fungal infestation. The last thing it needs is new threats arising from questionable parenting skills. There is a trend at the moment for people to scoff at the opinion of experts. Is this latest incident part of this trend? Even the Vice President of the US couldn’t resist ignoring the “do not touch” sign on a piece of sensitive space equipment on a visit to NASA recently3 – does everyone now know better than the qualified specialists? One would hope not, but people need to be reminded what study and expertise is all about – and these signs and barriers are there not just for your protection, but the protection of the object they’re on as well.

In this case, the museum has CCTV footage of the incident in question; the police should pay the family a visit and the “negligible” £100 should come from them, and not the Southend council tax payer, the museum, or any other public funds.



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