British Museum blog

Night at the (British) Museum: fact and fantasy

Sian Toogood, Broadcast Manager, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, British Museum

In the century or so since the birth of film, the British Museum has had many cameras within its galleries, labs and libraries. For the most part they have been filming documentaries, unravelling mysteries of the Museum’s collection, but every once in a while the Museum gets to participate in the organised chaos that is feature film production. In the past we have had Hitchcock in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, Merchant Ivory in the Assyrian Galleries and Phaedra in the Parthenon Galleries; we can now add Fox to this pantheon, with their third installment of the hugely popular Night at the Museum series: Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.

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I was extremely pleased when I was approached by Fox, not because it was a fantastic opportunity to get more people interested in the Museum, nor because it would be an interesting project filled with lots of exciting and complicated challenges (though it was undoubtedly both of these things). I was pleased because ever since I’ve worked at the British Museum I have consistently been asked why they didn’t film Night at the Museum here! Now I can finally say that we have.

The limitations of what is possible within the Museum meant that Fox only filmed at the Museum for three nights, from the moment the gates closed to the public to 07.00 the next day. The remainder of the British Museum scenes were shot over three months on a specially built set in Vancouver, Canada. Filming a full-scale feature in a 19th-century Grade I listed building is no joke – given some of the dramatic and explosive chase and fight scenes, it could never have been done on the actual premises.

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Those of you who have seen the film and know the Museum, even reasonably well, might wonder why parts of the fictional Museum look so different to the real thing. There are significant differences between the real Museum and the museum of the film. For one thing, our natural history collection became the basis of the Natural History Museum in 1889, so to see a triceratops you will have to go to South Kensington. Equally, if you want to see a knight in full armour, then the Wallace Collection is a much better bet. I’m afraid I can’t tell you where to find a nine-headed serpent cast in bronze though!

Apart from the objects in the collection, the layout and style of the Museum has been almost entirely altered for the film, with only the Parthenon Gallery (Room 18) and the Great Court remaining as they are in real life. So why was there a need to change the Museum to such an extent? Well, this film is the third in a series and so it had to fit in with the aesthetics of its predecessors in the trilogy, and we must allow for the artistic licence of the film’s director, Shawn Levy. This is an adventure film with a wish to get young people hooked on history. While there are some wild inventions, the Fox team also paid meticulous attention to detail for the general ‘look’ of the British Museum. For example, the Museum’s distinctive brass doorknobs were designed especially for the Museum and can be found nowhere else in the world. We sent a single pair of them to Vancouver so that they could be recreated for the film.

The Artistic Director spent a week looking at the original plans and elevations of the Parthenon and Egyptian Sculpture Galleries, and recording the details of many of the galleries, floor tiles, heating grills and columns to faithfully recreate them. Paint chips and marble samples went to Vancouver to join the doorknobs and these details, along with the great care that Fox took to recreate signage in the building, make a lot of the imagined Museum look as though these scenes could have been shot in brand new galleries of the British Museum.

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We were lucky that Night at the Museum came in only few months after we had had our own first foray into cinema production with a live broadcast from our exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Museum facilitates about 50 commercial film crews a year, shooting documentaries, music videos, fashion photo shoots and commercials, so we are well used to dealing with the requirements of film crews. But it was the experience of broadcasting live to hundreds of cinemas nationwide that gave us the confidence and base knowledge about the fabric of the building to be able to facilitate the scale of Night at the Museum. All those tedious facts about the weight loading capacity of the forecourt and the exact power provision in the Great Court suddenly became very useful!

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Fox were certainly not the average Museum film crew. They had 200 crew on site, a 40-tonne crane, helium balloon lights so large they couldn’t fit through the front door when inflated, and a myriad of other lights, cameras and stands. There was also a visual effects crew that 3d-scanned key spaces and dozens of objects from the collection to populate the film with living objects. Then there were the horses (outside) and the monkeys (inside). All of this kit, people and animals needed significant managing and overnight supervision.

We saw this film as an opportunity to interest new audiences across the world in museums in general, and to show the British Museum in particular in a new light. At the heart of the series is the idea that when you enter a museum you see the objects gathered there as if they were alive. These objects are used as gateways to other places and times and we invest them with personalities – we do not need to know everything about them to have an emotional connection with them. Visitors to the British Museum in the past might not have had the capabilities of Fox’s digital team, but in our mind’s eye I think we have all seen a lion roar or Greek sculptures walk, and we now have the opportunity to see them on the silver screen.

I doubt that we will ever have another film that is so closely linked to the Museum and its collection. I personally have been delighted and proud to have been part of this new chapter in the Museum’s film history.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is in cinemas across the UK from 19 December.

Download the free app based on the film to help you explore the Museum, and enter a competition to win a real Night at the Museum!

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You acted funny tryin’ to spend my money…Bowie on a banknote

Ben Alsop, curator, British Museum

If you were to walk down the high streets of a town or city in the UK you would most likely be struck by a sense of the familiar. You could move from shop front to shop front recognising typefaces, colours, window displays and smells as they are wafted out through peculiarly open doors (even in the depths of winter). Where once there was variety, now sit the well-known brands of mobile phone shop, fast-food restaurant, stationer, coffee shop and the smaller version of the bigger supermarket that sit on the edge of town. Success on the high street gives birth to repetition and replication.

The phenomenon of modern local currency is, however, attempting to rectify this by supporting small, independent businesses against large national and international companies. The first of a new wave of local currencies in Britain began in Totnes, Devon in 2007 with the issuing of 1,5,10 and 21 pound notes by Transition Towns Totnes, and has given rise to a further four schemes in Lewes, Stroud, Brixton and Bristol. These schemes allow for the exchanging of a local currency 1:1 with UK pound sterling which then can only be spent in participating, local, independent businesses. The hope is that this money will then be used by traders to purchase produce from local providers, ensuring the money continues to circulate in the community. The inspiration for this modern British take on localised monetary systems came from a number of progenitors that include the Berskshare in Massachusetts, USA and the Chiemgauer in Prien am Chiemsee in Bavaria, Germany. These systems have offered a blueprint for the UK and are part of an international family of local currencies from EarthDay Money in Japan to the Bangla Pesa in Mombasa, Kenya.

Oh you pretty things…

When it was decided to put together a display of UK local currencies in the Citi Money Gallery, the joy of collecting the various issues was in the variety and vibrancy of the designs. By their very nature Bank of England notes have to be conservative in appearance, adhering to our notion of what banknotes should look like. Local currencies have no such restrictions. This freedom means that while historical figures are depicted, such as the writer and Lewes resident Thomas Paine, it also allows for a fantastic array of contemporary designs.

David Bowie and Luol Deng on Brixton five and ten pound notes, as displayed in the Citi Money Gallery

David Bowie and Luol Deng on Brixton five and ten pound notes, 2nd edition, design by Charlie Waterhouse and Clive Russell, This Ain’t Rock’n’Roll, 2011. as displayed in the Citi Money Gallery

Five Bristol pound note showing ‘Graffiti Tiger’ by Alex Lucas

Five Bristol pound note showing ‘Graffiti Tiger’ by Alex Lucas

Local heroes David Bowie – shown in the iconic image from the cover of his 1973 album Aladdin Sane – and Luol Deng, professional basketball player for the GB national basketball team, are shown on the Brixton notes. Bristol artist Alex Lucas‘ tiger in a hoodie was one of the designs for the Bristol pound notes chosen from competition entries.

Local issues have also allowed for a redressing of gender disparities on UK paper money, with images of author Mary Wesley and secret agent Violette Szabo among others.

One Totnes pound note showing author Mary Wesley.

One Totnes pound note showing author Mary Wesley. Designed by Samskara Design

Changes…

To ensure that they are as simple as possible to use, UK local currencies are changing with the times and now offer ways to pay digitally, with SMS payment systems available in Brixton, Bristol and Totnes. There have even been forays into the world of cryptocurrencies (which I’ve written about in a previous post) with plans to create HullCoin garnering significant interest earlier this year.

These changes are central to their ability to grow and remain a viable part of the local economy but not all currencies have been a success. The Stroud pound is no longer issued (although there are hopes to reintroduce it) and there are questions as to how far these currencies have permeated different areas of society. Time will tell if the established local currencies continue to prosper and if proposed new local currencies in places such as Hackney and Oxford can continue this story.

Watch this Space (Oddity)…

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Beyond propaganda? North Korea in the British Museum

Sascha Priewe, curator, The British Museum

When the embassy of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) opened its doors for an art exhibition in November, here at the British Museum we were busy preparing the Korea Foundation Gallery for its re-display, which opens today. Given the curiosity about the mysterious state and the artists working there, it seemed timely to write about the British Museum’s collection of art from North Korea.

Silver coin commemorating the meeting of the leaders of South and North Korea in 2000, Pyongyang, DPRK, 2000. In June 2000 South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009) met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) in the first Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang. As one result, working level talks continued between the governments and tourist visits to the Diamond Mountains for South Koreans became possible. (British Museum OR.9666)

Silver coin commemorating the meeting of the leaders of South and North Korea in 2000, Pyongyang, DPRK, 2000 (British Museum OR.9666)

In June 2000 South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009) met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) in the first Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang, the DPRK capital. It was the time of ‘sunshine’ relations between the north and the south. Although north-south relations have iced over in recent years, this brief period allowed the world a glimpse into one of the planet’s most inaccessible societies.

In 2001 and 2002 colleagues from the British Museum and the British Library visited the DPRK. Jane Portal, then the curator of the Korean collections (and now the BM’s Keeper of Asia) built of one of the largest collections of DPRK works of art in a Western museum. On her first trip Portal collected woodblock prints, ink paintings, oil paintings, posters, calligraphy, ceramics, lacquer and commemorative coins. On her second visit she collected mostly prints and posters. Thanks to this initiative the British Museum now has about 80 objects from the DPRK.

The Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930), Oil on canvas. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, about 1990-99 (British Museum 2001,0607,0.6)

The Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930), Oil on canvas. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, about 1990-99 (British Museum 2001,0607,0.6)

The DPRK’s regime leaves artists few of the freedoms that artists in other parts of the world take for granted. Art from the DPRK is usually seen as a state-controlled propaganda tool. Often there has been little room to appreciate the works as works of art. But once we understand the context and constraints in which art is produced, we have the opportunity to think about their qualities as works of art. One example is The Steelworker, an oil painting by Song Chan-yong (b. 1930). The portrayal of a worker is naturally in tune with the tenets of a socialist country, however, with Song’s own words we can add a layer of appreciation to the work:

I have dedicated all my artistic life to drawing the subject of the working classes. The base of our society is the working class so I should draw them. I always like to place my easel in a glaring blast furnace not in a splendid studio. Then it seems to be more realistic. I intended to be an artist of the workers in the world of workers.

This and other works in the collection permit glimpses into an isolated world, which for most of us seems like a different universe.

Celadon-glazed porcelain with inlaid decoration. From Pyongyang, DPRK, c. 2002. (British Museum 2002,0930.1)

Celadon-glazed porcelain with inlaid decoration. From Pyongyang, DPRK, c. 2002. (British Museum 2002,0930.1)

When I visited the Pyongyang and other parts of the DPRK as a tourist in 2005, I felt as if I was stepping into the photographs, footage and stories of 1970s China. The place felt otherworldly, but realising that this physical manifestation is a reality for millions of people held me firmly on the ground. But it is within this context that great works of art are being created. There is politics behind some art, but there is also art behind some politics.

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Facelift: the new Korea Foundation Gallery

Sascha Priewe, curator, and Ellie Miles, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

The Museum is re-opening its refreshed Korea Foundation Gallery (Room 67) thanks to a generous grant from the National Museum of Korea. The project gave us the chance to re-think how we talk about and display things from the Korean peninsula. We took into account the collection’s profile, and how our visitors actually use our permanent gallery spaces. Most visitors make their own paths around the gallery, so we took down walls and moved cases to open up the space for them to browse and make different connections between objects. Bringing in colourful case designs and a new lighting design, we hope that the new gallery will give the objects a stronger visual impact, and encourage closer looking than before.

Samramansang Moon Jar #1 by Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960)

Samramansang Moon Jar #1 by Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960), USA, 2010–13, mixed media on wood (British Museum 2014,3046.1)

The collection tells an on-going story of Korean visual and material culture that continues to today. To start this new look at the Korean peninsula’s enduring history, we chose contemporary art with a historical focus. Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960) is an artist whose paintings of moon jars from the Joseon period (1392–1910) are particularly well known. His spectacular Samramansang Moon Jar #1 will welcome visitors into the gallery.

One of the parts of the new gallery that we are most excited about is the cases that we have reserved for changing displays. These will allow the gallery to be responsive to the events programme, new acquisitions and visitor interest. When the gallery opens on 16 December the first of these cases will show the work of Nam June Paik (1932–2006),the Korean pioneer of video art. The display of his works is in step with other interest in him, such as Tate Modern’s current exhibition. The other changing cases will allow us to make links with other collections within the Museum, too, and with the Museum’s exhibition programme.

Korean and Chinese objects displayed in Eumorfopoulos’ home, 7 Chelsea Embankment, London, 1934

Korean and Chinese objects displayed in Eumorfopoulos’ home, originally published in George Eumorfopoulos, G.E. 7, Chelsea Embankment, December 1934 (1934).

As we’ve been thinking about the re-display, the first ‘mini-exhibition’ will look at the history of the Korean collection at the British Museum, and how the earliest Western collectors of Korean art might have seen Korea. The beginnings of the Korean collections and the collecting of Korean objects began in the 19th century through the likes of the diplomat Thomas Watters (1840-1901), William Gowland (18427–1922), who worked for the Japanese mint, and George Eumorfopoulos (1863–1939), an ‘Oriental’ art collector in London, each representing different types of collectors. Between the three of them they amassed important collections but each with a very different texture.

East Gate – Seoul by Elizabeth Keith (1887–1956), Britain, about 1924, colour woodcut, donated by the Contemporary Art Society, P&D 1928,0310.40

East Gate – Seoul, colour woodcut by Elizabeth Keith (1887–1956), Britain, c. 1924, (British Museum PD 1928,0310.40)

Another lens through which Korea was seen was through photography and paintings. The display will show books featuring images of Korea published by the collectors’ contemporaries. Depictions of trades, pastimes, boats, architecture, costumes and natural history and so forth provided a lens through which Asia was perceived. And we will also show prints by Europeans and Americans that they made based on their impressions of Korea.

The gallery refreshment has given us the chance to look into the collection from different angles, to explore its strengths and its weaknesses. We have made some new discoveries and reconnected with objects that have been ‘old friends’. But our main task has been to improve the gallery to serve the visitors much more consciously by telling exciting stories and making connections with a part of the world, its past and present, that is still largely unknown.

The Korea Foundation Gallery</a re-opens on 17 December 2014, admission free.
View on the floorplan

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What colour were Dorothy’s shoes? The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as monetary allegory

Mieka Harris Education Manager: Citi Money Gallery, British Museum

A classic children’s story? A fairytale? Or an interpretation on the international exchange rate system? In my role as Education Manager for the Citi Money Gallery I teamed up with students from the Children’s Hospital School at Great Ormond Street Hospital to explore concepts raised in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the Citi Money Gallery.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Wizard of Oz film (MGM, 1939) and the creation of those iconic shoes, worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy. But what colour were Dorothy’s shoes originally? In L Frank Baum’s book, originally published in 1900, they were not ruby red, but silver. Therefore some economists, politicians and historians believe that the story is actually a monetary allegory, outlining a proposed move from the gold standard to a bimetallic standard known as the ‘Free Silver Movement’ led by William Jennings Bryan in the US in 1896. For this reason, a copy of the book has a place in the Citi Money Gallery, alongside other objects and artefacts that depict the history of money.

Fixing the dollar against gold, creating a ‘universal’ currency, initially had a positive effect on economies; a lack of fluctuating currencies reduced profit risks and so increased trade. However, the Malthusian trap becomes apparent with any natural reserve, with the mining rate unable to match the growth in trade. At the time, America was in a period of depression and the populist belief suggested that a bimetallic standard would enable the money stock to be increased. So, Dorothy’s silver shoes walking on a gold road could represent the two metals working together to provide a route towards a stable economy.

Like with many things, as soon as something is pointed out, other potential double meanings become apparent. Is the land called ‘Oz’ because this is an abbreviation of ounces, the standard measure for gold? Did farmers (the Scarecrow) need more business sense (a brain) to help them survive during a period of economic instability? Is the all-powerful Wizard really the President, who hides behind a smoke-screen of promises but in fact has very little actual power? Do the different locations of the four witches represent the geographical divides in America? Did advances in industry create automated production lines which reduced the workforce (or created workers with no heart)? The students at the Children’s Hospital School set out to examine some of these concepts, and others.

Object handling.

Object handling.

Students shared their perceptions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, identifying key elements in the story. To put the book into context as a potential monetary allegory, students explored the history of money and some key economic concepts by handling objects from the Museum’s collection. A week of activities then followed, based on themes in the book and ideas generated by the students.

Making Dorothy's shoes.

Making Dorothy’s shoes.

In maths, students considered Dorothy’s shoes and the fact that they fit her and so they investigated what information can be gleaned about a person by knowing their shoe size. The shoe theme was carried into art, with students creating shoes using a variety of media.

Science lessons saw students investigating the melting power of water; with jellies being created in the shape of witches! The concept of the tin man having a heart was also explored, considering that if he had a heart, what other organs would he need and where would they all be placed.

Descriptive language used in the book and a character analysis of the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West were analysed during English, resulting in students creating job descriptions or personal statements applying these roles. Ben Alsop, curator of the Citi Money Gallery, supported this session and applied for the role of the Good Witch of the North, but unfortunately was deemed an unsuccessful applicant by the students based on his responses to the questions!

Working on the citizenship activity.

Working on the citizenship activity.

The values identified for these roles were further discussed in Citizenship. Money does not exist in Oz, so the children discussed this as well, creating a currency for Oz using ideas from the earlier session on the history of money.

The variety of activities and resources available to the students, combined with the commitment of the teachers at the Children’s Hospital School, made for a very enjoyable week. Learning was put into a different context, perceptions were challenged and concepts were investigated. Whether the story is a monetary allegory remained unresolved by the students, but the skills to question what we see and read were developed. Did the water have to be a certain temperature to melt the Wicked Witch? Can shoes change sizes? Could a heart function on its own without other organs? All very good questions, but the ultimate question in taking a view as to whether The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a children’s story or a monetary allegory surely has to be, ‘What colour were Dorothy’s shoes?’.

The work produced by the students at The Children’s Hospital School will be on display in the Clore Centre for Education in the British Museum from 11 December 2014 until 22 January 2015.

The Citi Money Gallery (Room 68) is on the Upper floor, admission free.

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The Meroë Head of Augustus: statue decapitation as political propaganda

David Francis, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

In his Twelve Caesars, the Roman historian Suetonius describes how the emperor Augustus’ eyes ‘shone with a sort of divine radiance’ and that it gave him profound pleasure ‘if anyone at whom he glanced keenly dropped his head as though dazzled by looking into the sun.’

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head, the only bronze portrait of Augustus to have survived with its original inlaid eyes, perfectly captures the enigmatic gaze of the Roman emperor. Depending on how the light falls, the expression of the head can vary from haughty disdain to melancholic introspection. The whites of the eyes are further emphasised by the dark green sheen of the emperor’s skin and hair. This is a result of the oxidation process that has covered the original bronze surface with a deep marine green patina. This otherworldly quality is fitting for a man who was deified as a god upon his death.

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head is one of the great treasures of the British Museum, selected as one of the objects featured in the the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 objects in 2010. However, it was but one of many portraits of Augustus, which were mechanically copied and sent to the far-flung corners of the Roman Empire as a form of imperial propaganda. Today, very few bronze statues from the Roman world survive; most were melted down due to the value of their metal. The story behind how the Meroë Head avoided such a fate is a fascinating one and told in the new display in Room 3, The Meroë Head: Africa defies Rome.

One of the first photographs of the Meroë Head taken in the field, December 1910. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

One of the first photographs of the Meroë Head taken in the field, December 1910. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

The head was first unearthed in December 1910, during an excavation led by Professor John Garstang (1876–1956) of Liverpool University, on the site of the ancient city of Meroë in what is now modern-day Sudan. Meroë was the capital of Kush, a powerful African kingdom that from 1070 BC onwards rivalled Egypt for control of the region. Like their neighbours they built vast pyramid complexes, which can still be visited today. What made this find so unexpected was that Meroë was located close to the sixth cataract of the Nile, hundreds of miles from the Roman border in Egypt. What could the head of a Roman emperor be doing here?

Clues lie in the writings of the Greek historian Strabo who reported that in AD 25, a Meroïte army led by King Teriteqas and the one-eyed queen Amanirenas attacked the Roman garrisons at Syene, Elephantina and Philae, ‘enslaved the inhabitants’ and ‘threw down the statues of Caesar’. Caesar here refers to the Roman title for emperor and it was thought that the Meroë Head may have once belonged to one of the statues plundered during these raids, before it was decapitated.

Remains of the building where the Meroë Head was discovered at the beginning of the 1910 season. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

Remains of the building where the Meroë Head was discovered at the beginning of the 1910 season. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

Lord Kitchener (1850–1916) and other British officials visit the site during the excavation (Kitchener is second from left, Professor John Garstang on the far right). © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool.

Lord Kitchener (1850–1916) and other British officials visit the site during the excavation (Kitchener is second from left, Professor John Garstang on the far right). © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool.

Garstang and his fellow archaeologists found the head buried in the doorway to a building, which was located outside of the main city. The building was decorated with frescoes showing the king and queen enthroned, while a line of bound, kneeling slaves are presented to them. Some of these slaves have the distinctive helmets and tunics of Roman soldiers. It was therefore thought that the building may have been a victory monument, or a temple. In burying the head, the Meroïtes ensured that everyone who entered the building would trample this image of the emperor Augustus beneath their feet, thereby ritually perpetuating the Meroïte victory over the Romans. Ironically, it was this act of desecration that ultimately preserved Augustus’ portrait for future generations to appreciate.

Although we might regard such acts of iconoclasm as the preserve of the ancient world, in fact the decapitation of statues has occurred with surprising regularity over the past 30 years. Targets range from the London Guildhall’s marble Margaret Thatcher, decapitated using a metal rope by protestor Paul Kelleher in 2002, to a statue of Lillestrøm SK football club’s star striker Tom Lund, whose bronze head was stolen by rival fans in 2013. The beheading of statues even features as a plot line in The Simpsons The Telltale Head ((season 1 episode 8, first aired in February 1990), in which Bart chops off the head of the statue of Jebediah Springfield, the eponymous founder of the Simpsons’ home town.

Contemporary acts of statue decapitation have the advantage over the Meroïtes in having mass media to spread their message. In April 2003, the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad became one of the defining symbols of the Iraq War. Initially, a former Iraqi champion power-lifter attacked the huge statue with a sledgehammer, but was only able to break off a few chunks of concrete. American troops then intervened, toppling the statue with the aid of rope and a tank. Once on the ground the head of Saddam was beaten with shoes and eventually wrenched from the statue’s body. The toppling was presented as a spontaneous event symbolising the fall of Saddam’s regime by the newly liberated Iraqis. However, it was in fact carefully planned by the US military and broadcast on news bulletins worldwide.

The demolition of the Firdos statue by American troops may itself be a symbolic act of revenge, for the regime’s placement of a portrait of US President George W. Bush on the floor of the Al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad. All visitors to the hotel, particularly Western politicians and businessmen who used to stay there, were forced ritually to trample the face of the leader of the biggest power in the West – just as the Meroïtes did with the face of Augustus outside their victory shrine 2,000 years earlier. Unlike the Meroë Head or the head of Jebediah Springfield, however, the Firdos Head of Saddam has not yet resurfaced. But who knows, perhaps it lies hidden somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered and become a museum piece in the future.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome is in Room 3 from 11 December 2014 to 15 February 2015, admission free.
 

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Bringing a Ming painting back to life

Jin Xian Qiu, Senior Conservator of Chinese Paintings and Carol Weiss, Conservator of Chinese Paintings, British Museum

On entering the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, one of the first objects visitors see is a large silk painting depicting an official in front of Beijing’s Forbidden City. This Ming dynasty painting by artist Zhu Bang was conserved especially for the exhibition, using traditional Chinese scroll mounting techniques that have been passed down from master to student since before this 500-year-old painting was even painted.

The British Museum is extraordinarily fortunate to have as its Senior Conservator of Chinese Paintings Mrs Jin Xian Qiu, who originally trained and worked in Shanghai Museum before coming to the British Museum 27 years ago. It is thanks to her expertise that many of the Museum’s Chinese paintings can be displayed today. For this particular project, along with the help of her assistants and colleagues in the Hirayama Studio (part of the British Museum’s Department of Conservation and Scientific Research, working on East Asian paintings) Mrs Qiu was joined by Mr Chu Hao, a Senior Paintings Conservator from Shanghai Museum, who assisted with some of the processes that make up this painstaking treatment.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). Before conservation.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). Before treatment.

Traditionally, East Asian scroll paintings are habitually conserved and cared for over the course of their lifetimes by a process of remounting. The paintings themselves are cleaned and repaired, whilst the surrounding silk borders and accompanying lining papers are replaced with new materials. It is because of this remounting that many silk paintings survive today as hanging scrolls. Because our painting was in poor condition, it was decided to completely remount it.

Before any work could start on the painting, its condition was documented using detailed photography and microscopy. At the same time, appropriate materials had to be prepared and sourced; from dyeing the new first lining paper to exactly the right shade and tone, to finding matching old silks to repair all the missing areas. Mrs Qiu donated a Ming dynasty silk, which matched very closely the colour and weave of the painting, from her own collection (which was passed down to her by her scroll mounting teacher in Shanghai).

Strengthening pigments with nikawa (a traditional East Asian consolidant)

Strengthening pigments with nikawa (a traditional East Asian consolidant)

After consolidating any vulnerable pigments, the treatment could begin. The old unsuitable mount was removed from the painting, and in the process of doing so, wider hidden painted edges and more of a seal were revealed. The painting was then ‘washed’ four times in a wet treatment that removes acidity and discolouration from the silk. This process involves carefully sprinkling water onto the surface of the painting before gently removing the excess.

After cleaning, in order to stabilise the silk weave during the upcoming treatments, a temporary facing was applied to the painting’s surface, now nicely flattened by the wet treatment. This facing is made of tong oil paper (a specially treated water-resistant paper) with further layers of xuan paper (a short-fibred paper used in all Chinese scroll mounting and much East Asian calligraphy and painting) applied on top for extra stability.

Mrs Qiu with her two assistants, Valentina Marabini and Carol Weiss, removing the painting’s old backing papers

Mrs Qiu with her two assistants, Valentina Marabini and Carol Weiss, removing the painting’s old backing papers

With the surface protected, the painting could be turned over and stuck to the table face-down to reveal many layers of backing papers. These were removed with tweezers, sometimes in long strips, sometimes fibre by fibre, along with old unsuitable silk repairs. Only now was the real extent of damage to the painting revealed, and while still damp, misaligned silk pieces were carefully realigned to their correct positions.

Mrs Qiu repairing the missing silk areas

Mrs Qiu repairing the missing silk areas

Once dry, the process of silk repair could begin, being careful not to waste any of the precious ancient silk resources. Shaped patches of repair silk were adhered to the back of the missing areas and once dry any overlapping edges were carefully pared away. Because the painting was in such bad condition, this process alone took three conservators working for around six weeks.

Mrs Qiu with her assistants and Mr Chu Hao from Shanghai Museum, after the painting has been lined and its facings removed.

Mrs Qiu with her assistants and Mr Chu Hao from Shanghai Museum, after the painting has been lined and its facings removed.

It was at this stage that Mr Chu Hao from Shanghai Museum joined the team to help apply the new lining papers. The first lining was dyed Chinese xuan paper, and the second, long-fibred Japanese usumino paper. Mrs Qiu developed this technique, which she thinks provides extra strength, after coming to the British Museum’s Hirayama Studio, where our Chinese and Japanese expert scroll mounters work together – a wonderfully unique situation, and one of its kind here in Europe. After this double-layer of lining was applied to the painting using wheat starch paste, it could be turned over and the temporary facings removed. Then it was applied to a drying board to allow the process of toning the repairs to begin.

Mrs Qiu and Mr Chu Hao retouching the painting on the drying board.

Mrs Qiu and Mr Chu Hao retouching the painting on the drying board.

With the conservation aspect of the treatment finished, the mounting work could begin. Mount silks were lined and dyed to best enhance the painting, before being cut into carefully proportioned rectangles that were adhered to the painting’s edges to make an aesthetic border. Slender paper reinforcement strips were applied to the back of the lined painting wherever there was previously a crack or crease, and then the whole mounted painting was given a final backing of two layers of xuan paper with cover silk at the top (to protect the scroll once rolled). This was attached to the drying board for many months, before it was removed and the back burnished, producing a smooth finish ideal for a scroll that will be rolled up. Finally, wooden fittings including the top stave, bottom roller and roller knobs were attached, and the hanging braid and tying ribbon tied on to produce a finished hanging scroll.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). After conservation.

Anonymous, Portrait of an offical in front of the Beijing imperial palace, hanging scroll, ink and colours on silk, c. 1480-1580 (British Museum 1881,1210,0.87.CH). After conservation.

From undertaking the first analysis to tying the final ribbon, the entire process took over a year, with other paintings worked on during the long periods of drying. The painting is now stable and can be rolled and unrolled for display without risk of damage; the silk has been cleaned and strengthened by the washing and repair processes and the entire painting has been flattened by its new lining. Details in the painting, previously hidden by stains or creases, are visible once more. A hundred or more years should pass before this painting will need to be remounted again, its journey of conservation and potential to be preserved never-ending while there are still expert scroll mounters to care for these works in the traditional Chinese style.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

The exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, edited by Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Conservation, Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , , , , , ,

Loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the Hermitage: a marble ambassador of a European ideal

Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The British Museum is a museum of the world, for the world and nothing demonstrates this more than the loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg to celebrate its 250th anniversary.

The river-god Ilissos. Marble statue from the West pediment of the Parthenon.

The river-god Ilissos. Marble statue from the West pediment of the Parthenon, Athens, Greece, 438–432 BC (British Museum 1816,0610.99)

The British Museum opened its doors in 1759, just five years before the Hermitage. Sisters, almost twins, they are the first great museums of the European Enlightenment. But they were never just about Europe. The Trustees of the British Museum were set up by Parliament to hold their collection to benefit not only the citizens of Great Britain, but ‘all studious and curious persons’ everywhere. The Museum today is the most generous lender in the world, sending great Assyrian objects to China, Egyptian objects to India and Iranian objects to the United States – making a reality of the Enlightenment ideal that the greatest things in the world should be seen and studied, shared and enjoyed by as many people in as many countries as possible.

The Trustees have always believed that such loans must continue between museums in spite of political disagreements between governments. That is why in 2011 they lent the Cyrus Cylinder, the document setting out the humane ideals of the ancient Persian Empire, to Tehran. It is a position energetically shared by our counterparts in Russia. Last year, the Hermitage lent the spectacular collection of paintings, formed by Sir Robert Walpole and sold to Catherine the Great, back to his country house, Houghton Hall, for the summer. Loans from Russian museums enriched the recent exhibition Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind and the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend both at the British Museum, and Malevich at Tate Modern earlier this year was an outstanding act of Russian generosity, enjoyed by thousands of visitors. Both Tate and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts are in return lending works to the exhibition Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past which opens at the Hermitage this weekend.

So, when our colleagues at the Hermitage asked if we might also make an important loan to celebrate their 250th anniversary, the Trustees immediately answered yes. And no loan could more fittingly mark the long friendship of our two houses, or the period of their founding, than a sculpture from the Parthenon.

Sculptures from the West pediment on display in the Parthenon Galleries (Room 18)

Sculptures from the West pediment on display in Room 18

The great leader of Athens, and the visionary spokesman for its exemplary status for all humanity, was Pericles. In 431 BC, in his famous funeral oration for the heroic Athenian dead, he proclaimed the world-wide renown to which destiny had summoned both them, and their city:

For glorious men like them, the whole earth is their sepulchre. And their memorial is carved not only on a headstone by their home, but far away in foreign lands, unwritten, in the minds of every man…

Marble portrait bust of Pericles. Roman copy of a Greek original (British Museum GR 1805.0703.91)

Marble portrait bust of Pericles. Roman copy of a Greek original (British Museum GR 1805.0703.91)

Two and a half thousand years later, I hope that Pericles would applaud the journey of Ilissos to Russia, where ‘far away in foreign lands’, this stone ambassador of the Greek golden age and European ideals will write ancient Athens’s achievements – aesthetic, moral and political – in ‘the minds of every man’. It is a message that Russia, and the whole world, need to hear and I am delighted that the British Museum has been able to lend such a remarkable object.

This post is based on the text of an article by Neil MacGregor for The Times, 5 December 2014.

Press release – British Museum loan of Parthenon Sculpture to State Hermitage Museum

The river-god Ilissos from the West pediment of the Parthenon is on display at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, from Saturday 6 December 2014 until 18 January 2015.

More about the Parthenon sculptures on the British Museum website

Filed under: Collection, , , , , , , , , ,

East meets west in Mantegna’s Adoration of the Magi

Dr Caroline Campbell, interim head of the Curatorial Department and Curator of Italian Paintings before 1500, National Gallery, London

One of the most remarkable objects in the British Museum’s extraordinary BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China isn’t Chinese at all. It’s a quiet, subdued painting, made by Andrea Mantegna in the late 1490s, probably in the north-eastern Italian city of Mantua. It is in the exhibition because of the delicate blue-and-white porcelain vessel held by the oldest of the three Magi, who kneels bareheaded before the tiny infant Christ, humbly proffering his gift of gold coins.

Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431–1506), Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495–1505, Distemper on linen. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Andrea Mantegna (c. 1431–1506), Adoration of the Magi, c. 1495–1505, Distemper on linen. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Mantegna (1430/1–1506) is one of the most extraordinary talents of the 15th century. He trained as a painter in Padua, the pulsating university town near Venice, at the time one of the most exciting places in Europe to live and to learn. Indeed, Mantegna was such a remarkable artist that Jacopo Bellini, the greatest Venetian painter of his day, arranged a marriage between his daughter Niccolosa and Mantegna so that the Bellini family workshop could benefit from his genius. The marriage endured, but the benefits to the Bellini were short-lived: Mantegna moved to Mantua, where he spent the remainder of his life as court painter to the city’s rulers, the Gonzaga family. Mantegna was one of the first artist-printmakers, and his inventions spread throughout Europe in the form of prints by him and his students.

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the sea gods, engraving on paper, c. 1470-1500, British Museum (V,1.66)

Andrea Mantegna, Battle of the sea gods, engraving on paper, c. 1470-1500, British Museum (V,1.66)

We know that Mantegna had a life-long passion for antiquities. It’s a feature of much of his surviving work as both a painter and graphic artist, and it evidently permeated his life. One of the most famous anecdotes about the artist – which also happens to be true – concerns a boat trip he made to Lake Garda in 1464, together with the scholars Felice Feliciano and Samuele da Tradate. Not only did they search for and copy old Roman inscriptions, they dressed up as classical Romans and made ancient music as they worked – ‘Emperor Samuele constantly playing the cithara and jubilant’. We can see Mantegna’s response to Greek and Roman forms, such as survivals of antique sculpture and architecture, in an engraving such as the ‘Battle of the Sea Gods’, a vigorous, lively, and very un-classical recreation of ancient sarcophagi and friezes.

Andrea Mantegna, Samson and Delilah, c. 1500 © National Gallery London (NG1145)

Andrea Mantegna, Samson and Delilah, c. 1500 © National Gallery, London (NG1145)

Many of his works also meld classical form with 15th–century function, but perhaps none do this as beautifully as the National Gallery’s Samson and Delilah of around 1500. It has been painted to look like a cameo, a miniature relief carved in the different strata of a precious stone by Roman gem-cutters. Such objects were much admired and collected in Mantegna’s circle.

But Mantegna also recreated lost forms of classical art. Although he had never seen an ancient Roman painting, his highly-coloured pictures ‘The Triumphs of Caesar’ made for Francesco Gonzaga around 1485 (probably his greatest achievement, now in the Royal Collection at Hampton Court) were inspired by written accounts of Julius Caesar’s military celebrations in Rome, as well as surviving Roman antiquities.

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Magi, detail showing Ming bowl filled with gold coins. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

Andrea Mantegna, Adoration of the Magi, detail showing Ming bowl filled with gold coins. © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (85.PA.417)

It is in the context of Mantegna’s interests in antiquity that we should view the blue-and-white porcelain cup in the ‘Adoration of the Magi’. Chinese ‘export ware’ wasn’t directly traded with Europe until the 16th century, but the potteries of Jingdezhen were producing Ming porcelain that made it to Europe in the previous century. The bowl in Mantegna’s painting is decorated with a delicate floral motif which is typical of some bowls and cups produced in the Imperial factory in Jingdezhen, still the symbolic centre of China’s porcelain industry, during the Yongle reign (1403–24). Interestingly, Mantegna’s bowl was not a new object by the time he painted it in the late 15th century.

How had it come to Mantua? Chinese ceramics, highly valued for its rarity and beauty, are recorded in European collections as early as the 14th century. During Mantegna’s lifetime, only a few major gifts of Chinese porcelain were made to European rulers, such as the twenty objects sent by the Sultan of Egypt to Lorenzo de’ Medici, de facto ruler of Florence, in 1487. Several examples are recorded in Mantua – there are four mentioned in the 16th-century inventory of Isabella d’Este’s possessions – but none are for certain the bowl depicted in the ‘Adoration of the Magi’.

What we can be sure of is that these were highly valued objects, often embellished with European metal mounts, and found either in princely collections or ecclesiastical treasuries. These collections were also often home to other luxury objects from outside Europe, from the far closer Eastern Mediterranean, including carpets, fabrics, metalwork and glass. These could also be set into mounts or ‘Europeanised’ in some other way, and many were also celebrated for their connection with the Holy Land. As objects made in the geographical regions where Christ and his disciples had lived, they could have a sacral value. But as some scholars, particularly Alexander Nagel, have argued persuasively, they could also, legitimately, be considered ‘antiquities’, even if they were made in more recent centuries. Their foreignness could make Europeans think of them as objects made in a distant time, which was far removed historically as well as geographically.

Could the same be true of the Ming bowl in Mantegna’s picture? Its very rarity and value manifestly adds dignity and prestige to Mantegna’s elderly Magus, but it also serves to situate the sacred story of the Magi’s discovery of Christ as taking place outside of historical time, as well as to accentuate how exotic he and his companions were. Mantegna’s ‘Adoration of the Magi’ may seem a simple retelling of a familiar story, and a straightforward depiction of a Ming bowl, but, in fact, nothing is quite as it seems.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum until 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

The exhibition catalogue The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Ming: 50 years that changed China, , , , , , , , , , , ,

Changing faces: revealing ancient alterations in Saharan rock art

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Jorge De Torres, Cataloguer, African rock art image project

The Ennedi Plateau cliffs

The Ennedi Plateau cliffs, Chad

Fifteen years ago, I started my training as an archaeologist participating in a rock art survey in Extremadura, Spain. For a month I climbed cliffs and endured summer temperatures of 45ºC, looking for the flat rock faces where the schematic rock art we were looking for might be. One of those exhausting days, I crawled under a shelter during a break to escape the scorching sun. It was so small that you could only lie down and it had no space to turn sideways or sit. I rested for a while enjoying the shade, and then I saw them: four vertical, red lines painted on the inner part of the roof, clearly the imprints of four human fingers, made by someone who was once in my exact position, in a place where nobody but he (or she) – and thousands of years later, me – could contemplate them.

I’ve seen quite a lot of rock art since that summer morning, but I’ve always recalled that painting as one of the most important archaeological remains I’ve ever come across. Not because of its complexity, of course, but because of the exceptional possibility of recording and understanding the concrete action of an individual who existed thousands of years ago. Archaeologists like me are used to focussing on tendencies (chronologies, styles, geographical distributions) rather than individual human actions, which are usually very difficult to detect. However, while cataloguing the incredible collection of the African rock art image project, I found two such cases – both attempts to amend a picture once it was painted.

Figure 2 Detail of the engraved women at Niola Doa

Detail of the engraved women at Niola Doa, Chad

The depictions are found in the Ennedi Plateau in the north-eastern corner of Chad, a mountainous region on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, full of huge outcrops and boulders, many of them covered with engravings and paintings dated from 5000 BC onwards. Although rock art in the Ennedi Plateau has a great variety of styles and depictions, probably the best known images in the area are the Niola Doa engravings: several groups of large figures (probably women), richly decorated, with one arm stretched downwards and the other bent upwards, usually resting sticks on their shoulders.

While describing these images, one caught my attention: an elegant, richly decorated woman, painted in red and white. There are several white lines around the neck, representing necklaces, and several more around the waist and hips, including series of white dots – possibly objects sewn onto a belt or directly to the skirt, reminiscent of the coin and shell belts often worn by dancers in the Middle East.

The painted woman from Niola Doa, before and after digital enhancement, showing the repainted arm position.

The painted woman from Niola Doa, before and after digital enhancement, showing the repainted arm position. Click on the image to see a larger version of the original.

Detail of the corrected arm from the painted woman

Detail of the arm from the painted woman, after colour enhancement.

There was something strange about the figure’s left arm: a red band under the left elbow, undoubtedly something painted, but a bit out of place. Using colour enhancement tools, such as those described by Elizabeth Galvin in a previous post, the result was astonishing. The enhanced photograph shows how the lower stain is in fact an arm that was painted stretching downwards, later corrected and repainted to bend upwards. The earlier arm is faint, but the enhanced colour shows how the tonality of both paintings is the same, implying that the same painter corrected the figure. Why was the image changed? We can only guess, but the final outline of the woman resembles the engraved figures of previous periods, so perhaps the painter was trying to emulate the impressive engravings that still give the place its name today (Niola Doa means ‘the dancing maidens’ in the local language).

The Archei Geulta (water pocket), Chad

The Archei Geulta, Chad

The second example comes from a very special place known as the Archei Guelta. A ‘guelta’ is a pocket of water in the desert (sometimes an oasis, but not always) that provides vital water to both people and animals. The Archei Guelta is one of the most important places in the region, with water available all year round, and home to one of the last remaining colonies of crocodiles in the desert. Like many other areas of the Ennedi Plateau, the whole area is full of paintings and engravings of many different periods and styles.

Painted panel of riders in ‘flying gallop’ style, before and after digital enhancement. The horse at the top is superimposed on an earlier painting of a man. See a larger version of the original image.

Painted panel of riders in ‘flying gallop’ style, before and after digital enhancement. Click on the image to see a larger version of the original.

One of these paintings is an extremely faint group of riders on horses, depicted in a very specific style of the Ennedi Plateau known as the ‘flying gallop’. Being so faint, the images were difficult to describe, and therefore I again had to use colour enhancement to identify them. By inverting the colours, I was able to see the riders and some previously undetected cows , but it also led me to an unexpected discovery: one of the riders was in fact a man on foot, with a horse superimposed. The paint of the man was much more degraded than that of the horse, implying that he was painted in an earlier period, perhaps prior to the introduction of horses to the desert. As in the first case, we can only speculate as to why the painters of the horses decided to amend the figure, but perhaps it was a way of incorporating older figures into the new scenes, adding as prestigious an animal as a horse. Perhaps they simply felt sorry for the lonely man walking among fast, powerful riders.

Detail of walking man superimposed by horse

Detail of the enhanced image showing a galloping horse painted over a standing man.

These two examples remind us that behind the broad categories into which we organize rock art were individuals who used these wonderful paintings and engravings as a way of sharing their own perspectives and interpretations of reality. The reinterpretation of older images raises interesting questions about how these populations interacted with their own past, integrating it within their narratives. And although the ultimate meaning of these changes can be difficult to comprehend, they nonetheless help us feel nearer to the people who made these images so many thousands of years ago.

This post is part of the African rock art image project at the British Museum, generously supported by the Arcadia Fund.

Filed under: African rock art, Archaeology, Collection, , , , , , , , ,

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