British Museum blog

Making a new Money gallery at the British Museum

Catherine Eagleton, British Museum

Chinese Ming banknote, AD 1375

Chinese Ming banknote, AD 1375

The Money gallery at the British Museum opened 14 years ago, and was at the time a new way of displaying coins and medals. It represented a new way of thinking about the history of money, and changed the way museums around the world told this global story.

Now, a new partnership between Citi and the British Museum means we are able to redisplay the gallery, make changes to the design and content of the displays, and take advantage of new knowledge and new ideas in museology and monetary history.

We will be building on the results of an evaluation of the current Money gallery that has been done over the past few years. This gives us some clear pointers for how it can be clarified and updated, and we have already started a programme of consultation with key audiences to find out what they would like to see the new gallery containing, and what questions they have about money and its history.

Penny defaced by suffragettes, AD 1903. Crown copyright

Penny defaced by suffragettes, AD 1903. Crown copyright

The gallery will use money as a lens through which to look at the history of the world, as well as showing the different forms and functions money has taken and had around the world in the last 3,000 years or so. The challenge for me as the lead curator on the project is to work out how to edit a complex global story down so that it can be told in a single room. But here I am lucky to be able to draw on the expertise of my subject-specialist colleagues.

Gold coin of Abd al-Malik, probably made in Syria, AH 77 / AD 696-7

Gold coin of Abd al-Malik, probably made in Syria, AH 77 / AD 696-7

Throughout the coming year, members of the project team will be tracking the progress of this exciting project, here on the blog, right up to the opening in June 2012.

I’ll post something about once a month and, in between, there will be contributions from other people on how the project looks from their point of view.

We will be writing about (among other things) evaluation, object selection, text writing, design, conservation, and the tricky business of how you remove thousands of small objects from display and keep track of where they all are while the gallery works are in progress in the first few months of 2012.

The Money Gallery project is supported by Citi and opens in June 2012.

Filed under: Collection, Money Gallery, , , , ,

A glass fish from Begram

St John Simpson, Exhibition Curator

The exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World contains nineteen of the roughly 180 glass vessels found in the ancient Kushan storerooms at Begram. Many have very close parallels from the Roman world which also support a date of about 100 AD for the sealing of the rooms. These include mosaic glass and ribbed bowls, facet-cut beakers, a drinking horn, a jug decorated with gold foil, another that appears almost black, and a stunning series decorated with scenes painted in brightly coloured vitreous enamels. All functioned as tablewares but, whereas some are very common, others were probably relatively expensive.

However, some of the vessels found at Begram remain something of a mystery and these include as many as twenty-two which are in the shape of fish and other creatures. Three of these are shown in the exhibition. They were made by inflating the glass while it was hot and adding trails of glass to the body, and sometimes in a different colour, to create very distinctive fins. The composition of the glass resembles that of Roman glass made in Egypt yet there are no known parallels, either complete or fragmentary, for these vessels from the Roman world.

Some of the answers were provided at a conference held at the British Museum March 2011 when Dr David Whitehouse and Bull Gudenrath, both from the Corning Museum of Glass, spoke about the significance of the Begram glass and how the fish-shaped vessels were made. Bill drew gasps from the audience as first he showed a specially filmed video of him making a copy and then theatrically produced not just one, but two, copies at the front of the lecture theatre. He also showed that the techniques of making the glass fish were not particularly complicated although the way in which the fins were trailed were so distinctive that they could be regarded as the sign of a particular glass-worker.

The workshop where these were made remains unlocated and may never be found but David pointed out that this could be located somewhere in India as the first-century text known as The Periplus of the Erythraean Sea – a unique account of Red Sea and western Indian Ocean trade at this period – refers to the export not just of Roman glassware from Egypt but also raw glass. Much of this was probably turned into beads, bangles and inlays but the implication of the fish-shaped vessels from Begram is that some was fashioned into glass vessels by someone who had picked up the basics of glass-blowing and set up shop in a world where this was a complete novelty. It is not difficult to see how even the cheapest and most mass-produced types of Roman glassware were given exorbitant prices in places like India or Afghanistan in the first century but imagine the response when someone says they can make a vessel that looks like a fish, is unknown even in Rome and, to cap it all, rests perfectly on a table as its fins act as supports.

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Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World is on at the British Museum until 17 July 2011.

Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions

Conserving a Qing dynasty calligraphy scroll

Valentina Marabini, British Museum

Zhu Pin Fang, Head of the conservation studio (centre), Valentina (right) and her colleague Shaozen assess the scroll before treatment

Zhu Pin Fang, Head of the conservation studio (centre), Valentina (right) and her colleague Shaozen assess the scroll before treatment

In a previous post I described a hanging scroll that I was working on – a work of Qing Dynasty calligraphy. It is now finished. I wrote then that I would explain the process used to conserve it, so here goes.

The first thing I had to do was to assess the scroll condition. The scroll is executed on paper – zhi ben hua long-fibered, which looks almost like silk. It was carefully analysed, photographed and the treatment procedure set. We next established the proportions and design for a new scroll mount.

A close-up of the scroll showing horizontal cracks

Unfortunately, the scroll was very creased with extensive horizontal cracks and signs of many previous repairs. However, the paint itself was stable and therefore suitable to be cleaned using a ‘wet’ treatment.

Using a broad paibi brush we carefully sprinkled water over the surface and drained it off.

Applying a wet treatment

When the painting was clean we could remove the old linings. A layer of dry xuan paper was placed over the face of the scroll, and the scroll and its support were loosely rolled up. The scroll was unrolled and flattened over wang wang juen (an open silk) face down and left overnight. During this time the paste and layers of backing papers became softer, making them easier to work with.

Removing the backing layers

To be able to remove the backing papers we had to remove many of the scroll layers. The scroll had three layers of backing papers – (i) a layer of white xuan paper repairs, (ii) a second lining of very long fibred paper and (iii) a first lining of thin xuan paper in direct contact with the calligraphy.

We cleaned the edges of the missing areas, removing old paste residues and lightly evened their thickness with a very thin spatula. Some of the previous repairs were in good condition and were left in situ, but some had deteriorated and so were removed. The calligraphy was now ready for relining.

Pasting the back of the scroll

Layers of paper were selected and dyed with natural pigments mixed with animal glue and water to match the tone. The back of the calligraphy was pasted with thin flour paste using a paibi brush. The first lining paper (a long fibered paper) was moistened and positioned over the calligraphy and adhered with a wuzhou brush. On top of this a second lining of mian lian (thin xuan paper) was pasted; this is called jia tou meaning additional lining.

False paper margins were adhered to the edge of the calligraphy to facilitate joining to its new silk mount later on.

Work continues on the scroll

When the lining was complete we could check the calligraphy itself. Missing areas were repaired with new paper made of mian lian and were evened with a thin spatula. The calligraphy was then turned face up and left to dry naturally.

Retouching the calligraphy

After sizing and drying, the calligraphy was again lightly moistened and adhered to a white xuan paper, face up on the table. We could now start retouching. This is done in natural light, and aims to match the repaired areas to the colours of the original. Ink and pigments are carefully diluted and then applied.

Preparing the scroll for mounting

This process was followed by tou liao, the selection and dying of the appropriate silk to form the new mount. The silk mount was to be in two colours, a plain and a grey-blue pattern silk.

Preparing the scroll for mounting

With retouching completed, the calligraphy was detached and the edges of the mount were squared. The mounting silk was cut to size and attached to the calligraphy using a technique called wa hua: a window is cut precisely in the silk and the calligraphy is inserted into it.

The scroll after treatment

A final double-layered backing paper completed the lining stage and, after a period of drying, wooden fittings were attached to the top and bottom of the scroll so it was ready for hanging. I will write about that in my next post…

Filed under: Conservation, Studying in Shanghai, , , ,

Installing Treasures of Heaven

Morn Capper, British Museum

As Icelandic ash clouds threatened to delay the main shipments, my Treasures of Heaven installation with the Museum Assistant team began eventfully. I need not have worried. Customs delays merely allowed us to make an especially large mountain of tissue balls with which to safely pack objects. By the evening, our lorry finally arrived back at the Museum and the crates were safely unloaded and locked away until morning.

A crate containing one of the objects is wheeled into the exhibition space.

A crate containing one of the objects is wheeled into the exhibition space.

Starting early on day two with British Museum objects, crates were opened and parcels unwrapped, as every object was examined to ensure it had survived the flight from the USA intact.

First paperwork: despite their apparently good condition, these irreplaceable treasures are hundreds of years old, and each has instructions for care and display. Relics and reliquaries also have an unusual mixture of materials. Precious metals like gold and silver prefer dry conditions, while organic materials like wood, bone and ivory need carefully conditioned humidity to stop them cracking.

Then the excitement: under the watchful eyes of the exhibition curator, James Robinson, I unwrapped the head of St Eustace – a British Museum object which has been on tour around the world – from the special intercept material which prevents him from tarnishing and carefully compared each gem, rivet, dent and scratch to the record photos to make sure he had returned safely. Satisfied, James signed St Eustace back into British Museum hands. Senior Museum Assistant, Jim Peters was given the nerve-wracking task of carrying the Holy Thorn Reliquary – a 700 year-old object made for the French royal family – across the Great Court and into the exhibition space.

Immediately, couriers from across the globe began to arrive, co-ordinated by Project Manager Rachel. Curators from Cleveland and Baltimore were joined by conservator Larry Becker from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, with the St Ursula companion: the face on every British Museum poster for the exhibition. Specialist British Museum conservators advised on their care.

Once these couriers leave site the display cases containing their objects cannot be reopened and with Museum Assistant Sam co-ordinating the effort the team had to work late into the night.

Morn Capper and Museum Assistant, Alex Garrett install one of the objects.

Morn Capper and Museum Assistant, Alex Garrett install one of the objects.

Each pin holding such relics as the sixth century necklace from Cleveland or the skull fragment of St Thomas Becket from Stonyhurst College, was expertly positioned, tested and sheathed in plastic.

While some of these relics have little known histories, others have fascinating stories up to the present day. The Man of Sorrows, a Byzantine Icon, has been in Santa Croce in Rome since at least the fourteenth century, where it was surrounded by the cabinet of relics it still holds today, each with an individual hand written label. Later in the exhibition, books from the Reformation hint towards a time when the printed word led to greater questioning of these strange and powerful objects of devotion. It has been a fascinating week.

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Treasures of Heaven: saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe opens on 23 June 2011. Book tickets online or become a Member and gain free entry to all special exhibitions.

Treasures of Heaven: saints relics and devotion in medieval Europe is sponsored by John Studzinski.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Treasures of Heaven

Papyrus and palaces – a new exhibition about the pharaohs of ancient Egypt

Margaret Maitland, British Museum

Almost everyone has some idea of ancient Egypt: the name instantly conjures up an image of a land ruled by all-powerful pharaohs who built grand temples and pyramids, and were buried with magnificent treasures.

Upper part of a red granite colossal statue of Ramses II, 1279-1213 BC

Upper part of a red granite colossal statue of Ramses II, 1279-1213 BC

Like many others, I was first drawn to Egyptology as a child by the allure of the pharaohs’ ancient splendour, but it was the compelling stories behind these kings and their relationship with their people that kept me captivated. In fact, the Egyptians themselves weren’t always as dazzled by their rulers as we are today; stories that survive on papyri from ancient times tell of regretful kings rueing their failures, and others who are comically lascivious or cruel.

The forthcoming new British Museum touring exhibition Pharaoh: King of Egypt explores both the myths and realities of kingship in ancient Egypt. With 130 objects, from a larger than life-size royal tomb guardian statue, exquisite jewellery, and palace decorations, to defaced royal monuments and accounts of assassination and civil war, Pharaoh: King of Egypt is the largest ever UK loan of Egyptian objects from the British Museum.

The exhibition has been developed in partnership with Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and will begin its tour at the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle-upon-Tyne from 16 July – 25 September 2011, before travelling to Dorset County Museum, Leeds City Museum, Birmingham Museum, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, and Bristol Museum. The cooperative process that has produced this exhibition is part of the British Museum’s Partnership UK programme, which works with numerous museums around the country to share objects, expertise, and community programming. Pharaoh is just one of many exhibitions that broaden access to the collection by bringing it directly to people across the UK.

Gold plaque of Amenemhat IV offering to Atum, 1808-1799 BC

Gold plaque of Amenemhat IV offering to Atum, 1808-1799 BC

I’ve been lucky enough to get to work with the stunning objects that are part of this exhibition. Currently, I’m in the process of updating our collections online database to share the enthralling stories behind these objects, including new photographs of many of them. To get a taste of what the exhibition will offer, have a look at the list and come back to visit again as I continue to update them.

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Pharaoh: King of Egypt is on display at the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle-upon-Tyne 16 July – 25 September 2011

Filed under: Exhibitions, Pharaoh: King of Egypt, , ,

A Buddha returns to Afghanistan

St John Simpson, Exhibition Curator

An outstanding sculpture of the Buddha which had been stolen from the National Museum of Afghanistan almost twenty years ago has been re-acquired for the museum in Kabul. The sculpture had made its way to Japan before coming to the attention of a private individual in London who has very generously purchased it on behalf of the National Museum. Prior to its return it has been placed on temporary display at the British Museum to allow visitors a rare opportunity to see this important object.

Sculpture of the Buddha © National Museum of Afghanistan/The British Museum

This sculpture depicts the Buddha’s response to a challenge from heretics that he could not perform miracles. Known as the miracle at Shravasti, flames issued from his shoulders and water poured from his feet. The result confounded his critics and helped demonstrate the pre-eminence of the Buddha. It dates to the second or third century AD when a naturalistic style of art known as Gandhara flourished in Afghanistan and Pakistan with sculptures typically carved from an attractive schist.

This famous sculpture was found near the village of Sarai Khuja, north of Kabul, in 1965 and placed soon afterwards on display in the National Museum of Afghanistan in Kabul. It was published by UNESCO in the Catalogue of the National Museum of Afghanistan, 1931-1985 but was stolen during the civil war when the museum was occupied by the army from 1992 to 1994, and it vanished from public view. Its whereabouts were unknown until recently when it was purchased by an individual who wishes to present it in memory of the recently deceased Carla Grissmann (1928-2011), a founding member of the Society for the Preservation of Afghanistan’s Cultural Heritage who worked tirelessly in safeguarding and recording the contents of the museum in Kabul.

Carla Grissmann in Afghanistan in the 1970s

Carla sadly passed away in London before she had a chance to see either the exhibition Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World or this wonderful sculpture. She left behind a very loyal band of fans who are honouring her memory and we are very pleased to be able to play a small role in this by receiving her library of over seventy books on Afghanistan which has been presented to the British Museum for reference by anyone interested in the country.

The sculpture of the Buddha is on temporary display in Room 1 of the British Museum until 17 July 2011.

Filed under: Afghanistan: Crossroads of the Ancient World, Exhibitions

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This is Room 56, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 6000–1500 BC. It's the next in our gallery series for #MuseumOfTheFuture. Between 6000 and 1550 BC, Mesopotamia, the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers (now Iraq, north-east Syria and part of south-east Turkey) witnessed crucial advancements in the development of human civilisation during the evolution from small agricultural settlements to large cities.
Objects on display in Room 56 illustrate economic success based on agriculture, the invention of writing, developments in technology and artistry, and other achievements of the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians, who lived in Mesopotamia at this time.
Objects found at the Royal Cemetery at Ur are of particular importance, and you can see the Royal Game of Ur in the foreground of this picture – the oldest board game in the world. Our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery space is Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC. The civilisations of Babylonia and Assyria flourished during the first millennium BC. Political developments resulted in the incorporation of the entire Near East into a single empire, while increased international contact and trade influenced the material culture of the region.
Room 55 traces the history of Babylonia under the Kassites and the growth of the Babylonian state and empire until it was taken over by the Persian King Cyrus in 539 BC.
'Boundary Stones' carved with images of kings and symbols of the gods record royal land grants. The development of the Assyrian state and empire, until its fall in 612 BC, is illustrated by objects excavated in its palaces. Mesopotamia’s highly developed literature and learning are demonstrated by clay tablets from the library of King Ashurbanipal (r. 668–631 BC) at Nineveh, written in cuneiform script. It's time for Room 54 in our #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery series – the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Anatolia and Urartu 7000–300 BC. Ancient Anatolia and Urartu form an important land link between Europe and Asia and lie where the modern Republic of Turkey, Armenia, Georgia and north-west Iran are located today. Objects in Room 54 show different cultures from prehistoric to Hellenistic times.
Examples of Early Bronze Age craftsmanship on display include a silver bull and cup, and business archives of Middle Bronze Age merchants illustrate trading between central Anatolia and Mesopotamia (modern Iraq). Delicate gold jewellery and figurines date from the Hittite period, and Iron Age objects from Urartu include winged bulls and griffins that were used to decorate furniture. Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces it's Room 53, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Ancient South Arabia. Ancient South Arabia was centred on what is now modern Yemen but included parts of Saudi Arabia and southern Oman. It was famous in the ancient world as an important source of valuable incense and perfume, and was described by Classical writers as Arabia Felix ('Fortunate Arabia') because of its fertility.
Several important kingdoms flourished there at different times between 1000 BC and the rise of Islam in the 6th century AD. The oldest and most important of these was Saba, which is referred to as Sheba in the Bible.
Room 53 features highlights from the Museum’s collection, which is one of the most important outside Yemen. The display includes examples of beautiful carved alabaster sculptures originally placed inside tombs, incense-burners and a massive bronze altar. You can see the East stairs in the background of this picture. We've reached Room 52 on our #MuseumOfTheFuture series of gallery spaces – the Rahim Irvani Gallery of Ancient Iran. Iran was a major centre of ancient culture. It was rich in valuable natural resources, especially metals, and played an important role in the development of ancient Middle Eastern civilisation and trade. Room 52 highlights these ancient interconnections and the rise of distinctive local cultures, such as in Luristan, during the age of migrations after about 1400 BC.
During the 6th century BC, Cyrus the Great founded a mighty Persian empire which eventually stretched from Egypt to Pakistan. Objects on display from this period include the Cyrus Cylinder (in the centre of the picture) and the Oxus Treasure (in the case to the left of the picture). Monumental plaster casts of sculptures from Persepolis are also displayed in Room 52 and on the East stairs.
The later periods of the Parthian and Sasanian empires mark a revival in Iranian culture and are represented through displays including silver plates and cut glass. The next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 51, Europe and Middle East 10,000–800 BC. Farming began in the Middle East around 12,000 years ago, making possible the social, cultural and economic changes which shaped the modern world. It arrived in Britain around 6,000 years ago bringing a new way of life. This change in lifestyle meant people competed for wealth, power and status, displaying these through jewellery, weapons and feasting.
The objects on display in Room 51 show how the people of prehistoric Europe celebrated life and death and expressed their relationship with the natural world, the spirit world and each other. The object in the centre of this picture is the Mold gold cape, found in Flintshire in 1833 and dating to around 1900–1600 BC.
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