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 69, Greek and Roman life. It's the next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series.
Room 69 takes a cross-cultural look at the public and private lives of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The objects on display have been chosen to illustrate themes such as women, children, household furniture, religion, trade and transport, athletics, war, farming and more. Around the walls, supplementary displays illustrate individual crafts on one side of the room, and Greek mythology on the opposite side. This picture is taken from the mezzanine level, looking down into the gallery. The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 68, the Citi Money Gallery. The history of money can be traced back over 4,000 years. During this time, currency has taken many different forms, from coins to banknotes, shells to mobile phones.
The Citi Money Gallery displays the history of money around the world. From the earliest evidence, to the latest developments in digital technology, money has been an important part of human societies. Looking at the history of money gives us a way to understand the history of the world – from the earliest coins to Bitcoin, and from Chinese paper money to coins from every nation in the world. You can find out more about what's on display at britishmuseum.org/money The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 67: Korea. The Korea Foundation Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment and will reopen on 16 December 2014. You can find out more about the refurb at koreabritishmuseum.tumblr.com  The unique culture of Korea combines a strong sense of national identity with influences from other parts of the Far East. Korean religion, language, geography and everyday life were directly affected by the country’s geographic position, resulting in a rich mix of art and artefacts.
Objects on display in Room 67 date from prehistory to the present day and include ceramics, metalwork, sculpture, painting, screen-printed books and illuminated manuscripts.
A reconstruction of a traditional sarangbang, or scholar’s study, is also on display and was built by contemporary Korean craftsmen. This is Room 66, Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt. It's the next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series.
By the 4th century AD, Christianity was flourishing in both Egypt and Ethiopia. Christian Egyptians became known as the Copts (from the Greek name for Egyptians) and the church maintained strong links with its Ethiopian counterparts. Since antiquity, Ethiopia had been a major trade route, linking Egypt and the Mediterranean with India and the Far East.
The resulting history of cultural exchange and religious diversity is illustrated through objects in Room 66, which reflect the faiths and identities which coexisted in Egypt and Ethiopia. Objects from towns, monasteries and settlements range from decorated textiles and architectural elements to sculpture and ceramics. It's time for our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery. This is Room 65, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Sudan, Egypt and Nubia. Ancient Nubia, the Nile Valley upstream of the First Cataract, now straddles the border between Egypt and Sudan. Rich and vibrant cultures developed in this region at the same time as Pharaonic Egypt. Among them was the earliest sub-Saharan urban culture in Africa, which was based at Kerma.
These cultures traded extensively with Egypt and for two brief periods Nubian kingdoms dominated their northern neighbour.
The objects on display in Room 65 illustrate these indigenous pagan, Christian and Islamic cultures and the interaction between Nubia and Egypt. This is our next gallery space in the #MuseumOfTheFuture series. It's Room 64, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Early Egypt. Rapid advances in the technology and social organisation of Egypt during the 5th millennium BC produced a material culture of increasing sophistication. Further innovations followed in about 3100 BC when the separate Predynastic peoples of Upper and Lower Egypt were united under a single ruler. The resulting increase in wealth and strong central control led to dramatic achievements in architecture, writing and fine goods, culminating in the building of the Great Pyramids of Giza in around 2600 BC.
Objects on display in Room 64 illustrate the cultural, technological and political development of early civilisation in Egypt throughout this period. In this picture you can see Gebelein Man, a mummy who was naturally preserved in the desert sands, and who used to have the unofficial nickname of Ginger (although the Museum doesn't use this name). In the background you can see an interactive virtual autopsy of the mummy which was installed in the newly refurbished gallery last year.
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