British Museum blog

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

6 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Farrukh says:

    Nicely put together.


  2. Angela Elliott says:

    Very interested to know how all the relics etc… were sourced and how curators put the exhibition together and the criteria for selection of each item.


    • @ Angela Elliott

      Each object has its own fascinating story and history and it is wonderful to be able to share them when many of them are rarely on display to the general public.

      We had our over-arching themes and narratives from medieval history that we wanted to tell – we developed these in part with the partner institutions but more specifically as a team together in the British Museum with the Learning and Audiences and Exhibitions departments. Each object is selected because it has a unique story to tell – the criteria so to speak is that they fitted into the themes of the exhibition but ultimately the exhibition and its narratives are determined by the objects that are included.

      An object list for the exhibition was compiled collaboratively between the Cleveland Museum of Art, The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore and the British Museum. This initial list was finalised in late 2008 – though it is important to note that each of the three institutions continued to add objects to their own staging of the exhibition – the British Museum adding the finishing touches and finalising its own object list in 2010. The catalogue – which served all three venues with Cleveland opening in October 2010 was sent to print prior to the British Museum list being finalised and so you will find that there are some objects in the British Museum exhibition not in the catalogue.

      We sourced the objects in a number of ways – many we knew about from previous publications – either books or exhibition catalogues. We also discussed the subject with colleagues from across the World taking suggestions and following up leads.

      Other objects we simply chanced across during the pulling together of the exhibition – to give one example I was at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire viewing their Holy Thorn reliquary and Preces Variae manuscript that we had already agreed to borrow for the exhibition. On a tour of the college the curator took me over to a case and said “here is our relic of St Thomas Becket” I gasped in awe and she said “you can have it for the exhibition if you like”! – So there are always some chance finds.

      We also visited other collections – one fortuitous exhibition was called The Kings Blood held at Wartski jewellers in Grafton Street, London. Here we discovered many of the objects pertaining to the cult of King Charles I and combined some of these with objects we had already wanted to include from our own collections.

      Anna Harnden, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum


      • Angela Elliott says:

        Anna. Thank you for replying with such complete information. I will attempt to contact you via the British Museum because I have further questions of a professional nature to ask and probably this is not the right place to do it. I hope this is okay.


  3. Denis says:

    Fascinating exhibition. I enjoyed it very much.


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