British Museum blog

Selecting objects, X Factor style

Eleanor Bradshaw, Assistant Curator

As part of the first cohort of Inspire curating MA students at the Royal College of Art, I have had the unique opportunity to work at the British Museum for the last two years, and my time is finally coming to an end! The Art Council’s Inspire programme is unique in that it is a course aimed at BAME (Black, Asian and minority ethnics) in an attempt to diversity the arts and cultural heritage workforce, hoping to bring with it some different outlooks, perceptions and ideas.

Throughout the lead up to the exhibition Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman (which was an incredibly tight eight months) I was heavily involved with the initial curation and planning of the exhibition, as well as working closely with Grayson himself in selecting nearly 200 British Museum objects to go on display. Grayson planned on displaying about 30 of his own works which he wanted to sit – sometimes in juxtaposition and sometimes in harmony – with objects from the Museum collection.

Before we met, Grayson had taken photographs of over 900 objects from the collection, which he brought to me in a Tupperware box. These ranged from miniature Japanese pocket shrines to large Chinese tomb bricks and prints of the infamous transvestite Chevalier d’Eon.

A Ghanaian Asafo banner in the British Museum collection

Together, we decided it would be sensible to cull the photographs (and therefore objects) down to about 200 so they would actually fit in the exhibition space. Grayson decided he would play the role of Simon Cowell, so luckily that made me Cheryl. The selection process was truly fascinating to watch. Grayson chose many of the objects because they referenced his own works beautifully. For example, an Asafo banner connects really well with his tapestry Hold Your Beliefs Lightly. Also included in the exhibition are some late seventeenth century German stoneware jugs, which could almost be mistaken for his own ceramic pieces.

Grayson Perry, Hold Your Beliefs Lightly, 2011. © Grayson Perry

Objects were also chosen in relation to certain elements or themes of the exhibition, such as pilgrimage and the craftsman. In some cases he did not choose an object based on the aesthetic, for example the Department of Prints and Drawings has several maps of Pilgrims Progress but Grayson chose his least favourite and the least decorative simply because visually it was easier for the audience to decipher. Conversely some objects were chosen because they were purely spectacular, such as the ornate gold ceremonial headdress from Ghana.

Once selected, I had the daunting task of locating all 200 objects. Luckily, Grayson has almost total recall and could remember what every single object was, what department it was from and if not the name of the curator responsible, then whether or not they had a beard!

Throughout the selection process, many people have questioned why a contemporary artist like Grayson Perry would want to do an exhibition at the British Museum. I think this provokes a very interesting question: can the contemporary and the historical speak intimately to each other and create an interesting dialogue, or should they be kept apart?

Grayson Perry takes you behind the scenes of the making of this exhibition in a new BBC documentary. Come along to free screenings at the Museum on 10 November or 1 December 2011.

Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman
is supported by AlixPartners, with Louis Vuitton.
Book tickets now

Filed under: Exhibitions, Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. David Samila says:

    This is a fascinating account of your experience working with Grayson Perry, particularly how you describe the process of choosing pieces for the exhibition.


  2. Pearl Stanley says:

    I can’t wait to see this exhibiion.


  3. emmalbetts says:

    Thanks for the interesting blog post, Can’t wait to visit this exhibition.


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You can now discover thousands of British Museum objects in partnership with @googleartproject at We’ve asked staff members to highlight their favourites and explain what makes them special. Chris Spring, Curator of Africa Collections, describes why he finds the ‘Throne of weapons’ so powerful. ‘This war memorial celebrates the ordinary people of Mozambique, many of them unarmed, who stood up to a culture of violence. It represents both a human tragedy and a human triumph. The Throne's essential humanity is suggested right away by its anthropomorphic qualities - it has arms, legs, a back and most importantly a face - actually two faces. My first reaction was that these faces are crying in pain, though they could also be seen as smiling faces finally freed from conflict. These anthropomorphic qualities also link it immediately to the arts of Africa, in which non-figurative objects such as chairs, stools, weapons, pots etc are seen as - and described as - human beings. The Throne has toured the world, taking its message of peace to schools, churches, shopping centres and even prisons – and of course, to museums and galleries.’ #MuseumOfTheWorld We’re celebrating our partnership with @googleartproject, and have asked curators to tell us about their favourite objects. Hugo Chapman, Keeper of Prints and Drawings, explains why he chose this chalk drawing by Michelangelo. ‘One of the things I love about drawings is the way they sometimes allow a glimpse into the private, behind the scenes world of an artist, one unseen in finished works in paint or stone. An example of that is a red chalk drawing by Michelangelo of grotesque heads in red chalk that reveal that the Florentine Renaissance artist had a lively, if caustic, sense of humour. The three heads were probably drawn to amuse but at the same instruct his pupils, as the three studies show how slight changes can radically alter the reading of an image with the character and mood of each figure (paranoid anxiety; vacuous joy; and depressive gloom) signalled by the position and erectness of their donkey-like ears.  I wish my ears were as expressive.’ Discover many more incredible works of art in the Google Cultural Institute at

#Michelangelo #art To celebrate our partnership with @googleartproject, we’ve asked members of British Museum staff to highlight their favourite objects and explain what makes them special. Jill Cook, Deputy Keeper of Britain, Europe & Prehistory, chose this stone chopping tool from an early human campsite in Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania. ‘Holding this 2 million year old African tool in my hand I am reminded that whatever differences exist between people now, we are united by our common origin in Africa. The discovery of this piece by Louis Leakey in 1931 began to change our understanding of what makes us human. It illustrates the beginning of a transition from an ancestral ape that walked upright on two legs within the confines of a limited ecological niche to humans with more complex brains capable of changing and eventually dominating the world around us by making tools and weapons. This chopping tool is one of the seeds from which all human cultures and societies have grown.’ Discover the stories of thousands of objects in the Google Cultural Institute at

#MuseumOfTheWorld In Victorian England many people were fascinated by their past, and the ancient tribal leader Caratacus (also spelt Caractacus) was adopted as a symbol of national pride and independence. Like Boudica, Caratacus resisted the Roman invasion of Britain. Although he was eventually defeated, he earned a reputation as a noble and worthy foe. The Victorian sculptor J H Foley portrays him here standing triumphant, the embodiment of courageous English spirit. See this incredible #Movember moustache in our #Celts exhibition, until 31 January 2016.
J H Foley (1818–1874), Caractacus. Marble, 1856–1859. On loan from Guildhall Art Gallery/Mansion House, City of London. Some more #Movember inspiration! Here’s the Museum’s security team from 1902 photographed on the front steps. They include officers from the Metropolitan Police, and the London Fire Brigade (identified by their flat caps). We’re celebrating #Movember with Museum moustaches great and small. Here’s a #Movember fact: Peter the Great of Russia introduced a beard tax in 1698 and this token was given as proof of payment!

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