British Museum blog

Making connections


Philippa Perry, Grayson’s wife, on looking for connections in
the exhibition Grayson Perry: The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsman

On the rare occasions when Grayson and I visit a shopping street together, his favourite place seems to be the charity shops. We go into one together and I look at everything and after about three minutes of finding nothing I long for fresh air and wait for him outside. He takes longer than me, he looks more carefully and comes out after a few more minutes with a rare book or a tweed jacket that somehow I managed to overlook. And when we take his finds back home it is as though we’ve always had them. They seem to have his handwriting on them.

Amulet with plaque, ‘Tsa Tsa’. Bronze and paper, Tibet, 1800–1899.
© The Trustees of the British Museum

When I saw his final selection from the British Museum this is what struck me. To me, it looked like the objects he chose could have been made by him – they had his personality already. It can be hard to know what he has made and what he has found until you look at the labels. For example, the tiny portable shrine he has chosen (Amulet with plaque, ‘Tsa Tsa’, Tibet 1800-99) reminds me of the one he made for the Tate gift shop in 2009 (Tate Modern Reliquary).

Grayson Perry (b. 1960), Tate Modern Reliquary. 2009.
© Grayson Perry, courtesy the Artist and Victoria Miro Gallery, London.

I asked him if ‘Tsa Tsa’ influenced his Tate gift shop reliquary, but no, he found it after he had made the pendant. Both these items are in the exhibition but they are not placed obviously side by side. I like this, it means that we look and let our minds make the connection; it is not done for us. This is not an exhibition to be rushed through. The more you look the more connections you can make.

Grayson won’t necessarily make connections obvious: his pot ‘Grumpy old God’ is based on the Greek vases in the Museum but he has not included one from the Museum’s collection. He asks us in a label not to look too closely for meaning. When he was selecting, he did it intuitively and he invites us to look at his selection in that way. But not looking for meaning does not mean not looking and noticing how things feels for us.

I am reminded of what Alain de Botton once said, which was something like don’t go to Cambrey and look at where Proust lived with your eyes, but stay at home and look around you with Proust’s eyes. If Grayson can pull out this stuff from the collection which seems so resonant of him, his style and his meanings…if objects in the Museum replicates the ages before Grayson made things – stuff that he went on to make before seeing it – then we know that not only Grayson’s psyche is to be found in the British Museum, but all our psyches. We just have to take the time to look and have confidence in our personal reactions to what we see.

And I really mustn’t rush outside when we visit charity shops but stay awhile to see if I too can find myself in an object there.

Find out more about the Grayson Perry Late event.

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

Arafat, Muzdalifah and Mina


Earlier this month, Altaf and Rashida went on Hajj.
Here, they recount some of the stages of Hajj.

Arafat
Altaf Abbas

Arafat is a flat valley surrounded by mountains of rocky terrain – a dry and barren the place where Muslim’s believe mankind will be gathered on the day of judgement. After our first failed attempt to see the Mount of Mercy where the Prophet Mohammed had given his last sermon, I left my wife in the tent and went out again. I walked for about a mile, climbed through a hole in a chain link fence, crossed a wide empty motorway and then climbed up a short steep hill not knowing where I was going…and there in front of me was the most beautiful site. I was looking down on the Mount of Mercy where millions of pilgrims were standing and praying. It was awe-inspiring.

Everybody was facing towards the ka’ba and standing with raised hands praying and crying, it was deeply moving. Even though three million people were with us, it felt like I was alone in worship. I felt good after shedding a few tears.

Rashida Abbas
We arrived at Arafat on the morning of 5 November, it was very hot and no air conditioned tents this time. We had to pour chilled water on ourselves to keep cool. The whole afternoon was spent doing supplication and prayers. We went out to search for the Mount of Mercy but due to the heat had to turn back and take refuge in ‘The Tea Garden’ which was a large airy tent. Everyone was totally engrossed in prayer and oblivious to others around them. The focus was on prayer, a very spiritual afternoon which I enjoyed and felt benefited my soul with spiritual healing.

Muzdalifah
Altaf Abbas
After Magrib prayers (sunset) we boarded the coaches once to go to Muzdalifah to spend the night out in the open. Twenty of us decided to walk the seven kilometres to Muzdalifah and meet up with our group in the open air camp, which turned out to be an adventure. The walk started of very pleasant along with hundreds of thousands of other people along pedestrian walkway No.15, which is as wide as the M25 motorway. After four hours of walking, just before we entered Muzdalifa, people started setting up camp on the walkway which caused a bottle neck and our group of 20 got dispersed into the crowd of millions. I tried in vain to look for the group and our organised camp but to no avail, so I spent the night with thousands of total strangers on the pavement. I found a small spot next to some railings, put my prayer mat down and went to sleep using my slippers as a pillow. Although there were millions of people, coaches and buses going past, I slept for a couple of hours. It was the sweetest sleep I have ever had, there was a tranquillity that blanketed all the chaos around me. It is hard to explain in words but it felt like I was by myself – lost but had inner peace and was at ease.

Rashida Abbas
Muzdalifah was not what I expected. We slept on open ground in between the motorway and mountains. Coaches were arriving well into the night constantly bringing pilgrims. As the coaches arrived they would beep their horns to announce their arrival – thousands of coaches! It was a strange experience trying to sleep out in the open under these conditions. There were strangers sleeping next to us from all over the world. I managed to snatch a few hours of broken sleep whenever I could. Before long, the call to prayer was announced.Everybody woke up did ablution and stood for prayer in neat orderly rows facing the ka’ba. Which is amazing to see, the rows formed so swiftly and then total silence as the prayers started in Arabic. I don’t think you will see this anywhere else in the world. The supplication continued until sunrise about an hour later, Muslims deep in worship of one God. I walked back to Mina, our permanent camp, in the early morning sun which took about two hours. It was a calm atmosphere with pleasant weather and a gentle breeze, I really enjoyed it.

Mina
Altaf Abbas

The next three nights were spent in Mina, a temporary tented city. On the first day when the rest of the Muslim world was celebrating Eid (I did think about our children spending Eid with their Grandma and Aunt in London), we had four religious rituals to carry out:

1. Stoning of Jamaraat (symbolic devil)
2. Shaving the head
3. Sacrifice of animal, usually a goat or a lamb
4. Tawaf – to circumambulate the ka’ba

In the afternoon, we left on foot to go to the Jamaraat with our group. Even though I had heard about this ritual many times, it was different to what I expected. I had heard that this place gets really busy, however I was amazed to see a modern building resembling a multi-storey car park with wide ramped access, traffic lights, one way systems and electronic signage which made it very easy for us to perform the stoning. The ancient symbolic stoning of the devil represents the moment when the Prophet Abraham was being distracted by the devil when commanded by Allah to sacrifice his most beloved possession; his only child. We threw seven small pebbles the size of chick peas – which are collected from Mina – at three walls, each one 30 metres long and 6 metres high.

After the stoning we walked back to Mina. I had to shave my hair, have a shower and change out of my ihram and into clean normal clothes. I felt pure and cleansed.

The sacrifice of a goat was carried out remotely in a modern abattoir which has the meat cut, packed and shipped to third world countries to help feed the poor.

I’ll talk about the tawaf in my next post…

Altaf and Rashida Abbas went on Hajj this year and have been blogging about the experience for the British Museum. Find out more about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Looking for a time machine: astrolabes in medieval Jewish society


Josefina Rodríguez Arribas, researcher

Astrolabes are the medieval equivalent of the kind of handheld technology we’re all very accustomed to in the twenty-first century. They were instruments you could use to find your way, tell the time, track the movements of the sun and stars, and were – still are – complex, and incredibly impressive.

As the researcher working on a project with the British Museum and the Warburg Institute to study these fascinating objects, my recent trip to Israel was not the first time I’ve been there in search of medieval astronomy and astrology. However it was the first time I have returned with a database of about 140 Hebrew manuscripts dealing with astrolabes: a treasure trove of texts describing and explaining how to build or use these instruments in their almost two thousand years of history. In other words, texts written mostly in Hebrew and a few in Judaeo-Arabic (Arabic with Hebrew script) between the twelfth and the eighteenth centuries by Jews from around the world (astrolabes remained in use until the nineteenth century in Islamic countries).

These manuscripts are not all physically in Israel – most of them are in libraries and private collections around the world, as are the few surviving Jewish instruments. However, the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem hosts the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, in which we can look for and read microfilms of practically all the Hebrew manuscripts in the public and private collections of the world.

Comparing manuscripts

Comparing manuscripts

An amazing resource, and very convenient. I can sit in the manuscripts reading room, in the basement of the National Library in Jerusalem, and let my eyes go from a Sephardic script of the thirteenth century to an Askenazi of the fifteenth or a Byzantine of the sixteenth century, all of them explaining how an astrolabe works.

These texts were written and copied by Jews spread over three continents, in countries and cities so close or so distant as Vienna, Istanbul, Egypt, Yemen, Lisbon, Baghdad, Mantua, Benevento, Syracuse, Senegal, and more. Most of them were also copied many times throughout the centuries, some in years as decisive for the history of the world or the history of the Jews as the year 1453 (the fall of Constantinople into Turkish hands) or the year 1492 (edict of expulsion of Jews from Spain), when many codices and manuscripts were destroyed or lost for many reasons.

These handwritten texts are like a time machine encapsulating in their parchment, paper, ink, writing, binding, and list of owners, information about the authors and the readers, the Jewish communities where they were produced and the patrons who paid for them. So the transcription, translation, and study of these texts is going to provide us with decisive information about the degree of scientific knowledge and familiarity with certain scientific instruments of many Jewish communities from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries, and even later.

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Filed under: Research, , , ,

Navigating currency on the corner


Maxim Bolt, researcher, British Museum

What does researching money – on the ground – actually involve? Recently, in my ongoing fieldwork in Malawi, it has involved a lot of time in The Corner Salon (this is a pseudonym, in the sense that I made it up, as it is ethical research practice to keep subjects studied anonymous), a small, wooden structure painted in the bright colours of a mobile phone operator. This may be a little surprising. But, unlike practitioners of many other social sciences – with their broad coverage and formal methods like survey questionnaires – anthropologists attempt to get in deeper. This means getting to know, personally, the people whose lives we are learning about.

For the Money in Africa project, it means coming to understand the monetary priorities and concerns of Malawian businesspeople themselves. It means appreciating how The Corner’s owners – sisters Yami and Flora (also pseudonyms) – navigate their salon through Malawi’s current foreign exchange shortage.

The city of Blantyre, Malawi

The city of Blantyre, Malawi

The Corner is in a high-density residential area of Blantyre, Malawi’s economic hub, and the salon is facing hard times. The economy has been badly hit by recent foreign exchange shortages – the result partly of donor funding cuts – and people are more careful about spending their money. But for Yami and Flora, the difficulties run much deeper. The sisters used to buy their hair extensions, straightener, and conditioner in South Africa, but it has become much harder to acquire South African Rand. They have turned to buying from Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania, because it is easier to buy Tanzanian shillings.

But even this is no simple matter. Yami currently relies on her husband’s import-export business for transport. He cannot make another trip until he has sold his current stock, yet another challenge in Malawi’s climate of uncertainty. Yami worries that she will not have stock in time for her Christmas clientele. Flora, meanwhile, is considering returning to South Africa, to return to her earlier employment there as a domestic worker. At least that way, she reasons, she can remit her earnings in the form of hair products, keeping the salon in stock. This is, of course, a great way to sidestep the foreign exchange problem. But Yami is worried. The departure will break up the salon’s team, leaving her alone with the business, as well as her own and Flora’s children.

This is a story about two sisters’ business, and their attempts to import hair products. But, through it, we can begin to understand what monetary problems look like in reality, today, as small businesspeople navigate the region’s different currencies. Such a perspective is key to the British Museum’s Money in Africa project, which investigates money in action, beyond the glass cases of the Museum. The results of this research will be drawn together in a broad-ranging, comparative, collaborative and multidisciplinary study.

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Filed under: Money in Africa, Research, , ,

Going berserk: the Lewis chessmen in New York


James Robinson, curator, British Museum

Thirty four of the Lewis chessmen have travelled to the Cloisters Museum and Gardens in New York. This is the largest number ever to have left the British Isles since their discovery on the Isle of Lewis in 1831.

The Cloisters is a truly exceptional museum devoted entirely to medieval art and architecture and the chessmen look perfectly at home. They occupy five cases in the Romanesque Hall, a space that resembles a great medieval hall where a lord – or King – might once have played with chesspieces just like these.

The Lewis chessmen fire our imagination because they are miniature people carved with great skill and intricacy from walrus tusks. They are generally considered to be mournful, grumpy or comic because of their squat forms, protuberant eyes and down-turned mouths but they are also works of great beauty. This is especially evident from the seated figures of the kings, queens and some of the bishops, all of whom occupy elaborately decorated thrones.

SBerserker pieces in the British Museum collection

Berserker pieces in the British Museum collection

One of the most significant pieces on loan to the Cloisters is the Berserker. This unusual character may not be recognisable to most players of chess but at the time the Lewis chessmen were made in the twelfth century, the Berserker took the place of the modern day rook. He stands armed with a sword and exposes his huge teeth with which he bites into his shield. It is this gesture that identifies him as a Berserker – a fierce warrior drawn from Norse mythology that bites his shield in a self-induced frenzy prior to battle.

The Berserker has been imaginatively used in the merchandise on sale at the Cloisters where T-shirts emblazoned with the Berserker’s features broadcast “Berserk for Chess’ – I’ll be wearing mine in London!

The Cloisters exhibition, The Game of Kings: Medieval Ivory Chessmen from the Isle of Lewis, opens on 15 November and runs until 22 April 2012 during which time New Yorkers will undoubtedly develop Lewis chessmen frenzy.

Find out more about the Lewis chessmen on the British Museum website

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Filed under: Collection, , ,

Grayson Perry Late

Polly Wright and Francis Olvez-Wilshaw,
University of the Arts London students

For one night only, this Friday 11 November, we, the University of the Arts London, are exhibiting alongside Grayson Perry’s exhibition The Tomb of the Unknown Craftsmanas part of the Grayson Perry Late event at the British Museum.

I have been fortunate enough to sit on the committee of students helping to curate the event. From the written proposals to meeting my fellow students and artists, it has been an interesting journey, one of excitement, fun and insight… and we only have a few days to go!

I feel I am speaking on behalf of all involved when I say it is an exceptional experience to not only be exhibiting in the British Museum but also to be connected to the loved and respected Grayson Perry. This was apparent from the proposals we received as they were filled with enthusiastic appraisal for the British Museum as an institution and for Grayson’s work as an influential artist. Our students’ are committed to creating works suitable to communicate this inspiration. Now, in our final stages of preparation, I can already reflect upon what is a wide array of idiosyncratic ideas, across all mediums, which heightens my excitement for the night.

Meeting everyone behind the projects has been great. Whilst hearing these talented artists animatedly explaining their projects I have become more aware of the raw passion behind their work. I think this will be particularly apparent on the night. The night will be an exhibition of a wide array of interesting and colourful ideas created by a mixture of solo and collaborative works.

The performance piece Touching Death – A Wake has been a particularly interesting project to watch develop and to hear the extraordinary story behind its conception. The connections between the artists and the pure shock ability of the live wake of a real person on the night are bound to be a thought-provoking, public way of exploring death on a dramatically real level.

Showcasing 25 works, from fashion to craft, discos to pilgrimages, I can assure you that the night will be both thought-provoking and entertaining. I am personally excited to watch the space transform – we hope it will highlight aspects within the British Museum’s expansive collection as well as support Grayson Perry’s work.

I am going to leave you with a list of words the artists have used to sum up Grayson Perry: Technicolor, eccentric, genius, revolutionary, cocktail, hilarious, crackers… I hope this gets you excited! See you there!

Find out more about the Grayson Perry Late event.

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

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

Digging Domuztepe: back in the UK

Alexandra Fletcher and Rachel Swift are a curator and a conservator working at Domuztepe, a Late Neolithic site (about 6200-5500 BC) in south eastern Turkey. This series of posts traces the progress of their recent excavation season.


Alexandra Fletcher, British Museum

I always arrive home to a weird feeling of disorientation. After being away for so long it takes a few days to adjust back to luxuries such as hot water on tap and comfy chairs to sit on. My surroundings also look shockingly green after the dry, baked fields of south eastern Turkey.

A view of the village on our last morning

A view of the village on our last morning

After the excitement of getting home has faded, it’s back to work for the Domuztepe team. Although the dig only happens for a few weeks every year, the project is running all the time with people analysing the data collected, writing up the results, updating our databases and digitising field records, plans or drawings. As soon as we arrive home we also begin our permit and funding applications for next year’s dig. The excavation is therefore a year-round activity and the site is never far from my mind.

The Domuztepe project was supported by the British Institute at Ankara, the British Museum, University of Manchester, Brennan foundation and the Gerald Averay Wainwright fund for the 2011 season.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Archaeology, Domuztepe dig 2011

Altaf’s Hajj: the tented city


Altaf Abbas

Friday 4 November
It has been a relaxing day today after the hardship of Mecca yesterday. We are staying in a tented city in Mina – there are thousands and thousands of air conditioned tents (Middle Eastern version of glamping) and we are preparing for tomorrow which will be very hard over three million people will be heading to Arafat to beg for forgiveness. I will be inshallah one of those and cannot wait to pour my heart out. I think it is going to be very emotional. I can feel the tears in my eyes already filling up.

The Saudis do an excellent job of servicing the hajjies. I am impressed at their efficiency, like the way they bring chilled water with ice to all tents and how they provide food, tea and coffee in abundance. They even have helicopters patrolling the hajj to make sure it goes smoothly and safely.

The call to prayer has just gone and it sends shivers down my spine as the sound reverbarates around the valley – it’s truly amazing.

Altaf and Rashida Abbas are going on Hajj this year. They will be blogging about their experience over the next two weeks. Find out more about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Rashida’s Hajj: circling the Ka’ba


Rashida Abbas

Thursday 3 November
After our long journey we finally arrived at 3am in the grand mosque that surrounds the Ka’ba. The sheer number of people was overwhelmimg. There is nowhere to stand even though the mosque is enormous and goes on for miles. I struggled through the Tawaf (circling the Ka’ba) although I was a bit fazed due to lack of sleep and the crowds but I managed to complete it before collapsing in a heap to get some rest before the next part.

I leaned against one of the many marble clad minarets and gazed up at the sky above the Kabba where there was the most beautiful glow and tranquility which I had never felt anywhere else. It rejuvenated me to continue. As I looked down my husband was laying next to me snoring. I was feeling thirsty and hungry so I drank the water from the well of Zam Zam and was instantly refreshed. I can’t believe this well has been running since the time of Abraham, for me that is a miracle…

Altaf and Rashida Abbas are going on Hajj this year. They will be blogging about their experience over the next two weeks. Find out more about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Filed under: Exhibitions, Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Altaf’s Hajj: departing and arriving


Altaf Abbas

Sunday 30 October
Up very early this morning at 4am to start the journey of a lifetime. I have got butterflies in my stomach, the whole family are at the front door to see us off – it was an emotional send off. The excitement is rising while we wait at the departure gate at Heathrow with 220 other potential hajjies who are sharing a common goal of doing Hajj. We landed in Medina on Sunday evening and as the plane touched down it felt real that we had landed in the holy city of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). The whole disembarkment went very smoothly and swiftly and within a few hours we were in our hotel room.

Wednesday 2 November

We have spent the last few days in Medina which is a lovely calm place and the locals are very welcoming. This morning I made ablution and put on the ihram and boarded the bus on the long but emotional journey to Mecca where my eyes are longing to see the Kabba (the direction I pray in five times a day in London) and to see it real life is going to be overwhelming. My heart is thumping and my hands are shaking I can’t wait but have to ‘shabara’ (the Arabic word for patience) which the locals use continuously, as well as with ‘inshallah’.

Altaf and Rashida Abbas are going on Hajj this year. They will be blogging about their experience over the next two weeks. Find out more about the exhibition Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

Filed under: Hajj: journey to the heart of Islam

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