British Museum blog

What is the city but the people?


Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum

In 2012, as the world’s gaze turns on London in this Olympic year, the British Museum will be exploring this capital city from a slightly different viewpoint – by trying to get inside the heads of the people who lived here over 400 years ago.

In Shakespeare’s Restless World, a series starting on BBC Radio 4 next week, we will explore the stories of 20 objects – some grand, some everyday things – that help us imagine what the world looked like to the groundlings inside the Globe theatre around 1600.

I’ll be talking to Shakespeare scholars, historians and experts on the fascinating issues these 20 objects raise – everything from exploration and discovery abroad to entertainment, monarchy and even the deadly threat of plague closer to home.

Detail of London ('The Long View'), Wencelaus Hollar, 1647, showing the Globe Theatre.

Detail of London ('The Long View'), Wencelaus Hollar, 1647, showing the Globe Theatre.

As well as objects from the British Museum, many are from collections across the UK. I have been travelling across Britain to get a closer look at what these objects, such as a fork found on the site of the Rose Theatre, a book of royal murder plots, and sunken treasure from Morocco, can reveal to us about daily life, national politics and global economics at the turn of the 16th century.

Throughout the series there is something else that allows us to picture these turbulent times so vividly: the works of William Shakespeare himself. In the programmes, we delve into his plots and characters, his speeches and soliloquies, to seek glimpses of the uncertain times in which he lived.

Later in the year, the British Museum will open its doors to Shakespeare: staging the world, bringing together a vast and eclectic array of Elizabethan and Jacobean objects, including the 20 featured in the radio series. This exhibition will provide a unique insight into the emerging role of London as a world city four hundred years ago, interpreted through the innovative perspective of Shakespeare’s plays. Featured alongside these objects will be digital media and performance created in collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and soon you will be able to follow the work that’s going on behind the scenes here on this blog.

From next week on the blog, to coincide with the series broadcast on BBC Radio 4, we will be featuring contributions from some of the many people I’ve spoken to in the making of Shakespeare’s Restless World.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is broadcast on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 on weekdays.

Shakespeare: staging the world opens at the British Museum on 19 July 2012.
Supported by BP
In collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival

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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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