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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It’s #ValentinesDay! To celebrate, we’re sharing some of the stories of love throughout history. These seated ancient Egyptian statues depict the divine Isis and her husband Osiris. They were found together in the tomb of an official from the time of the reign of king Amasis (570–526 BC). Isis wears a sheath dress and a crown in the form of the emblem of Hathor – a solar disc set between cow’s horns. In her right hand she holds the ankh, the sign of life. Her face is modelled with wide-open eyes and a slight smile. Osiris, carved in the same beautiful style of the 26th Dynasty, is wrapped in fine cloth, as he holds symbols of sovereignty – the flail and crook. 
The inscriptions around the bases of the statues were intended to invoke ‘Isis, mother of the god, great in magic, mistress of the Two Lands’, and ‘Osiris who presides in the west, great god, lord of Ro-Setaou’. Following his judgment of the deceased, Osiris could grant wishes for a peaceful arrival in the netherworld, while Isis gives life – the carved life symbol reveals her to be a magician stronger than death. This divine couple belonged to a sumptuous burial and would have ensured perpetual protection for the person interred in this tomb. 
You can see these statues in our blockbuster exhibition #SunkenCities, opening 19 May.
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