British Museum blog

The tale of a tapestry



Maggie Wood, Keeper of Social History,
Warwickshire Museum Service

The Sheldon Tapestry Map of Warwickshire was woven in the 1590s, and was one of a set of four tapestry maps made to hang in Ralph Sheldon’s house in south Warwickshire.

It’s a rare and wonderful pictorial representation of Elizabethan Warwickshire – a bird’s eye view of Shakespeare’s landscape.

Before arrival at the British Museum for the exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, the tapestry has spent over a year undergoing conservation. This work has enabled us to get close to the tapestry, and make exciting discoveries!

Removing the old lining revealed the vibrant original colour – it was very green! Light has faded the yellow colour from the green wool, so that the tapestry front now looks blue instead of green.

Original green and yellow on reverse of tapestry, contrasted with faded colour on the front

The tapestry’s border was replaced in the 17th century. Removing the lining revealed fragments of the original Elizabethan border – much more lively and colourful than the later replacement.

Original tapestry border

In April 2011, the tapestry went to Belgium to be wet-cleaned. De Wit is a famous tapestry workshop which has developed a safe and fast method of wet-cleaning large textiles. The Sheldon Tapestry was washed, rinsed and dried in one day!

Water samples taken during the wet-cleaning, with dirtiest on left!

Gently sponging the tapestry during wet-cleaning

Wet-cleaning didn’t restore the original bright colour, lost through light damage, but it did make tiny details easier to see.

The Rollright Stones, a Neolithic monument built at a similar time to Stonehenge, appear on the tapestry in the lower right corner. They are very hard to spot!
This is probably the first known visual depiction of this ancient site.

Rollright Stones – just below the windmill

We’ve now noticed that this bear’s claws are blue and that there are many tiny cottages hidden in the Forest of Arden.

Left: Bear with blue claws Right: Cottage in the Forest of Arden

We have made many new and fascinating discoveries during the last year, which has helped to build our knowledge of this wonderful object and its history.

Raising the tapestry into place with pulleys

See related article published 30 August 2012 in The Art Newspaper: Ancient Stones revealed on tapestry (This information was added on 13 September 2012)

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Installing Shakespeare: staging the world


Becky Allen, Project Curator: Shakespeare

The three-week installation of the British Museum’s major new exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world has just finished, and the Reading Room has been transformed.

With over 190 objects, and 38 lenders, there has been a lot of work to do. One of the most impressive aspects of the experience has been witnessing how many colleagues, both within and outside the Museum, have come together to bring the exhibition to life. It is a real team effort to create an exhibition on this scale, and it calls on skills and experience of all kinds, from conservation specialists to lighting technicians, heavy object handlers to designers.

The exhibition features a huge range of objects, including coins, armour, textiles, sculpture and much more. One of the most exciting, and perhaps surprising, aspects of the show is how many paintings it includes – 21 in total from many different lenders. For me, watching the paintings being hung has been a highlight of the installation. One of my favourites is the enormous 1611 bird’s-eye view of Venice from Eton College. The painting has only travelled twice: first from Venice to Eton, where it was hung in 1636, and then from Eton to the British Museum.

As you can see from the photograph, hanging the painting safely required careful coordination and teamwork. Venice is one of Shakespeare’s most important imagined places, and is often the setting for his brilliant examinations of outsiders in society – Shylock the Jew and Othello, the ‘moor of Venice’, being powerful examples. The painting is populated with figures and really brings the Venice section to life – it’s a great pleasure seeing it each morning.

Museum assistants and specialist art handlers hanging the ‘Bird’s-eye view of Venice’ by Odoardo Fialetti, 1611. (Eton College, Windsor)

Another remarkable painting comes from the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Siena. It is a beautiful portrait of Queen Elizabeth I known as ‘The Sieve Portrait’, by Quentin Metsys the Younger, dated 1583. In the portrait Elizabeth holds a sieve, symbolic of chastity. This association comes originally from the story of the Roman Vestal Virgin Tuccia who proved her own virginity by carrying water in a sieve. It’s a beautiful and striking painting which makes a real statement about the presence and theatricality of Elizabeth, queen at the time Shakespeare moved to London and began to write and act.

Museum assistants from the British Museum hanging ‘The Sieve Portrait’ by Quentyn Metsys the Younger, 1583. (Pinacoteca Nazionale, Siena)

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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When the world came to London


Dora Thornton, Exhibition Curator

Four centuries ago, the world began to come to London, which was reaching for the status of a world city. It was a time in which so many aspects of the modern world have their origins. In the forthcoming exhibition, Shakespeare: staging the world we explore these developments though the lens of Shakespeare’s plays. It was above all in the London playhouse that Shakespeare’s generation explored the strangeness and variety of humankind. Shakespeare gave his people, and London’s visitors, a vocabulary and a vision with which they could explore who they were and what it meant to be English, British, or a citizen of the world.

Looking at the Moor’s Head Cup, made by
Christoph Jamnitzer in Munich around 1600,
Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich

As curator of the exhibition, I have had an exciting time over the last four years thinking my way into Shakespeare’s world with objects. It is a new kind of undertaking, and I have had to feel my way between objects and texts, to the extent that it would be impossible to say which came first in articulating the imagined places of Shakespeare’s plays for our visitors.

The exhibition is structured around Shakespeare’s real and imaginary locations — a brilliant concept put forward by the Shakespearean consultant to the exhibition, Professor Jonathan Bate. Through the innovative design of the display, visitors will travel through different settings as they were imagined in the London playhouse. Each place will have its own distinctive feel and atmosphere so that the visitor journeys with Shakespeare’s original audiences.

Following on from the approach of A History of the World in 100 objects, we have chosen objects which take the visitor directly to issues that mattered to Shakespeare and his original audiences. The objects express things that were new; things that had been lost or destroyed; things that were changing or challenging; new cultural encounters and human traffic in a period of expanding global contacts; contested or even explosive political ambitions.

The aim is to create a dialogue between Shakespeare’s imaginary worlds, and the real world as his generation experienced it.

Our collaboration with the Royal Shakespeare Company allows us to introduce an element of performance into the display in evoking “this wooden O” of the London playhouse. It also enables us to bring Shakespeare’s words into the exhibition through digital interventions which our visitors can experience both independently and in juxtaposition with the objects.

The first object is The First Folio of 1623, which preserved Shakespeare’s output as a dramatic artist for all time and assured his classic status. It is not just a text, but an iconic object in its own right, entirely appropriate to a British Museum exhibition in that we work with objects which are also texts; texts which are also objects (think of the Rosetta Stone, the Franks casket, or the Cyrus cylinder.)

We end with another iconic object which is also a text: ‘the Robben Island Bible': a cheap edition of the Complete Works of Shakespeare which was secretly kept in the Robben Island jail by Sonny Venkatrathnam, hidden beneath Diwali cards and circulated among the political prisoners there. They found a common bond in Shakespeare as they did in their fight against apartheid, and many of them autographed their favourite passages; Shakespeare texts which meant something to them. The book will be open at Nelson Mandela’s favourite passage from Julius Caesar: “Cowards die many times before their deaths: The valiant never taste of death but once.” Unpacking that book on its arrival from South Africa has been the single most moving part of installing the exhibition for me. The arc from the First Folio to the Robben Island Bible is surely a journey worth taking.

Dora Thornton (right) and Becky Allen reading the Robben Island Bible

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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

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Dotting the ’i’s…


Silke Ackermann, former British Museum curator

It’s been a while since the last post about this project, as much has happened since Josefina wrote about her research trip to Israel. Not least is the fact that I have left the British Museum for a professorship at the University of Applied Sciences at Schwerin (Germany). I will stay involved in the project in various ways, but the British Museum will not.

However, I wanted to write a final post to report on our study of two instruments. One was the famous medieval astrolabe with Hebrew markings in the British Museum, that has already played a role in the BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 Objects as object no. 62. The other is a later astrolabe in a private collection that had been deposited at the Museum by an owner keen to learn more about his object. This is a service that curatorial departments of the Museum regularly perform.

Josefina Rodríguez Arribas (left) and Silke Ackermann examining an astrolabe

Josefina Rodríguez Arribas (left) and Silke Ackermann examining an astrolabe

We were keen to get a better feel for the instruments; to examine the lettering, and explore the language used to see what it might tell us about the cultural circumstances in which they were made, and to take a close look at a much younger astrolabe, constructed at a time when the instrument had largely gone out of use.

An examination of the markings on both instruments made it quite clear that the language used is Judeo-Arabic in both cases, that is Arabic written in Hebrew letters. This is a phenomenon that can often be observed where Jewish people are living in an Arabic-speaking-community. They may well be speaking Arabic themselves, but will often use Hebrew letters for writing as this is the script they will have learnt. To indicate letters otherwise not used in Hebrew, certain letters will have special signs, normally dots.

Scientific analysis has shown the later piece to be made of rolled metal, a technique that was virtually unknown before the nineteenth century. This means it was made when the use of astrolabes had largely been superseded by other instruments.

When examining this instrument in detail we were struck by the fact that some of the numerals used to indicate values for – amongst other things – latitudes appeared to be full of mistakes. This, together with the late date of the instrument, might on first glance raise suspicion about its authenticity. However, the explanation appears to be a completely different one. One should note that these numerals are not written in ciphers, but in the so-called ‘alphanumerical system’, that is a system used in all Semitic languages (and also in Greek) where each letter of the alphabet also stands for a numerical value. Thus aleph stands for 1, bet for 2 etc. The numbers we had been looking at should have read ‘15’ – jod he in Hebrew. However, this letter combination looks identical to an abbreviation for the name of God – and would thus have been avoided by observant Jews. Other features of this particular instrument seem to indicate that it was carefully copied from an earlier source, probably by a scholar who was reading the medieval texts trying to understand or to teach how such an instrument might have worked.

I know I’m biased, but isn’t it truly amazing what we can learn just by looking at instruments?! Working in a museum one soon begins to realize that it is often objects that give us the cultural and social contexts that we cannot glean from written sources alone – and it is the combination of instruments and texts as the historical basis for our research that makes this project so exciting for me.

For more information about this project, visit the Warburg Institute website

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