British Museum blog

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

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5 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. Brillient concept for engaging the audience with a deeper subject! Looking forward to seeing it.


  2. cunzy11 says:

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

    This is exactly how I tend to read books with another person, standing up in front of a grey background. Glad this photo wasn’t staged to pander to the masses who might sit down at a table in a room.


  3. ritaroberts says:

    Thankyou for sharing this very moving story. I would love to see the exhibition but as I live in Crete, alas too far. I am sure it will be a huge success.


  4. Laocoon says:

    When I look at the broad palette of Shakespeare events in 2012 it reinforces, for me, the fact that William Shakespeare is indeed the World’s best playwright ‘for any time’. I wasn’t aware of this exhibition and will certainly be attending.


  5. Vanessa Lindsay says:

    I went to Dora Thornton’s lecture yesterday and then the exhibition, both a complete delight – informative, inspiring, clear, entertaining, enthralling and wise – just as Shakespeare’s plays are. Thank you. My only minor disagreement was with an assertion from a member of the audience that James I is our only erudite monarch; perhaps a few of the others might challenge that, not least Elizabeth I.


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