British Museum blog

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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  1. I went to the exhibition yesterday. I know little about Shakespeare and nothing about the exhibition, but happily stumbled around in the dark maze and came out mesmerised by wonderful things and vaguely aware of several fascinating themes I had not considered before. Only on the way home did I look at the black and white booklet. Then I realised that there is something seriously wrong with this exhibition.
    1) The main headings on the signs are too high above eye level, even for an adult.
    2) There is a lack of a visual hierarchy in the gloom.
    3) The key words are not refined for a simple narrative.
    There are too many words in long sentences.

    I have spent years making children’s programmes and visiting museums to make broadcasts,
    so I suppose I am a bear with a very small brain.
    Perhaps that is why there was a desperate man at the entrance desperately urging us to take an audio tour. It might have been the only way this exhibition could quickly make sense and have impact to an ignorant peasant like myself.
    There is also something wrong with your wordpress works. Possibly just for someone who already has a wordpress account.

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    • The Museum works hard to make its exhibitions accessible to all. Through the process of developing new exhibitions we test much of our work through models and mock ups. We are advised as well by colleagues who champion the visitor and the quality of their experience eg. text comprehension and legibility, lighting levels, health and safety, environment and security matters. We have received warm praise for the presentation from visitors to date. I’m sorry on this occasion we did not get the balance right for you.

      Carolyn Marsden-Smith, Head of Exhibitions

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Glazed brick panel showing a roaring lion from the Throne Room of Nebuchadnezzar II, 605–562 BC. From Babylon, southern Iraq. On loan from Vorderasiatisches Museum, Berlin.
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Mosaic of the Madonna originally from Palermo Cathedral. Sicily, AD 1130–1189. © Museo Diocesano di Palermo.
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