British Museum blog

Indigenous Australian rock art: Injalak Hill, Gunbalanya

The artists from Injalak Arts and Crafts Centre, Gunbalanya, worked closely with the British Museum on the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. Here they write on the importance of rock art and its relevance to today’s visitors of West Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia.

Injalak Arts is a unique centre based in the town of Gunbalanya. One of only two fully Indigenous-governed and continuously operating organisations in the town, it plays an important role within the community, functioning as a social hub, a charity and an enterprise that generates livelihoods for local people. The sale of arts and crafts to tourists is an important source of self-generated income for many people, and the Injalak Rock Art Tour developed by the Centre has enabled a fruitful cultural exchange with the Aboriginal people.

Gunbalanya lies at the limits of the Arnhem Plateau, the sandstone escarpment country at the heart of West Arnhem Land. This escarpment, and its outliers such as Injalak Hill in Gunbalanya, is one of the most important rock art areas in the world. It is from this rock art – as well as ceremonial body and object designs, and paintings on the walls of wet season bark shelters – that the art of the Injalak artists finds its origin.

Gabriel Maralngurra and Isaiah Nagurrgurrba are co-managers and founding members of Injalak Arts and Crafts Centre, as well as being widely exhibited artists.

Gabriel Maralngurra and Isaiah Nagurrgurrba are co-managers and founding members of Injalak Arts and Crafts Centre, as well as being widely exhibited artists.

Injalak Hill boasts extensive galleries, literally thousands of paintings scattered amongst the boulders and breathtaking views of floodplains and the famed Arnhem Land escarpment. Injalak Hill was a significant occupation site for the inhabitants of the region.

The paintings in the rock art galleries show continuous habitation over millennia, with images layered over and over one another. Carbon dating shows some are more than 15,000 years old.

Since the beginning of time the traditional owners of West Arnhem Land have used rock art as an important form of visual communication. Together with dance, music and oral stories, rock art has been used to express and pass down ancestral beliefs, traditions and laws regulating the life of the Kunwinjku people of the Northern Territory.

As well as being a form of visual communication, rock art was also made to document daily life. Hunting and harvesting of bush foods still plays an important part in the life of Aboriginal people (bininj), and revolves around the traditional calendar of six distinct seasons. For example, in bangkerreng (the late wet season) the dragonflies over the water tell people that the fish are fat and plentiful. Game and bush tucker are some of the most important subjects in rock art and this continues in the art of today.

X-ray style rock art depiction of a cooked barramundi, Injalak Hill.

X-ray style rock art depiction of a cooked barramundi, Injalak Hill.

Namarnkol, the barramundi, is a very important fish for bininj. Barramundi are found in the ocean, in floodwaters, and in freshwater billabongs, rivers and creeks. In the old days, people used to spear them with djalakirradj (three-pronged fish spears) and walabi (traditional triangular nets). Nowadays, they are caught with fishing lines and modern nets. You can see a bark painting of a barramundi in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation.

Bark painting of a barramundi, Gunbalanya, about 1961. British Museum Oc1961,02.1

Bark painting of a barramundi, Gunbalanya, about 1961. British Museum Oc1961,02.1

According to the Kunwinjku, Mimihs were the original spirit beings and taught Aboriginal people many of the skills they needed to survive in the bush along with ceremonies, dance and song. These spirits continue to live in rocks, trees and caves but are rarely seen by humans. They are frequently seen in the rock art of Arnhem Land as small, dynamic figures.

Mimih spirits hunting, Injalak Hill.

Mimih spirits hunting, Injalak Hill.

The Kunwinjku of West Arnhem Land, one of the longest continuing Indigenous cultures today, leave a lasting impact on all those who come into contact with them, whether it be through working with them, by visiting Injalak Hill or through the walls of an exhibition. From Gunbalanya to the British Museum in London, one can only hope that we are contributing towards keeping culture strong and sustainable for the generations to come.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

 Logistics partner IAG Cargo

 The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , ,

Stories of the past and present: Indigenous Australia

Tynan Waring, Indigenous Visitor Services Host at the National Museum of Australia, Canberra, spent three weeks at the British Museum during the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation.

He writes on professional development, educating audiences on Indigenous Australia and holding stone tools used by his ancestors.

Tynan Waring, holding the family guide during a talk to primary school children in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, 2015.

Tynan Waring, holding the family guide during a talk to primary school children in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, 2015.

My name is Tynan Waring, and I am an Indigenous Visitor Services Host working for the National Museum of Australia (NMA), in Canberra, Australia’s capital city. I was lucky enough to be selected for a professional development opportunity at the British Museum and was flown to London to work for three weeks around the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation. The exhibition resulted from a joint research project between the institutions and a version of the exhibition called Encounters, focusing on contact between Indigenous Australians and European visitors to our shores, is due to open at the NMA at the end of the year.

I had the honour and privilege to work in many different areas of the British Museum – visitor services, learning services, the Anthropology Library and adult programming. It really was remarkable, despite the vast differences in not only distance and location, but also the themes of the two institutions’ collections, just how similar Museums are. The problems faced by museums and collecting institutions seem universal and even the people working at them almost have doppelgangers, or at least foreign versions of themselves working at other museums.

I was working with the brilliant curatorial staff of the Oceanic collection and I was very fortunate to take a trip to the stores and see and hold some objects that will be displayed in the Encounters exhibition. Even more exciting than that, was the opportunity to connect with my past and my heritage. The British Museum has a vast collection of Indigenous material, even if not permanently displayed and I was able to find stone tools and ochre that my Awabakal ancestors had used on the beaches of the place I was born and raised.

In the Anthropology Library, with more than a little help from the supremely knowledgeable Jim Hamill (Curator, Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas), I was able to find images of Awabakal men with ritual scarring I had never seen and a photograph of a man labelled Weymera ‘king’ of the Hunter River, at one point recognised by the European settlers as leader of my people. For a person whose heritage was only realised at the age of 14 after extensive research into family history, this provided a connection to my past and where my family has come from. Touching objects used by people I may be descended from, or who knew the people I am descended from, and seeing images of them was a very moving experience.

The Zugubal Dancers performing in the Museum’s Great Court, 2015. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

The Zugubal Dancers performing in the Museum’s Great Court, 2015. (Photo: Benedict Johnson)

I had a very touching and educational visit, I learnt so much not just about the British Museum’s collection and storied history, but about museums in general, about collecting, about sense of self. I was there during the biannual Origins – Festival of First Nations. I helped to organise the Museum’s Indigenous Australia Friday night late event featuring Alick Tipoti’s Zugubal Dancers and it was wonderful to see Indigenous Australian culture so eagerly enjoyed and accepted.

This makes me very hopeful for the continuation of the partnership between the museums and I hope our exhibition at the NMA continues the illuminating look at the history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, their cultural items and how collections play a part in that story.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , ,

The Painted Horn: visiting a rock art site in Somalia

Jorge de Torres, Project Cataloguer, African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum

Painted image of long-horned cow with human figure underneath, Laas Geel, Somalia (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Painted image of long-horned cow with human figure underneath, Laas Geel, Somalia. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

As I look up at the rock shelter here in Somalia, several thoughts cross my mind about the beautiful pieces of rock art above me. There’s always a strange feeling when you visit for the first time a place you have been studying for a long while: a merging of expectations, recognition and, in some cases, a feeling of its being other than how one had imagined it. The first time I saw the Pyramids in Egypt, for all their greatness and despite the myriad of photos, they appeared somehow different to how I had pictured them. However, this has never been the case for me when faced with the paintings and engravings on natural rock surfaces that I study as an archaeologist with the African rock art image project. Maybe that’s because of their isolation – in most cases – and the long walks you have to take to reach the outcrops or shelters where these sites are positioned. Approaching the site, one becomes aware of the environment, the landscape and the magic of these places, and so when you are finally in front of the engravings and paintings, usually in a tranquil area, you feel the full impact of images created by human beings who lived hundreds or thousands of years ago.

Project cataloguer Jorge de Torres, photographing rock paintings at Laas Geel, Somalia. © Alfredo González-Ruibal

Project cataloguer Jorge de Torres, photographing rock paintings at Laas Geel, Somalia. (Photograph © Alfredo González-Ruibal)

Recently I’ve been fortunate enough to experience one of these special moments at the rock art site of Laas Geel, located in the Somaliland region of Somalia. Archaeologically speaking, Somalia is also one of the most interesting places in Africa, situated on a crossroads between Arabia, the East African coast and the Ethiopian Highlands, where trade flourished for millennia. Throughout the country, archaeological sites show the richness and complexity of the societies that inhabited the region, leaving testimonies of their daily life, their beliefs and their interactions with other communities. As a member of a Spanish archaeological project, I’ve spent a week documenting some of these sites, as a preliminary step to the development of an archaeological project which is to be undertaken over the next few years. This trip has allowed me to go to Laas Geel, a rocky ridge placed where two valleys meet, halfway between the cities of Hargeisa and Berbera. Many rock shelters are found throughout this headland, with very variable dimensions, although the largest measure several metres in length and width. About 20 of them have paintings, the most impressive being a huge panel of almost 100m2 covering the ceiling and walls, with 350 very well-preserved painted images. The majority are images of cows depicted in a specific style, unique to Africa. The heads and horns are shown as if seen from above while the bodies are seen in profile, and they have prominent udders and necks decorated with colourful stripes. Not all the cows belong to this style though; others have stylistic features that relate them to engravings located in Ethiopia and Djibouti. Together with the cows are illustrations of human figures. Wearing white shirts and red trousers, these figures are often placed under the udder or the head of the cows. Additionally, some other animals are also represented – dogs, antelopes, monkeys and two giraffes.

Distinctive cattle paintings at Laas Geel (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Distinctive cattle paintings at Laas Geel. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Along with the distinctive style of the most representative depictions, colour is one of the key features of Laas Geel: figures are depicted in shades of orange, red, yellow, white, violet or brown, among other colours. As is often the case, direct dating of the rock paintings has been impossible thus far, but analysis of cattle bones from one of the shelters has provided dates between the mid 4th and mid 3rd millennia BC. Therefore, the Laas Geel site helps us to trace the domestication of cattle in the Horn of Africa. Surprisingly, the impressive paintings of Laas Geel were discovered only in 2002, when a French research team studying the beginning of production economy in the Horn of Africa arrived at the site looking for suitable shelters to excavate. The importance of the site was immediately recognized, and since then it has been thoroughly documented. This site is included in the African rock art image project and the photos will be available online shortly. As recognition of the importance of rock art in Somalia grows, some other challenges appear and need to be confronted: the low but steady increase of tourists, the need for protection of the rock art sites and the importance of raising awareness of the significance of the sites at a local, national and international level. Inadequate infrastructure and political instability threaten many archaeological remains. Rock art, because of its open air location and wide geographical dispersion, is always difficult to protect, and only with the close involvement of the local communities can the preservation of these sites be ensured. In Laas Geel, the creation of a small museum and the presence of guards and guides are an encouraging step towards a better control over this rich Somali heritage. As I lie in my hotel room in Hargeisa, window and door opened to let a warm breeze flow through, I can’t help but think about the great potential of rock art sites to promote the engagement and commitment of people in the protection of their own heritage. Unlike other archaeological remains, which are often buried and sometimes obscure for the untrained eye, rock art allows multiple perceptions and discussions, from aesthetic appreciation based on modern cultural ideals to practical interpretations, that can involve people from very different backgrounds. Perhaps one of the many perceived beauties of the colourful paintings of Laas Geel, made around 5,000 years ago, could be in establishing common interests within a country as complex as is Somalia today. For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart. The African rock art image project is supported by The Arcadia Fund. Through summer 2015 the British Museum is Celebrating Africa.  Explore and debate a variety of African cultural issues through a series of events and displays, including two free lectures on Southern African rock art by professors Peter Mitchell and Benjamin Smith Further reading: Gutherz, X., Cros, J.-P., and Lesur, J. (2003), ‘The discovery of new rock paintings in the Horn of Africa: The rock shelters of Laas Geel, Republic of Somaliland’, in Journal of African Archaeology, 1(2), 227–236. Gutherz, X. and Jallot, L. (eds.) (2010), The decorated shelters of Laas Geel and the rock art of Somaliland, Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, Paul-Valéry University – Montpellier III, Montpellier. Mire, S. (2015), ‘Mapping the Archaeology of Somaliland: Religion, Art, Script, Time, Urbanism, Trade and Empire’, in African Archaeological Review 32, 111–136

Filed under: African rock art, Archaeology, Research, , , , , , , , ,

Howzat! The 1868 Aboriginal Australian cricket tour of England

Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator, Oceania, British Museum

The first Australian cricket team to tour England was an all-Aboriginal side in 1868. Between May and October 1868, a group of 13 cricketers, mostly from the state of Victoria, played matches at various towns in England. Before or after the cricket game, they displayed their traditional skills in throwing and dodging spears, boomerangs and clubs. While these performances were popular with the public, the members of the Marylebone Cricket Club were initially reluctant to host the players at Lord’s as they deemed such traditional displays, like other novelty displays such as pony races, unfitting to take place on that ground. The cricket tour occurred not long after the publication of Darwin’s The Origin of the Species in 1859. William Tegetmeier (1816–1912), a poultry fancier and correspondent of Charles Darwin, went to see them play. He subsequently took their physical measurements, arranged for three of them, including Jungunjinuke, to be photographed as three different physical ‘types’ and displayed their weapons in a small museum in the offices of The Field magazine, a publication dedicated to those who shoot, fish and hunt way beyond the call of duty.

Jungunjinuke, or ‘Dick-a-Dick’ (as he was also known), quickly developed a reputation for his skill and dexterity in dodging cricket balls thrown at him, which he would deflect with his spear and club, only rarely being hit. During his time in England, he was noted not only for his cricketing skills, but also his style of fashionable dress, his Swiss clock and his ability to charm an audience. A club used by Jungunjinuke has remained in the UK since that tour and, from 1947, has been housed at the Marylebone Cricket Club. An old paper label stuck on the club is signed ‘GWG’, suggesting it passed through the hands of George W. Graham (1828–1886), the Sydney solicitor who was the co-promoter of the tour. The style of the club is typical of those from western Victoria, which are often referred to as ‘leangles’, used in fighting at close quarters. All members of the team returned to Australia, save for Bripumyarrumin (‘King Cole’) (d. 1868) who is buried in Meath Gardens in east London.

Jungunjinuke’s club from the 1868 Aboriginal cricket team. Western Victoria, about 1868. Marylebone Cricket Club. (on display until 2 August at the British Museum’s BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation).

Jungunjinuke’s club from the 1868 Aboriginal cricket team. Western Victoria, about 1868. Marylebone Cricket Club. (On display until 2 August at the British Museum’s BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation).

Until 9 July 2015, the club associated with Jungunjinuke was the only known artefact associated with the cricket tour known to have survived. What happened to the other artefacts used in demonstrations of skills? A chance find last week has uncovered many of them. During a visit to inspect the Australian collections at the  Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) last week to assist with redevelopment of their World Cultures Gallery, I came across a name and date associated with Aboriginal artefacts from the state of Victoria: W. R. Hayman 1868. Eureka!

William Reginald Hayman (1842–1899) was the manager of the Aboriginal team that toured England. He was the eldest son of Philip Charles Hayman, a doctor of Axminster, Devon. In 1858, Hayman emigrated to western Victoria, where most of the cricketers came from. As a key person in organising the tour, he came to England early in 1868 ahead of the cricketers to make arrangements for the tour. The team played 47 matches, the last one 15–17 October at The Oval, London. On 18 October, they left for what has been described as a ‘brief holiday’ in Devon. Some of the Aboriginal cricketers staged a display of traditional skills at Plymouth on 19 October. This included ‘native sports’ of throwing the spear and boomerang. The cricketers sailed from Plymouth on 26 October 1868.

Hayman did not sail on the ship with the cricketers. On 29 October, described as living at Oakhayes House, Woodbury (about 7 miles from Exeter, where his father lived), he donated 12 ‘native weapons’. They included 2 spears, 2 spearthrowers, 1 boomerang, 4 clubs and some firesticks. The objects have remained in the museum since then, but only now has their significance been uncovered.

The 1868 cricket tour of England has been included in a list of 100 defining moments in Australian history. To have identified these Aboriginal artefacts is an amazing discovery that adds tangible evidence to this historic event.

The  Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM) is delighted to know they are the custodians of this significant collection.

Gaye Sculthorpe, British Museum, & Tony Eccles, Royal Albert Memorial Museum, with artefacts from 1868 tour found at Exeter Museum.

Gaye Sculthorpe, British Museum and Tony Eccles, Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery, with artefacts from 1868 tour found at Exeter Museum.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , ,

On wrestlers, rodents and rare discoveries

Celeste Farge, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

Bronze statue of an Apoxyomenos. Greek, about 300 BC. Ministry of Culture,Croatia. Image: Mali Losinj Tourist Board / photography by Mr Marko Vrdoljak

Bronze statue of an apoxyomenos. Greek, about 300 BC. Ministry of Culture, Croatia.
Image: Mali Losinj Tourist Board / photography by Mr Marko Vrdoljak.

Many of the objects in Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art have fascinating histories which, because they don’t form part of the essential narrative of the exhibition, are not mentioned in the labels and catalogue. For me, the most compelling is the story of the discovery of the bronze statue of an athlete, most probably a wrestler, and one of the star pieces of the exhibition generously lent by the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia.

This statue is extremely rare, for very few life-size bronzes have in fact survived. Most were destroyed in late antiquity when they were valued more as scrap metal than as artworks and were melted down for other uses, such as in the manufacture of weapons and armour and the minting of coins. Occasionally a chance discovery, usually from the seabed, resurrects such masterpieces. This bronze statue, dating from around 300 BC, was found by a Belgian tourist diving off the coast of Croatia near the island of Lošinj.

The statue lying on the seabed where it was discovered © Mr Danijel Freka

The statue lying on the seabed where it was discovered. © Mr Danijel Freka

The statue being raised from the sea   © Ministry of Culture, Conservation Department Zagreb

The statue being raised from the sea. © Ministry of Culture, Conservation Department Zagreb

In a carefully planned operation, with additional expertise and financial support from the Oxford Maritime Trust, it was raised in 1999 after having been in the sea for more than 2000 years. The surrounding area was then searched for other finds by using a pneumatic suction pipe, metal detectors and a remote operated device complete with camera but, although some amphora fragments and part of an anchor were found, the only significant item recovered was the base of the statue. It seems, therefore, unlikely that this statue was from a shipwreck. It may perhaps have been thrown overboard to lighten the load when the ship carrying it ran into difficulty during a storm.

The statue needed six years of conservation work eradicating soluble salts and harmful chlorides, removing layers of maritime encrustations, consolidating cracks and breaks, and building an internal support, to restore it to the exceptional condition it is in today. Extensive research on the statue was conducted to gather information on matters concerning the production techniques and composition. The statue had been constructed using the indirect lost wax process and cast in seven separate parts – the head, torso, legs, arms and genitals. Various factors indicate that ancient Greek casting techniques had been used, such as the low lead content, and the skill of the craftsmen is demonstrated in the application of hundreds of small patches to repair casting flaws before the final chasing and polishing and in the precision of the joins.

Remnants of a mouse nest, including straw, fig seeds and cherry stones (with bite marks!), were found inside the left forearm of the statue. At some point after its manufacture, the statue must have toppled over (the weight-bearing leg had been weakened when the clay core in the mould shifted causing bubbles and an unequal thickness of the bronze) damaging the figure’s left sole and right calf, and it is through these areas that the mouse would have been able to crawl in and out. The organic material deposited by the mouse has been carbon dated and the oldest material was found to date from around 50 BC.

It was a thrilling moment when the statue arrived at the British Museum accompanied by a team of guards, conservators and art handlers. It travelled inside a purpose-built hexagonal cage, designed to allow the statue to be moved with ease particularly during conservation work, but also during transport and hoisting onto its plinth.

Known as the ‘apoxyomenos’, which literally means ‘the scraper’, the statue would originally have had in its hands a strigil – a metal implement used for scraping the oil, dust and dirt from the body after exercising and before bathing. Bizarrely, in antiquity this mixture was collected and used for cosmetic and medicinal purposes. In fact, this gloop from the bodies of victorious athletes was especially prized for its healing properties. Statues, like this one, were erected in honour of prizewinning athletes but also as dedications to the gods, for it was believed that the victorious athletes had been favoured by them. Sanctuaries and gymnasia abounded with such statues ensuring the heroic status and, in a sense, immortality of the victors. Although the name of this athlete is no longer known, the fame of the statue lives on.

For more information, see http://www.h-r-z.hr/en/index.php/djelatnosti/konzerviranje-restauriranje/metal/222-hrvatski-apoksiomen

Last chance! Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display until 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer

Additional support

In memory of Melvin R Seiden

Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , ,

Conserving Dürer’s Triumphal Arch: photography and imaging

Ivor Kerslake, Photography and Imaging Manager, British Museum and Joanna Russell, Scientist, British Museum

Before any conservation treatment could commence, and with the Arch now out from behind its screen of glass for the first time in a generation, we were granted the opportunity to create a series of high-resolution images. The British Museum’s newly commissioned photographic studio was cleared for two days and Dürer’s masterpiece was expertly transported down the six flights of stairs and carefully unrolled in the main studio. Because of the fragility of the print we were unable to position the work vertically, which would have made our work considerably easier, so it was delicately unrolled on the floor. The challenge was then how to get high enough over the print to get it all within one shot. This was the first real test of the new facility. We decided to use a mobile extendable work platform (MEWP). Since the studio had been designed to enable access to and photography of large objects, we had sufficient space to manoeuvre.

Carefully unrolling the print ready for photography, with the mobile extendable work platform in place.

Carefully unrolling the print ready for photography, with the mobile extendable work platform in place.

Senior photographers, Kevin Lovelock and Saul Peckham used their skills to light the print to give an even and colour-balanced appearance, and also employed a raking light technique to highlight areas of special interest to both conservators and curators.

The print recto (front) in direct light.

The print recto (front) in direct light.

The print verso (back) in raking light

The print verso (back) in raking light.

Detail of cotton backing with embossed reversed '1515', the date in which the printing of the Arch commenced.

Detail of cotton backing with embossed reversed ‘1515’, the date in which the printing of the Arch commenced.

While the print was in the photographic studio, scientists Joanna Russell, Joanne Dyer and Antony Simpson took the opportunity to capture some detail shots using infrared and ultraviolet imaging.

Joanna Russell setting up the ultraviolet and infrared photography apparatus.

Joanna Russell setting up the ultraviolet and infrared photography apparatus.

Visible light is only a tiny part of the electromagnetic spectrum – beyond the red end of the visible spectrum is infrared radiation, and beyond the violet end is ultraviolet light. This non-visible radiation can also be recorded in images, by using special lights, cameras and filters. These imaging techniques may tell us more about the materials or construction of an object or artwork, depending on the ways the materials interact with the different wavelengths of light.

The ink used for the print absorbs infrared radiation, so appears clearly in these images, and is likely to be a carbon-based ink. However, an ink inscription becomes invisible in the infrared image, showing it is made using a different type of ink, probably iron gall ink.

TA_Pic_ed2

Left: A visible image of a detail from the Arch. Right: An infrared reflectogram of the same detail. The words ‘The Gate of the Nobility’ do not appear in the infrared image.

Ultraviolet light causes some materials to luminesce, that is to give off visible light. The ultraviolet-induced luminescence from the paper has a yellower appearance in one area of the detail shown below. This reveals that the scene in the bottom left of this detail is printed on a separate piece of paper to the surrounding areas.

Image showing an ultraviolet-induced luminescence detail. The scene in the lower left is printed on a paper with a more yellow luminescence than the surrounding areas.

Image showing an ultraviolet-induced luminescence detail. The scene in the lower left is printed on a paper with a more yellow luminescence than the surrounding areas.

The information revealed from these images can tell us more about how the Triumphal Arch was made, and can help to further inform the process of conserving the print.

The conservation of the British Museum Albrecht Dürer’s Triumphal Arch is generously sponsored by Howard and Roberta Ahmanson. To find out more, see the earlier blog post here.

You can see an interactive zoomable image of the print here.

Filed under: Conservation, Dürer’s Triumphal Arch, , , , , ,

Collecting Indigenous Australian art

Rachael Murphy, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

There should always be controversy in the air surrounding artists and makers, museums and objects and culture… It is this that keeps museums alive and relevant, part of an on-going dialogue and questioning as the past and the present collide and coalesce like a walk in wardrobe of old, deep memories and sparkling new acquisitions.

Judy Watson, artistic fellow

There is no need for me to explain the importance of the contemporary art in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation when Judy Watson, who has two prints on display in the show (2015,2004.3 and 2015,2004.4), does it so eloquently. The exhibition showcases some of the most striking work to come out of Australia in the last five years, as well as the breadth and diversity of art forms, from an installation by Tasmanian artist Julie Gough to a basket by Abe Muriata, a master weaver from rainforest Queensland. These pieces pose a range of opinions, statements or questions, contributing to the dialogues throughout the show. The reasons for collecting, commissioning and displaying these works are as diverse as the art forms themselves. It is only, perhaps, the artists’ ability to engage with the visitor, that provides some common ground.

Judy Watson at the British Museum in 2013. The paddle that she is drawing features in one of the prints she produced after this visit, see below. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Judy Watson at the British Museum in 2013. The paddle that she is drawing features in one of the prints she produced after this visit, see below. © The Trustees of the British Museum

Watson, a Waanyi artist, who lives and works in Brisbane, first visited the British Museum and other museum collections in the UK at the end of 1995 and beginning of 1996, beginning a long relationship with UK institutions. She returned to the British Museum in 2013 as an artistic fellow on the research project Engaging Objects, a collaborative research project between the British Museum, the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University. After this trip Watson produced a series of prints, the holes in the land, which layer delicately etched drawings of Indigenous Australian objects in the British Museum collection over historical plans for the Museum’s building and showcases. Behind these silhouettes are bright, swirling colours, suggesting, perhaps, the blues, greens and yellows of the Australian landscape.

Judy Watson, The Holes in the Land 2, 2015.  (Courtesy of Judy Watson and Grahame Galleries + Editions. Photographer: Carl Warner)

Judy Watson, the holes in the land 2, 2015. 
(Courtesy of Judy Watson and Grahame Galleries + Editions. Photographer: Carl Warner)

Other contemporary works in the exhibition, such as Angela’s Torenbeek’s ghost net basket speak of events that take place far beyond the Museum walls. Ghost nets are fishing nets which have been detached from commercial vessels and drift in the ocean. Many wash up on islands in the Torres Strait, including on the beaches of Torenbeek’s home, on the island of Moa. Nets pose a significant hazard to marine life and weaving provides a way to recycle them. The plastic fibres are hard to weave, but resistant to damage and decomposition. There are parallels with Torenbeek’s own gentle persistence in educating people about ghost nets.

Ghost net basket, 2010. Mahnah Angela Torenbeek (Reproduced by permission of the artist on behalf of the Rebecca Hossack Gallery)

Mahnah Angela Torenbeek, Ghost net basket, 2010. 
(Reproduced by permission of the artist on behalf of the Rebecca Hossack Gallery)

The value of Torenbeek’s work does not lie only in the messages it conveys. The basket on display is small and shallow, its modest form made bold by the bright blue, green and red of the coarse synthetic fibres. Frayed white nets, trailing from tight stitches, evoke feathers, a material that has been used in the Torres Strait for (at the very least) hundreds of years. While many other artists in the Torres Strait and along the northern coastline of Australia weave with ghost nets, Torenbeek’s work stands out for this striking use of colour and form and playful use of materials. Her flair for innovation is apparent in every work, from small baskets to large scale sculptures. In 2012 she collaborated on a giant ghost net crocodile which sat at Bondi Beach in Sydney. More recently she has been using animal bone in her work. As Torenbeek modestly puts it: ‘I like to do something different’. It is a quality that makes her work compelling to collectors, both private and institutional.

The Museum considers many factors when acquiring contemporary works, not least that they complement and enrich existing collections. Private collectors may collect artworks for other reasons, which speak to their personal experiences, interests or aesthetic tastes. Despite this, there are often close parallels between public and private collections, suggesting that while there is no single definition for a good artwork, it is still an interesting question.

For an insight into the world of collecting Indigenous Australian art you can listen to some of the most esteemed collectors, advisors and dealers at the upcoming debate Collecting Indigenous Australian art, chaired by the renowned art dealer Rebecca Hossack, on Friday 03 July.

Thank you, as always to all of the artists and other groups and individuals across Australia who have contributed to this exhibition.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Event, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

No more dog biscuits: a new life for Ashurbanipal’s Library

Jonathan Taylor, Curator of cuneiform collections, British Museum

Visitors to Room 55, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC will find a radically transformed display. Often the galleries struggle to match the impact of temporary exhibitions, but over the last year a team of curators, designers, interpretation officers, conservators, assistant collections managers and others have worked hard to breathe fresh life into the permanent displays. In the south-east corner of Room 55 sits case 8, otherwise known as ‘The Ashurbanipal Library Case’. It is a museum’s worst nightmare – a whole case full of small, brown lumps of mud (‘dog biscuits’ as a former Director was once heard to call them). Even worse – they are there because they’re covered with writing that no-one can read. In reality, they are one of the jewels of the British Museum collection, and among the most important archaeological discoveries ever made. These are clay tablets from the cuneiform library of Ashurbanipal, 7th century BC king of Assyria. Here’s how we have tried to do justice to these marvels.

The new display of Ashurbanipal’s Library in Room 55. Photo by Alberto Giannese; © The Trustees of the British Museum

The new display of Ashurbanipal’s Library in Room 55. Photo by Alberto Giannese; © The Trustees of the British Museum

First we need to make sure people stop and look. Gone is the wall of grey beloved of past decades. In comes a rich green that contrasts beautifully with the reds and creams of the Library tablets, and conveys a feeling of opulence. Out go the diffuse overhead fluorescent lights. In come directional LEDs revealing the contours of the tablet surface. Each tablet looks special, and the cuneiform writing leaps from its surface. Here is something that is recognisably a document. The tablets sit on shelves in a ‘pigeonhole’ system, which was one of the methods by which ancient scribes stored their tablets. This allows us to conceal the new lights discreetly. More importantly, it suggests that this is a collection. The row of complete tablets stood on end (top row) shows us that we’re looking at a library.

Family dynamics, 7th- century BC style: ‘Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework?!’ (Ashurbanipal’s sister to his wife). British Museum K 1619b.

Family dynamics, 7th- century BC style: ‘Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework?!’ (Ashurbanipal’s sister to his wife). British Museum K 1619b

Now powerless to resist the temptation to explore this Library, the visitor can explore sections such as ‘Acquisitions’, ‘Enquiries’ and ‘The Chief Librarian’. Each tablet or group of tablets has its own label. Where possible, this is a quote from the text itself. Experience tells us that people always want to know what the texts actually say. It’s basic human curiosity that deserves to be satisfied. ‘Why don’t you write your tablet and do your homework?!’ (Ashurbanipal’s sister to his wife) has to be better than ‘This tablet is a letter from the king’s sister to the queen about completing writing practice’. Alongside exquisite copies of the accumulated knowledge of Mesopotamia sit a practice piece by the young boy who would grow up to become ‘King of the World’, detailed contemporary acquisition records and much later texts revealing the lasting fame of the Library in antiquity. Here is the world’s oldest universal library, preserved by the very fires that burnt it down, given new life for today’s readers – we hope you enjoy it. These tablets will never exceed their shelf life.

Want to know more?

A new, friendly introduction to cuneiform is now available:

Cuneiform, by I.L. Finkel and J.J. Taylor (British Museum Press, 2015). It includes examples drawn from the Library.

The Museum’s ‘Ashurbanipal Library Project’ has been preparing a digital version of the Library. A complete set of new photos illustrates a revised electronic catalogue of all 30,000 tablets. This sits on a dedicated website (to appear soon on Oracc) that provides accessible introductions to the Library, how it was found and what is in it. Thousands of English translations are already available and many more will follow. Our work is helped enormously by the active collaboration of colleagues from the small but dedicated international community of cuneiform specialists.

Filed under: Archaeology, Collection, Room 55 (Mesopotamia 1500–539 BC), , , , , ,

Ancient beauty and modern lives

Richard B. Parkinson, Professor of Egyptology, University of Oxford

It’s hard to walk past so many beautiful naked bodies in a dark room without thinking a bit about sex and love; and in an exhibition like Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, there’s always the tendency to play the mental game of trying to decide who you fancy most out of all the represented people. The display of male beauty in Greek art has had a huge impact on European culture, and sometimes on very intimate levels, even though the exact role of same-sex desire in ancient Greek society remains controversial. Ancient Greek art has been one of the ways in which LGBT people have recognised their presence in world history, and this capacity of art to help awareness of sexual identity has produced a wonderful continuing dialogue between ancient and modern works.

This struck me particularly when I was in front of the Belvedere Torso, on loan from the Vatican Museums, because it’s displayed next to some of the Museum’s own Michelangelo drawings. This stunning juxtaposition gives a vivid – almost physical sense – of Michelangelo’s deep engagement with classical art. In a culture where sodomites were consigned to hell, Michelangelo’s own attraction to male beauty found a passionate, if uneasy, resolution with his spirituality through classical philosophy and thought. He expressed this not only in his images of muscular male figures but also in poems such as this one of around 1549, which merges his desire for earthly beauty with his love for God:

My eyes, seeking beauty,
and my soul, seeking salvation,
have no other way to rise to heaven except by looking at beautiful things.
From the highest stars, a splendour come down
which draws desire to them,
and which here is called ‘Love’.
The noble heart has nothing to make it burn or love, or to guide it,
except a face as fair as those stars.

Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm, W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City

Above: The Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm; W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City. Below: Michelangelo’s study of a reclining male nude inspired by the sculpture. Dark red chalk over some stylus underdrawing. Florentine, around 1511. 19.3 x 25.9 cm. British Museum, London 1926,1009.1

26-06-2015 17.40.07

Later, Michelangelo’s own ‘beautiful things’ became works through which gay identity was expressed, with the very 20th-century Benjamin Britten composing a song-cycle of the Renaissance artist’s sonnets. This was dedicated to his life-partner, the singer Peter Pears, and was first performed publicly by the two of them together in the early 1940s, when ‘homosexuality’ was illegal in Britain.

Among the first audiences for the song-cycle was the novelist E.M. Forster (1879–1970), for whom classical culture had also offered a sense of personal (humanist) salvation. In his novel Maurice, young men try to understand their desires for each other through images of Michelangelo’s works and reading Plato’s dialogues, eventually realising that ‘I have always been like the Greeks and didn’t know’ (chap. 11). The novel was written in 1914 and was dedicated ‘to a happier year’ when same-sex love would be regarded as equal. Significantly, a crucial scene of Maurice is set in the British Museum’s classical galleries and the adjacent Assyrian rooms, as Maurice and the gamekeeper Alec finally realise that they are in love, surrounded by ancient art. The novel was magnificently filmed by Merchant Ivory Productions in 1987, on location and (of course) in exactly the right galleries. The film concentrates on the Assyrian rooms, but the Greek sculpture of the Parthenon gallery had already featured in Merchant Ivory’s earlier film of Henry James’ Bostonians, also with a same-sex couple, Olive Chancellor and her beloved Verena Tarrant.

Love in the museum: Maurice and Alec bicker among the Assyrian sculptures and realise they love each other in James Ivory's Maurice (1987). Copyright Merchant Ivory Productions 1987

Love in the museum: Maurice and Alec bicker among the Assyrian sculptures and realise they love each other in James Ivory’s Maurice (1987). Photo: copyright Merchant Ivory Productions 1987

Maurice was filmed in the 1980s, the period of the now infamous Section 28 of the Local Government Act 1988 that prohibited local authorities in England and Wales from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. Attitudes in Britain are thankfully now very different, but I remember the 80s well as a time when it was easy for young people coming out to feel alone: history was almost unremittingly heterosexual, gay stereotypes were often mocking, and there was a general invisibility in culture. Michelangelo and Maurice were hugely reassuring. Memories of these feelings of cultural isolation helped shape a recent British Museum project on LGBT history, which I hoped would help LGBT people find themselves in world history. A long line of very different, interconnected works of art stretches back to those Greek statues, explaining and legitimising the diversity of human desire to modern generations.

Ideas of beauty and desire are culturally constructed in many different ways, but this particularly Greek vision of beauty can still have a personal impact. Standing in front of the hunky Belvedere Torso, I wonder how many people have come to understand their own hearts and identities through looking at these statues carved millennia earlier. The statues don’t even have to be male or naked. Defining beauty also includes one which was much loved by Forster – the (clothed) goddess Demeter from Knidos. The statue features as a symbolic motif in his novel The Longest Journey, and she is in many ways a mythic archetype for his famous mature female characters, such as Mrs Wilcox and Mrs Moore, who embody an instinctive wisdom that sees beyond social conventions and recognises (in the words of the second Mrs Wilcox) ‘that people are far more different than is pretended’ (Howards End, chap. 44).

Marble cult statue of Demeter, goddess of nature. Greek, carved around 360 BC. H. 152 cm. British Museum, London 1859,1226.26

Marble cult statue of Demeter, goddess of nature. Greek, carved around 360 BC. H. 152 cm. British Museum, London 1859,1226.26

Looking at ancient beauty can perhaps encourage our world to adopt a more inclusive attitude towards human diversity – which is still urgently needed now when militant groups are not only overturning ancient statues but also executing gay men by throwing them from buildings. While they are destroying, and more people are dying, Forster’s Demeter sits in the British Museum as a benign and inspiring presence, waiting patiently for that ‘happier year’. It’s now much closer than it was across the world, but not quite with us yet.

Further reading:

B. Parkinson, A Little Gay History: Desire and Diversity across the World (British Museum Press 2013).

M. Forster, Maurice (Penguin Classics 2005)

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display from 26 March to 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer

Additional support

In memory of Melvin R Seiden

Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , ,

Weapons of resistance: Jandamarra, a hero of the Bunuba people

Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator, Oceania, British Museum

Across Australia, each of the many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander groups have historical figures that live on in the memory of people today. For the Bunuba people of the east Kimberley region of north-west Australia, Jandamarra (once referred to by Europeans as ‘ Pigeon’, 1873–1897) is considered a hero of the resistance.

In the 1890s the Kimberley region was a violent place. Bunuba territory was invaded by Europeans looking for land for cattle. Aboriginal people living there resisted these incursions, occasionally attacking individuals. The European settlers called on the police for greater protection. Jandamarra was a young man who first worked for a cattle station owner and then as an Aboriginal tracker for the police. He helped to capture some of his own Bunuba people, and later turned against the settlers and decided to fight in defence of his people and their lands. After killing his colleague Constable Richardson, Jandamarra led a resistance movement for two and a half years in the rugged gorges around the King Leopold Ranges. Eventually he was found by an Aboriginal tracker and shot and killed near Tunnel Creek in 1897. After his death, his head was removed and sent to England. The location of his skull is unknown today. Bunuba people would like to see it returned to their country, and in recent years have been working with historians and other experts to trace and find it.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation brings together what is believed to be Jandamarra’s boomerang, on loan from Museum Victoria, Melbourne, and a spear collected by Inspector Ord, the policeman who led the hunt for Jandamarra. The boomerang is finely decorated with red and white ochre. The spear has a head made of green glass, showing the innovative use of new materials by Aboriginal people in the Kimberley region in the 1890s. Inspector Ord donated the spear and other materials to the British Museum in 1899. He had collected these from various Aboriginal camps during the course of his work. This is the first time that the spear and boomerang (normally housed in London and Melbourne) have been displayed together.

(2)Boomerang  An inscription attributes the boomerang to resistance leader Jandamarra. It has been suggested that he abandoned it after a battle with police.  Kimberley region, Western Australia, around 1890s. Wood, pigment. L. 52.5 cm Museum Victoria, Melbourne X 49848 Courtesy Museum Victoria

Boomerang, made of wood and decorated with pigment. An inscription attributes the boomerang to resistance leader Jandamarra. It has been suggested that he abandoned it after a battle with police. Kimberley region, Western Australia, c.1890s. L. 52.5 cm
Museum Victoria, Melbourne X 49848. Photo: Courtesy Museum Victoria

Wooden spear with a point of green glass, acquired by Inspector C.H. Ord. Kimberley region, Western Australia, around 1890s. L. 1.52 m. British Museum, London Oc1899,-461 Donated by C.H. Ord.

Wooden spear with a point of green glass. Kimberley region, Western Australia, c.1890s. L. 1.52 m. British Museum, London Oc1899,-461. Donated by C.H. Ord.

I am delighted that a Bunuba leader, June Oscar, has contributed to the multimedia guide for the exhibition and participated in opening events. She visited the Museum in 2014 and viewed the objects collected by Inspector Ord. While she has described the sadness in seeing these objects and thinking how they came to be in the possession of Inspector Ord, she also notes that these objects have the potential to tell a truth that should be told to the world. This is a view shared by many Indigenous Australians who have participated in the research project behind the exhibition and whose views were recorded by colleagues at the Australian National University and the National Museum of Australia.

Over the years, the descendants of Inspector Ord and Bunuba people today have discussed these historical events and noted the importance of recognising the difficult past. Bunuba people have commemorated Jandamarra’s story in a number of creative ways, including a new work composed for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra.

As June Oscar says, Jandamarra’s story lives on in current generations of Bunuba people who continue to visit these places and keep his story alive.

‘As far as we’re concerned, Jandamarra lives on. His spirit lives on, his people still live on. His spirit is carried in this country by people who speak the same language as he did. For as long as we’re alive, the children will know the story of Jandamarra.’

‘Alongside… the tragic history of the Bunuba people is the pride that we take in Jandamarra standing up for country, defending country, and displaying his skills, his talents, his knowledge of organising his warriors, and the way he evaded the police for so long.’

You can read more about June’s views in this transcript of her lecture at the opening of the exhibition. The audio recording of this speech will be available here soon.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , ,

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English sculptor Henry Moore was born #onthisday in 1898.
Drawing played a major role in Henry Moore's work throughout his career. He used it to generate and develop ideas for sculpture, and to create independent works in their own right.
During the 1930s the range and variety of his drawing expanded considerably, starting with the 'Transformation Drawings' in which he explored the metamorphosis of natural, organic shapes into human forms. At the end of the decade he began to focus on the relationship between internal and external forms, his first sculpture of this nature being 'Helmet' (Tate Collections) of 1939.
This drawing titled ‘Two Women: Drawing for sculpture combining wood and metal’ was based on a pencil study entitled ‘Ideas for Lead Sculpture’. It reflects his awareness of surrealism and psychoanalytical theory as well his abiding interest in ethnographic material and non-European sculpture; the particular reference in this context is to a malangan figure (malangan is a funeral ritual cycle) from New Ireland province in Papua New Guinea, which had attracted his interest in the British Museum. 
Henry Moore, Two Women: Drawing for sculpture combining wood and metal. England, 1939. Here's another fabulous view of the Great Court captured by @whatinasees at our instagramer event #regram #repost
Check out all of the photos at #emptyBM Vincent van Gogh died #onthisday in 1890. Here's a print of his only known etching. It depicts his doctor, Dr Paul Gachet, seated in the garden of his house.
#vanGogh #etching Beatrix Potter was born #onthisday in 1866. Here are some of her flopsy bunnies! 🐰
#BeatrixPotter Made in AD 700, the exquisite Hunterston brooch was found at Hunterston, Ayrshire during the 1830s. It is a highly accomplished casting of silver, richly mounted with gold, silver and amber decoration. It is sumptuously decorated with animals executed in gold wire and granules, called filigree. In the centre of the brooch is a cross flanking a golden ‘Glory’ representing the risen Christ #MedievalMonday
The Hunterston brooch will feature in our forthcoming #Celts exhibition, on loan from @nationalmuseumsscotland. Encounter an African contribution to the global carnival tradition through contemporary artist @zakove’s Moko Jumbie sculptures in the Great Court. These spectacular 7-metre-high male and female figures in striking black and gold costumes are inspired by aspects of African masquerade. #ZakOve
Find out more about our #Africa season this summer with events and displays at www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/celebrating_africa.aspx
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