British Museum blog

Filling the British Museum with sound

A recent musical performance by Anna Neale, as part of the 'Up Late in Pompeii' event. Image: Benedict JohnsonDaniel Ferguson, Head of Adult Programmes, British Museum

The Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) first approached us in July 2012 with the proposal that eventually became Sound Histories. It was an enticing proposition from the very beginning.

A recent musical performance by Anna Neale, as part of the 'Up Late in Pompeii' event. Image: Benedict Johnson

A recent musical performance by Anna Neale, as part of the ‘Up Late in Pompeii’ event. Image: Benedict Johnson

We are open late every Friday evening at the Museum and it is our chance to host events that explore our permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. As well as a high profile lecture programme, we aim to shed new light on the Museum’s material and bring the collection alive for new audiences.

The idea of inviting students to compose original pieces directly in response to objects from the Museum collection, and for these pieces to be performed as part of a larger programme across the space of one evening, was exactly the interesting interpretive approach and scale of ambition that we aspire to.

Part of the attraction of this idea was the sense that the music would ‘take over’ the Museum for an evening, challenging our visitors with how they engage with the incredible objects displayed across the ground floor, while showcasing contemporary art works that have been inspired by them.

This is emphatically not a recreation of a concert performance in a Museum. There is no comfortable seating for the audience, no sense that someone has planned your programme for you. On 5 July something far more unique will occur. Musical interpretations will be performed across the ground floor galleries over two-and-a-half hours and it will be for the visitor to choose whether they drop in on a piece inspired by one of the Easter Island statues, the Sutton Hoo helmet or one of the Benin plaques.

Our partnership with the RNCM has meant we can bring a whole new layer of interpretation to our collections for one evening; an unforgettable experience for both new audiences and those who have known the Museum for much of their lives. Sound Histories showcases the very best of what is possible and unique in live events programming and I’d like to thank Toby Smith, all staff at the RNCM and, most importantly, the composers and musicians, for making this project possible.

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Read more about Sound Histories on the Royal Northern College of Music blog

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AD 79 in HD: broadcasting Pompeii Live

Preparations for Pompeii LiveTim Plyming, Head of Digital Media and Publishing,
British Museum

At time of writing we are under a week away from two live cinema events for the British Museum exhibition Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and I wanted to give you a bit more detail about what we are planning, as well as a glimpse behind the scenes at the huge amount of activity now taking place.

Pompeii Live presenters Bettany Hughes and Peter Snow

Pompeii Live presenters Bettany Hughes and Peter Snow

Our ambition from the beginning has been to provide an exclusive ‘private view’ experience of the exhibition. We realised the best way to experience the exhibition was to have a ‘private guided tour’ in the presence of experts able to bring the objects to life through the stories they tell. This ‘private tour’ experience is of course not one that we can offer every visitor to the Museum but through a special event such as Pompeii Live we can, for one night and using the power of live satellite broadcasting, bring that experience directly into cinemas across the UK.

We are thrilled at visitors planning to join us from as far afield as Thurso, Swansea, Belfast, Plymouth and Norwich. Over 80% of the available tickets have been sold, so we are telling visitors to make sure they have their ticket in advance if they want to join us live.

Preparations for the Pompeii Live broadcast

Preparations for the Pompeii Live broadcast

Over the 80-minute broadcast, visitors will be led by our main presenters, Peter Snow and Bettany Hughes. They will be joined by specialist contributors including historians Mary Beard and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, chef Giorgio Locatelli and, broadcaster and gardening expert, Rachel De Thame. We feel very privileged to have such an amazing line-up who will take us much closer to the people of these tragic cities and what their daily lives were like. Giorgio Locatelli, for example, has been experimenting in his kitchen in central London with a recipe for the carbonised loaf of the bread – one of the star objects in the exhibition.

Chef, Giorgio Locatelli and broadcaster Peter Snow making plans for the event

Chef, Giorgio Locatelli and broadcaster Peter Snow making plans for the event

We have already started our rehearsals and preparations for the show and feel certain that audiences are in for a real treat when they join us live on the night. On Monday, the outside broadcast vehicles arrive at the Museum and we start the process of – overnight – building a live broadcast studio in the heart of the British Museum. On Tuesday 18 June we rehearse the event and are then live to over 280 cinemas across the UK at 19.00 BST.

Following the live broadcast, over 1,000 cinemas across the world in over 60 territories will show a recorded ‘as live’ version of the event. This will be shown in cinemas as far flung as China, India and the USA.

Preparations for Pompeii Live

Preparations for Pompeii Live

In addition to our main broadcast event on Tuesday 18 June, our team has developed a live cinema event for school audiences. This will allow schools across the UK to go to their local cinema and be transported live to the British Museum to explore the objects in the exhibition as well as content designed to link to Key Stage two subject areas. They’ll be guided by presenters Naomi Wilkinson and Ed Petrie, as well as a cast of specialist contributors.

You can find your nearest participating cinema, in the UK and across the world, on our website at britishmuseum.org/pompeiilive and follow preparations for both live events on Twitter using #PompeiiLive.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is at the British Museum until 29 September 2013.

Exhibition sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
In collaboration with Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Tweet using #PompeiiExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Filed under: At the Museum, Exhibitions, Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum,

Creating sound histories at the British Museum

Students at the Royal Northern College of MusicToby Smith, Director of Performance and Programming, Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM)

Sound Histories is the latest and largest yet in the RNCM’s series of site-specific installations created to animate iconic public spaces with music. Having previously collaborated with the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester Piccadilly Station and Victoria Baths, Sound Histories sees us working in London for the first time, our stimulus and partner being the British Museum, our national museum and home to the most visited collection in the UK.

Students at the Royal Northern College of Music

Students at the Royal Northern College of Music. Image courtesy RNCM

For me, Sound Histories is all about using music to tell some of the stories of the objects and the galleries of the British Museum; bringing to life in sound the interweaving histories of cultures across the world and drawing upon almost two million years of human history.

We are currently weeks away from the show, which will take place between 18.00 and 21.00 on Friday 5 July, as part of the British Museum Lates series. We’ve been working for over a year now with the British Museum’s Adult programmes team to create an ambitious evening of music to be performed across most of the ground floor, embracing the collections focusing on Greece, Assyria and Egypt, Asia, Africa, North America, Mexico and much of the Pacific Rim. 200 musicians will be involved, together performing over 120 pieces, with music for strings, winds, chorus, guitars, harps and saxophones, including solos, duos, chamber music and ensemble pieces that span the last six centuries.

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France. Approximately 13,000–14,000 years old

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France. Approximately 13,000–14,000 years old

Over the next weeks I’ll be looking in more detail on the RNCM blog at just a few of the elements that will make up Sound Histories. I’ll look at just some of the 50 pieces that RNCM composers have written in response to a particular object in the collection, from an Ice Age spear holder carved in the form of a mammoth to El Anatsui’s cloth sculpture for the Africa gallery. I’ll also pick out just a few of the highlights from the rest of the programme – music ancient and modern, and most things in between as well. And we’ll take a look at how we will draw everything together with a specially-commissioned finale for the Great Court, a space that sits at the heart of the British Museum site, and at the heart of the world cultures that surround it.

The Enlightenment gallery at the British Museum

The Enlightenment gallery at the British Museum

We’ll start by looking at the Enlightenment gallery, a space we will be programming with music from the year 1828 to reference the creative world of the men who drew together the British Museum collection at this time.

In the meantime, do spread the word – as with all the Museum’s Lates, the event is free, and as it will only be happening once it’s certainly worth saving the date – Friday 5 July, 18.00 – 21.00.

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This post was first published on the Royal Northern College of Music blog.
Find out more about the RNCM

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A new kind of museum: a new kind of citizen

The British Museum, June 2013Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

On this day, 260 years ago, the British Museum – as we know it – came into being: on 7 June 1753, the first British Museum Act received royal assent, and the first public national museum in the world was established.

It’s worth pausing to reflect on what a revolutionary moment this was. Until that June day in 1753, collections of objects like ours were the preserve of royalty, or private gentlemen. The decision by the British Parliament to acquire and display the collection of some 80,000 objects collected by the physician Sir Hans Sloane was truly extraordinary. And it’s a point worth celebrating 260 years later.

The British Museum, June 2013

The British Museum, June 2013

Parliament was proclaiming the right of every citizen to information. Everybody was to be enabled to explore their place in the world, in a collection which embraced the whole world, free of charge. Knowledge was no longer to be the privilege of a few. And this knowledge should not be controlled by Government. So the British Museum was to be governed by independent Trustees.

The result of this new institution, it was believed, would be a new kind of citizen – free, informed and equipped for independent thought. This was what a British citizen ought to be and so Parliament called it the British Museum, the private possession of every citizen. It was the first Parliamentary institution to be called British.

Sir Hans Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection – bequeathed to the nation – led to the formation of the British Museum

These founding principles are as true today as they were over two and a half centuries ago. The Museum remains a repository of the ‘history of the world’ with objects dating from two million years ago to the present day.

The Museum has grown exponentially over that period, from 80,000 objects in the original bequest to around eight million today, covering all countries of the world throughout time. The collection continues to grow to reflect our contemporary world. It remains a collection available to a global citizenship, and they do use it. From 5,000 visitors in 1759, to around six million walking through the doors last year, not to mention around 27 million virtual visits to the Museum’s English, Chinese and Arabic websites.

Since its foundation the British Museum has witnessed the reigns of 10 monarchs, experienced five royal Jubilees, and has survived – more or less unscathed – numerous wars, revolutions and civil disturbances and financial crises. The original collection has spawned two other great institutions; the Natural History Museum and the British Library.

But what is it about the Museum collection that makes it so enduring and relevant after 260 years? For me it’s the perspective it allows on the world today. The collection is witness to the long history of human endeavour. Thus it can shed light on present-day Iran or Syria by showing their long and complex histories. Closer to home the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme reminds us of the diversity of the UK’s national identity, literally uncovering the treasures beneath our feet, the discovery of which often re-writes history – such as the Vale of York Hoard or the Hallaton helmet.

British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the helmet

British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the Hallaton helmet

Everyone has their favourite memory of the Museum or an object in the collection which is particularly resonant. I remember being brought as a child to see the Rosetta Stone. An uninspiring lump of rock to look at perhaps, about that most boring of subjects – tax – but the key to an entire civilisation and rightly one of the most famous objects in the collection.

But there are a host of other less well known treats to discover, from the Tree of Life made from decommissioned weapons from the Mozambique civil war, to the extraordinary Mughal Jade Terrapin and the cinematic Perry scroll commemorating the moment that Japan opened up to trade with the West in the nineteenth century.

Detail from the Perry scroll

Detail from The Mission of Commodore Perry to Japan, 1854

Today the British Museum has become truly Britain’s Museum serving global citizens across the UK, something which Parliament in the eighteenth century could not have dreamed of. This map shows the extent of the Museum’s work across the country last year.

Every object seen at the Museum and further afield tells multiple stories and histories and provides insights into our complex but fascinating world. This is the power of the British Museum and it is worth celebrating.

This post was updated on 7 June to include visitor numbers for all the Museum’s websites.

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Exploring mobile money in Sierra Leone

Mobile money advert in Sierra LeoneSophie Mew, British Museum

Every six months, one corner of the Citi Money Gallery (Room 68) is changed to help tell the evolving story of money, its many forms and its meaning in the modern world. In December 2012, the opportunity arose to help curate the redisplay of this temporary exhibition panel.

Our guiding principles for the display were that we had to focus on new technologies and the changing ways in which people use their money, from online payments, to mobile phone use, and other digital technologies. The second criterion was that the case studies we used had to come from the African continent.

My colleagues and I decided to focus on the uses of mobile money and explore the wide range of experiences of mobile money systems.

I was due to carry out fieldwork in Sierra Leone for the Money in Africa research project, so I decided to investigate the uses of mobile money in the capital city, Freetown. I was conscious of the need to explain the concept of mobile money to visitors to the gallery as clearly and concisely as possible within a limited space, while leaving room for real life case studies. When I was considering which objects to source from Sierra Leone, I also faced the challenge of how to select visually inspiring objects to explain a topic that is, essentially, a virtual one.

Before I left for Sierra Leone, I researched mobile money companies that were operating in the country and contacted Splash and Airtel members of staff for interviews. When I got there, I questioned a wide range of people, including museum curators, shopkeepers, street hawkers and taxi drivers about their experiences with mobile money.

Mobile money advert in Sierra Leone

Mobile money advert in Sierra Leone

Having seen TV adverts, billboards posted around the city or heard about it on the radio, most people I spoke to were curious about the idea of making and receiving payments via their mobile phones but there was a general sense of confusion as to what mobile money actually was or how it could be used. This led to mistrust, which was confirmed during an interview I carried out with a Splash employee, who explained that security concerns were the most frequently asked questions. People wanted to know how safe their money was, whether they could contact the company if things went wrong, what would happen if their phone was stolen and, for some individuals in business, how they could ensure the privacy of their account.

For now, mobile phone companies in Sierra Leone are busy promoting themselves around the country. They put on road shows with PA systems where they distribute leaflets and t-shirts such as the one we decided to display in the gallery. Freelancers are employed by marketing teams to encourage potential agents to join their networks. They carry out media talk shows; visiting schools and offices to explain to people the advantages of using mobile money systems in a country where the infrastructure is limited, literacy levels are low and where banks are not widely used.

Current examples of where mobile money systems can be most useful included being able to transport the equivalent of large wads of notes that no one can physically see, paying school fees and topping up electricity meters without leaving your own home. The marketing of mobile money systems is not yet considered ‘aggressive’ – rather, there is a focus on education, on explaining to people how the transactions work so that they can feel confident enough to use it themselves.

Mobile money on display

Mobile money on display

The objects and images that my colleagues and I selected for the display panel have enabled us to visually explain Sierra Leone’s mobile money systems through, for example, local SIM cards, a mobile phone, coins and banknotes. Promotional material, including a t-shirt and accompanying photographs of Freetown help illustrate the ways in which mobile money companies are trying to introduce the concept to potential customers for the first time.

In a gallery that shows the many different kinds of objects used as currency over more than 4,000 years, mobile phones, digital technology and how they are coming into use make for fascinating additions. In some ways they are the latest in a very long line of technological innovations that mark the constantly evolving story of money.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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The Hockley Pendant: from an Essex field to the British Museum

The Hockley pendantNaomi Speakman and Lloyd de Beer,
curators, British Museum

A chance discovery in an Essex field by a four year-old boy has led to the latest addition to the British Museum’s medieval collection. Beautiful, both in its simplicity and elegance, the Hockley Pendant is a diamond-shaped reliquary dating from the beginning of the sixteenth century, and would have been worn by a wealthy individual as a discreet statement of piety.

The Hockley Pendant

The Hockley Pendant

As a result of the Treasure Act, and the reporting of finds through the Portable Antiquities Scheme, this is just one of many treasures acquired by museums across the country in the past year, so that such finds can be enjoyed by all.

The decoration on this piece reveals the dual nature of religious jewellery in the early sixteenth century, as a decoration and a holy amulet. The pendant is an excellent example of the intertwining of the secular and the religious in the Middle Ages. The front shows a sombre Saint Helena supporting the cross, while the back shows the Five Wounds of Christ, from his hands, feet and heart. Around the rim are inscribed the names of the Three Magi (or Wise Men): Casper, Melchior and Balthazar.

The pendant on its side, showing the inscription of the name Balthazar.

The pendant on its side, showing the inscription of the name Balthazar.

At just over three centimetres high, the pendant displays a stunning level of evocative detail. The cross shows flecked grains of wood and the Five Wounds of Christ weep blood shaped like tears, which rain down the pendant.

Originally the pendant would have looked slightly different, with the flowers, wounds and names of the Magi all filled with painted enamel. This interplay between gold and enamel was a particularly dramatic feature of late medieval metalwork, and gives us an indication of the high level of skill involved in creating such an intricate piece of jewellery.

The interior of the pendant is now empty, but it would once have held a relic, possibly of the True Cross, which was said to have been brought by St Helena to Constantinople from the Holy Land, and was thought to be the cross on which Christ was crucified.

This object allows us to better understand the enduring physical relationship between the living and the dead in the Middle Ages and the amazing depth and vibrancy of the material culture from this fascinating period in history.

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The Hockley Pendant is now on display in Room 40: Medieval Europe

The acquisition of the Hockley Pendant was made possible through the generosity of the British Museum Friends and the Art Fund

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Portable Antiquities and Treasure

Forgery, Suffragettes and Nirvana: tracking visitors in the Citi Money Gallery

Tracking visitor paths through the gallery

Benjamin Alsop, curator, British Museum

When a gallery is radically transformed how do you judge if it’s a success? Obviously you hope that visitor numbers increase, but numbers alone do not cast much light on the individual experiences of those walking around the gallery. You hope people stay longer, read more and become so interested they go away wanting to learn more. You also can’t help but wonder which cases and objects are the most popular.

In the case of the new Citi Money Gallery are people attracted for instance by an example of the world’s first coin? A beautiful hoard of Roman gold? A Hungarian banknote with the value of 100,000,000,000,000,000,000 pengo? Or simply some white frilly pants?

To help the Museum answer such questions, and to inform future projects, we evaluate all new galleries and refreshed displays. Using both visitor tracking and questionnaires we get a better understanding of not only what people may think of the new display but just as importantly how they navigate their way around it. Over the summer we welcomed into the Department of Coins and Medals Lujia Hui and Yoomin Ko, both postgraduate students from Leicester University’s Museum Studies course.

Lujia Hui tracking visitors in the Money Gallery.

Lujia Hui tracking visitors in the Money Gallery.

During the subsequent eight weeks they began the process of evaluation by tirelessly tracking visitors as they entered the Money gallery, marking which cases they looked at and for how long.

Tracking visitor paths through the gallery.

Tracking visitor paths through the gallery.

It is fascinating to see how people interact with the space and what route they take as they wend their way through 6,000 years of monetary history. Tracked visitors were asked to complete a questionnaire on leaving the gallery to give us a deeper understanding of their experiences.

It was a particularly interesting time to be conducting a gallery evaluation as with the arrival of both the Olympic and Paralympic games into London, the results do suggest a truly global audience. Over 25 different nationalities were recorded, speaking 19 different languages, and with ages ranging from 12 to 70.

The Forgery case in the Money Gallery.

The forgery case in the Money Gallery.

Preliminary results indicate the most popular cases are those entitled Forgery and Money and Society. Forgery contains two great swirls of coins and addresses counterfeiting, a practice which has accompanied the legitimate production of coinage since its very beginnings. Visitors appear to enjoy comparing the pound coins they have in their pockets to the fake ones on display, and have been so intrigued that the case has to be cleaned daily to remove all the fingerprints!

Suffragette-defaced penny. Crown copyright

Suffragette-defaced penny. Crown copyright

The case about Money and Society from the nineteenth century until today, includes a penny, defaced by suffragettes, which starred in the ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects’ BBC Radio 4 series. Also on display are examples of money in popular culture, such as the iconic cover of the Nirvana album Nevermind, which shows a baby swimming towards a US dollar note attached to a fishing line.

The new gallery is quite different to those around it, certainly in terms of colour scheme and in-case design. Each case has a raspberry-coloured highlight panel to grab the attention of the visitor and provide a clear starting point, and a big part of the evaluation was trying to discern whether these are effective. From what we can tell, the new design is very much a success: visitors are spending longer in the space, reading more and focussing on the highlight objects in particular.

Yoomin and Lujia, after collating all the results and pulling together data from both the tracking and questionnaires, produced a final report which will form a large part of their final submission for their course. The department is incredibly grateful for all their hard work.

The evaluation of the gallery doesn’t stop here though, we are already organising for further evaluations next year so watch this space.

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Money Gallery,

Introducing our new, fully-operational, beta collection search

‘Town and Country’ dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46Matthew Cock, Head of web, British Museum

'Town and Country' dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46

‘Town and Country’ dinnerware, designed by Eva Zeisel, 1945-46

In a recent post, I wrote about the launch of our new collection search beta. Well, we’ve now gone a bit further, and released an overhaul of the ‘advanced search’ functionality.

At heart, it works the same as before – users begin their search by selecting the ‘controlled terms’ that are used by our curators and cataloguers when creating the records, and retrieve all objects in the database that have been tagged with that term, or set of terms in combination. So, for example, you can find groups of objects for any combinations of terms – all the prints made in Japan between AD 1800 and 1835 perhaps, or all objects from London, Exeter and Glasgow made of bronze and so on.

Most of the lists of terms are also structured in hierarchies – for example, Paris is under France – so a search for objects from France retrieves all objects tagged with France, and any objects tagged with one of the many place names that are nested under France. In addition, we allow people to filter on the different ‘associations’ after they have made a search, for example, they can choose whether or not to include objects based on whether they are made by, attributed to, a depiction of, an artist.

In the current collection search interface (launched 2007), the user had to follow quite a process to build up their search terms and get to a page of results, and the interface wasn’t very intuitive. Only a small proportion of people used the advanced search, and most people we talked to said it wasn’t obvious how to use it.

There are two main changes that we have made to improve it. Firstly, we are using “auto-complete” – so that as you write the first few letters of your search term, a set of possible complete terms is shown based on the terms that we have in the database, along with some description so you can be sure it is the term you intended (for example, dates to help distinguish several artists with the same surname).

Secondly, we have kept the search criteria and the results showing on the same page. The user doesn’t have to travel back and forth between different pages to update their search.

We’re very aware that we have been looking at this for quite a while, and it is about time it was let loose and tested in the wild. We are really interested in any comments or questions that you have on how it works – whether you are a regular user, or using it for the first time. We hope to release this as the main interface to the collection database in the Spring.

Please add a comment below, or email us at web@britishmuseum.org and include COL Beta in the subject line.

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Filed under: At the Museum, Collection

Virtual autopsy: discover how the ancient Egyptian Gebelein Man died

Scan of Gebelein Man shown on an autopsy tableDaniel Antoine, Curator of Physical Anthropology,
British Museum

In recent months the naturally-preserved mummy known as Gebelein Man (on display in Room 64, the Early Egypt gallery at the British Museum) has been revealing some of his long-held secrets.

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

Gebelein Man, Predynastic period, around 3500 BC

He was buried in about 3500 BC (if not earlier) at the site of Gebelein in Upper Egypt. Direct contact with the hot, dry sand naturally mummified his body, making him one of the best-preserved individuals from ancient Egypt. He has been in the British Museum collection for over 100 years and in 2012 he was taken out of the Museum for the first time to be CT scanned.

On the morning of 1 September this year, Gebelein Man was carefully packed and taken to the Bupa Cromwell Hospital in London. The detailed images and 3D models created from the high resolution X-rays taken there have allowed us to look inside his body and learn more about his life and his death in ways never before possible. As far as I’m aware, this is the first time that a well-preserved Predynastic mummy has ever been CT scanned.

Not only have we been able to discover that Gebelein Man was young when he died (18-21 years) but, unexpectedly, we have also learned that he died because he was stabbed in the back. The analysis of ancient human remains rarely reveals the cause of death but the cut on his back, as well as the damage to the underlying shoulder blade and rib, are characteristic of a single, fatal, penetrating wound.

With the help of the Interactive Institute, a virtual autopsy table (a new state-of-the-art interactive exhibit based on medical visualisation technology) is on show in Room 64 for a limited time (16 November to 16 December 2012) and will let visitors explore this natural mummy for themselves, using the interactive touchscreen and the gesture-based interface. Information points at relevant locations guide visitors to the more significant discoveries we have made.

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Exploring the scans of Gebelein Man on the interactive screen

Come and explore Gebelein Man for yourself using the autopsy table and perhaps you will spot something we’ve missed.

Virtual autopsy: explore a natural mummy from early Egypt is on display in Room 64 until 3 March 2013
Tweet using #murder3500BC and @britishmuseum
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Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection, Egypt and Sudan, Research, , , ,

Pigment and power dressing in Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman EgyptElisabeth R. O’Connell, curator, British Museum

‘That’s one weird looking bird,’ grinned an American student on one of my tours of the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Department study collection for university students last year.

And to Egyptology students he is. And to students of Classical Archaeology too. But that’s rather the point. Roman Egypt (30 BC-AD 642) witnessed some of the most interesting, innovative and transformative combinations of traditions in the ancient world.

The god sits casually on his throne, one sandal-clad foot forward, his knees apart and draped in a garment. From the waist down, he could be any of a number of senior Olympian deities, or Roman emperors masquerading as such. He wears a feathered mail armour shirt that ends just above his elbows. His arms, now broken off, would have held symbols of power, perhaps an orb and sceptre. His cloak, pushed back over his shoulders, is fastened with a circular broach. From the waist up, his costume belongs to military deities and, especially, Roman emperors, who were also worshipped in temples dedicated to them throughout the empire. The head, however, places us firmly in an Egyptian context.

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

Limestone sculpture of Horus from Roman Egypt

It’s Horus, the sun god and divine representative of the living king in ancient Egyptian tradition. His head is that of a falcon, rendered in naturalistic style with the bird’s distinctive facial markings articulated by the carving and also traces of paint. His eyes, however, are strangely human; instead of being placed on the sides of the head, like any ‘real’ bird, they are frontal, and his incised pupils tilt his gaze upward. In an imaginative turn, the feathers of the falcon’s neck blend into the scales of the mail shirt. In the top of his head is a hole, into which a (probably metal) crown once fit.

Big Bird, as I think of him, has been off public display since 1996 when the gallery he was formerly displayed in was reconfigured to create the Great Court. Since I arrived at the Museum in 2007, he’s been the culmination of my tours for university students, giving us the opportunity to explore cultural identity through different kinds of objects from Roman Egypt. We look at magical papyri written in Egyptian and Greek, with some of the Egyptian words written in Old Coptic, that is, the Egyptian language written in Greek script. Why the glosses of Egyptian words in Greek script? Because in magical spells it was very important to say the words correctly or else the spell wouldn’t work. And Greek script, unlike Egyptian, represented the vowels ensuring that the words said aloud were accurately pronounced at a time when literacy in Egyptian scripts was on the wane. We also look at mummy portraits belonging firmly in the Roman tradition of individualised commemorative portraiture, but made for the specific purpose of placing over the face of a mummy, a feature that belongs unmistakably to Egyptian funerary practice. We see the same combination of traditions in this limestone sculpture of Horus and other contemporary depictions.

The opportunity to get the sculpture on public display arose last year when the Gayer-Anderson cat was scheduled to travel to Paris, then Shetland, for exhibition. Big Bird would get his very own case at the top of a ramp, amid other sculpture more readily identifiable as ‘Egyptian’ in the British Museum Egyptian Sculpture Gallery.

While preparing the display, we also had a chance to identify some of the pigments that are apparent to the naked eye: his yellow arms, black pupils and ‘eye-liner,’ garments in two different shades of green, and his red and black throne. Using an innovative imaging technique, we were also able to detect the pigment used for his armour, and it turned out to be one of the most valued pigments of the ancient world, Egyptian blue.

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

The image on the right was taken with an infrared camera. The bright white areas show where traces of ‘Egyptian blue’ pigment survive

Although no longer apparent to the naked eye, it shows up in visible-induced luminescence imaging by British Museum scientist, Joanne Dyer. In addition to the strange (to us) combination of Graeco-Roman-Egyptian elements, he would also have been rather garishly painted.

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

A colour reconstruction based on pigment analysis suggests how the statue originally may have looked

Horus – I should really stop thinking of him as Big Bird – will not go back into the study collection when the Gayer-Anderson cat returns, but instead join a touring exhibition on the Roman Empire which will give visitors to the exhibition in locations including Bristol, Norwich and Coventry, that is, in former Roman Britain, an opportunity to see a selection of objects from Antinoupolis and other cities from the former empire’s southern frontier, Roman Egypt.

For their collaboration and enthusiasm, I thank Joanne Dyer, Tracey Sweek, Michelle Hercules, Antony Simpson, Susan Holmes, Paul Goodhead, Robert Frith, Evan York, Emily Taylor and Kathleen Scott from the American Research Center in Egypt.

The sculpture of Horus will be on display until 10 December 2012, in Room 4

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