British Museum blog

You acted funny tryin’ to spend my money…Bowie on a banknote

Ben Alsop, curator, British Museum

If you were to walk down the high streets of a town or city in the UK you would most likely be struck by a sense of the familiar. You could move from shop front to shop front recognising typefaces, colours, window displays and smells as they are wafted out through peculiarly open doors (even in the depths of winter). Where once there was variety, now sit the well-known brands of mobile phone shop, fast-food restaurant, stationer, coffee shop and the smaller version of the bigger supermarket that sit on the edge of town. Success on the high street gives birth to repetition and replication.

The phenomenon of modern local currency is, however, attempting to rectify this by supporting small, independent businesses against large national and international companies. The first of a new wave of local currencies in Britain began in Totnes, Devon in 2007 with the issuing of 1,5,10 and 21 pound notes by Transition Towns Totnes, and has given rise to a further four schemes in Lewes, Stroud, Brixton and Bristol. These schemes allow for the exchanging of a local currency 1:1 with UK pound sterling which then can only be spent in participating, local, independent businesses. The hope is that this money will then be used by traders to purchase produce from local providers, ensuring the money continues to circulate in the community. The inspiration for this modern British take on localised monetary systems came from a number of progenitors that include the Berskshare in Massachusetts, USA and the Chiemgauer in Prien am Chiemsee in Bavaria, Germany. These systems have offered a blueprint for the UK and are part of an international family of local currencies from EarthDay Money in Japan to the Bangla Pesa in Mombasa, Kenya.

Oh you pretty things…

When it was decided to put together a display of UK local currencies in the Citi Money Gallery, the joy of collecting the various issues was in the variety and vibrancy of the designs. By their very nature Bank of England notes have to be conservative in appearance, adhering to our notion of what banknotes should look like. Local currencies have no such restrictions. This freedom means that while historical figures are depicted, such as the writer and Lewes resident Thomas Paine, it also allows for a fantastic array of contemporary designs.

David Bowie and Luol Deng on Brixton five and ten pound notes, as displayed in the Citi Money Gallery

David Bowie and Luol Deng on Brixton five and ten pound notes, 2nd edition, design by Charlie Waterhouse and Clive Russell, This Ain’t Rock’n’Roll, 2011. as displayed in the Citi Money Gallery

Five Bristol pound note showing ‘Graffiti Tiger’ by Alex Lucas

Five Bristol pound note showing ‘Graffiti Tiger’ by Alex Lucas

Local heroes David Bowie – shown in the iconic image from the cover of his 1973 album Aladdin Sane – and Luol Deng, professional basketball player for the GB national basketball team, are shown on the Brixton notes. Bristol artist Alex Lucas‘ tiger in a hoodie was one of the designs for the Bristol pound notes chosen from competition entries.

Local issues have also allowed for a redressing of gender disparities on UK paper money, with images of author Mary Wesley and secret agent Violette Szabo among others.

One Totnes pound note showing author Mary Wesley.

One Totnes pound note showing author Mary Wesley. Designed by Samskara Design

Changes…

To ensure that they are as simple as possible to use, UK local currencies are changing with the times and now offer ways to pay digitally, with SMS payment systems available in Brixton, Bristol and Totnes. There have even been forays into the world of cryptocurrencies (which I’ve written about in a previous post) with plans to create HullCoin garnering significant interest earlier this year.

These changes are central to their ability to grow and remain a viable part of the local economy but not all currencies have been a success. The Stroud pound is no longer issued (although there are hopes to reintroduce it) and there are questions as to how far these currencies have permeated different areas of society. Time will tell if the established local currencies continue to prosper and if proposed new local currencies in places such as Hackney and Oxford can continue this story.

Watch this Space (Oddity)…

The Money Gallery is supported by Citi

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Beyond propaganda? North Korea in the British Museum

Sascha Priewe, curator, The British Museum

When the embassy of the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK) opened its doors for an art exhibition in November, here at the British Museum we were busy preparing the Korea Foundation Gallery for its re-display, which opens today. Given the curiosity about the mysterious state and the artists working there, it seemed timely to write about the British Museum’s collection of art from North Korea.

Silver coin commemorating the meeting of the leaders of South and North Korea in 2000, Pyongyang, DPRK, 2000. In June 2000 South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009) met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) in the first Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang. As one result, working level talks continued between the governments and tourist visits to the Diamond Mountains for South Koreans became possible. (British Museum OR.9666)

Silver coin commemorating the meeting of the leaders of South and North Korea in 2000, Pyongyang, DPRK, 2000 (British Museum OR.9666)

In June 2000 South Korean president Kim Dae-jung (1924-2009) met North Korean leader Kim Jong-il (1941-2011) in the first Inter-Korean Summit in Pyongyang, the DPRK capital. It was the time of ‘sunshine’ relations between the north and the south. Although north-south relations have iced over in recent years, this brief period allowed the world a glimpse into one of the planet’s most inaccessible societies.

In 2001 and 2002 colleagues from the British Museum and the British Library visited the DPRK. Jane Portal, then the curator of the Korean collections (and now the BM’s Keeper of Asia) built of one of the largest collections of DPRK works of art in a Western museum. On her first trip Portal collected woodblock prints, ink paintings, oil paintings, posters, calligraphy, ceramics, lacquer and commemorative coins. On her second visit she collected mostly prints and posters. Thanks to this initiative the British Museum now has about 80 objects from the DPRK.

The Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930), Oil on canvas. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, about 1990-99 (British Museum 2001,0607,0.6)

The Steelworker, Song Chan-yong (b. 1930), Oil on canvas. Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, about 1990-99 (British Museum 2001,0607,0.6)

The DPRK’s regime leaves artists few of the freedoms that artists in other parts of the world take for granted. Art from the DPRK is usually seen as a state-controlled propaganda tool. Often there has been little room to appreciate the works as works of art. But once we understand the context and constraints in which art is produced, we have the opportunity to think about their qualities as works of art. One example is The Steelworker, an oil painting by Song Chan-yong (b. 1930). The portrayal of a worker is naturally in tune with the tenets of a socialist country, however, with Song’s own words we can add a layer of appreciation to the work:

I have dedicated all my artistic life to drawing the subject of the working classes. The base of our society is the working class so I should draw them. I always like to place my easel in a glaring blast furnace not in a splendid studio. Then it seems to be more realistic. I intended to be an artist of the workers in the world of workers.

This and other works in the collection permit glimpses into an isolated world, which for most of us seems like a different universe.

Celadon-glazed porcelain with inlaid decoration. From Pyongyang, DPRK, c. 2002. (British Museum 2002,0930.1)

Celadon-glazed porcelain with inlaid decoration. From Pyongyang, DPRK, c. 2002. (British Museum 2002,0930.1)

When I visited the Pyongyang and other parts of the DPRK as a tourist in 2005, I felt as if I was stepping into the photographs, footage and stories of 1970s China. The place felt otherworldly, but realising that this physical manifestation is a reality for millions of people held me firmly on the ground. But it is within this context that great works of art are being created. There is politics behind some art, but there is also art behind some politics.

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Facelift: the new Korea Foundation Gallery

Sascha Priewe, curator, and Ellie Miles, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

The Museum is re-opening its refreshed Korea Foundation Gallery (Room 67) thanks to a generous grant from the National Museum of Korea. The project gave us the chance to re-think how we talk about and display things from the Korean peninsula. We took into account the collection’s profile, and how our visitors actually use our permanent gallery spaces. Most visitors make their own paths around the gallery, so we took down walls and moved cases to open up the space for them to browse and make different connections between objects. Bringing in colourful case designs and a new lighting design, we hope that the new gallery will give the objects a stronger visual impact, and encourage closer looking than before.

Samramansang Moon Jar #1 by Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960)

Samramansang Moon Jar #1 by Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960), USA, 2010–13, mixed media on wood (British Museum 2014,3046.1)

The collection tells an on-going story of Korean visual and material culture that continues to today. To start this new look at the Korean peninsula’s enduring history, we chose contemporary art with a historical focus. Kang Ik-joong (b. 1960) is an artist whose paintings of moon jars from the Joseon period (1392–1910) are particularly well known. His spectacular Samramansang Moon Jar #1 will welcome visitors into the gallery.

One of the parts of the new gallery that we are most excited about is the cases that we have reserved for changing displays. These will allow the gallery to be responsive to the events programme, new acquisitions and visitor interest. When the gallery opens on 16 December the first of these cases will show the work of Nam June Paik (1932–2006),the Korean pioneer of video art. The display of his works is in step with other interest in him, such as Tate Modern’s current exhibition. The other changing cases will allow us to make links with other collections within the Museum, too, and with the Museum’s exhibition programme.

Korean and Chinese objects displayed in Eumorfopoulos’ home, 7 Chelsea Embankment, London, 1934

Korean and Chinese objects displayed in Eumorfopoulos’ home, originally published in George Eumorfopoulos, G.E. 7, Chelsea Embankment, December 1934 (1934).

As we’ve been thinking about the re-display, the first ‘mini-exhibition’ will look at the history of the Korean collection at the British Museum, and how the earliest Western collectors of Korean art might have seen Korea. The beginnings of the Korean collections and the collecting of Korean objects began in the 19th century through the likes of the diplomat Thomas Watters (1840-1901), William Gowland (18427–1922), who worked for the Japanese mint, and George Eumorfopoulos (1863–1939), an ‘Oriental’ art collector in London, each representing different types of collectors. Between the three of them they amassed important collections but each with a very different texture.

East Gate – Seoul by Elizabeth Keith (1887–1956), Britain, about 1924, colour woodcut, donated by the Contemporary Art Society, P&D 1928,0310.40

East Gate – Seoul, colour woodcut by Elizabeth Keith (1887–1956), Britain, c. 1924, (British Museum PD 1928,0310.40)

Another lens through which Korea was seen was through photography and paintings. The display will show books featuring images of Korea published by the collectors’ contemporaries. Depictions of trades, pastimes, boats, architecture, costumes and natural history and so forth provided a lens through which Asia was perceived. And we will also show prints by Europeans and Americans that they made based on their impressions of Korea.

The gallery refreshment has given us the chance to look into the collection from different angles, to explore its strengths and its weaknesses. We have made some new discoveries and reconnected with objects that have been ‘old friends’. But our main task has been to improve the gallery to serve the visitors much more consciously by telling exciting stories and making connections with a part of the world, its past and present, that is still largely unknown.

The Korea Foundation Gallery</a re-opens on 17 December 2014, admission free.
View on the floorplan

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What colour were Dorothy’s shoes? The Wonderful Wizard of Oz as monetary allegory

Mieka Harris Education Manager: Citi Money Gallery, British Museum

A classic children’s story? A fairytale? Or an interpretation on the international exchange rate system? In my role as Education Manager for the Citi Money Gallery I teamed up with students from the Children’s Hospital School at Great Ormond Street Hospital to explore concepts raised in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the Citi Money Gallery.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in the Citi Money Gallery.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Wizard of Oz film (MGM, 1939) and the creation of those iconic shoes, worn by Judy Garland as Dorothy. But what colour were Dorothy’s shoes originally? In L Frank Baum’s book, originally published in 1900, they were not ruby red, but silver. Therefore some economists, politicians and historians believe that the story is actually a monetary allegory, outlining a proposed move from the gold standard to a bimetallic standard known as the ‘Free Silver Movement’ led by William Jennings Bryan in the US in 1896. For this reason, a copy of the book has a place in the Citi Money Gallery, alongside other objects and artefacts that depict the history of money.

Fixing the dollar against gold, creating a ‘universal’ currency, initially had a positive effect on economies; a lack of fluctuating currencies reduced profit risks and so increased trade. However, the Malthusian trap becomes apparent with any natural reserve, with the mining rate unable to match the growth in trade. At the time, America was in a period of depression and the populist belief suggested that a bimetallic standard would enable the money stock to be increased. So, Dorothy’s silver shoes walking on a gold road could represent the two metals working together to provide a route towards a stable economy.

Like with many things, as soon as something is pointed out, other potential double meanings become apparent. Is the land called ‘Oz’ because this is an abbreviation of ounces, the standard measure for gold? Did farmers (the Scarecrow) need more business sense (a brain) to help them survive during a period of economic instability? Is the all-powerful Wizard really the President, who hides behind a smoke-screen of promises but in fact has very little actual power? Do the different locations of the four witches represent the geographical divides in America? Did advances in industry create automated production lines which reduced the workforce (or created workers with no heart)? The students at the Children’s Hospital School set out to examine some of these concepts, and others.

Object handling.

Object handling.

Students shared their perceptions of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, identifying key elements in the story. To put the book into context as a potential monetary allegory, students explored the history of money and some key economic concepts by handling objects from the Museum’s collection. A week of activities then followed, based on themes in the book and ideas generated by the students.

Making Dorothy's shoes.

Making Dorothy’s shoes.

In maths, students considered Dorothy’s shoes and the fact that they fit her and so they investigated what information can be gleaned about a person by knowing their shoe size. The shoe theme was carried into art, with students creating shoes using a variety of media.

Science lessons saw students investigating the melting power of water; with jellies being created in the shape of witches! The concept of the tin man having a heart was also explored, considering that if he had a heart, what other organs would he need and where would they all be placed.

Descriptive language used in the book and a character analysis of the Good Witch of the North and the Wicked Witch of the West were analysed during English, resulting in students creating job descriptions or personal statements applying these roles. Ben Alsop, curator of the Citi Money Gallery, supported this session and applied for the role of the Good Witch of the North, but unfortunately was deemed an unsuccessful applicant by the students based on his responses to the questions!

Working on the citizenship activity.

Working on the citizenship activity.

The values identified for these roles were further discussed in Citizenship. Money does not exist in Oz, so the children discussed this as well, creating a currency for Oz using ideas from the earlier session on the history of money.

The variety of activities and resources available to the students, combined with the commitment of the teachers at the Children’s Hospital School, made for a very enjoyable week. Learning was put into a different context, perceptions were challenged and concepts were investigated. Whether the story is a monetary allegory remained unresolved by the students, but the skills to question what we see and read were developed. Did the water have to be a certain temperature to melt the Wicked Witch? Can shoes change sizes? Could a heart function on its own without other organs? All very good questions, but the ultimate question in taking a view as to whether The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is a children’s story or a monetary allegory surely has to be, ‘What colour were Dorothy’s shoes?’.

The work produced by the students at The Children’s Hospital School will be on display in the Clore Centre for Education in the British Museum from 11 December 2014 until 22 January 2015.

The Citi Money Gallery (Room 68) is on the Upper floor, admission free.

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The Meroë Head of Augustus: statue decapitation as political propaganda

David Francis, Interpretation Officer, British Museum

In his Twelve Caesars, the Roman historian Suetonius describes how the emperor Augustus’ eyes ‘shone with a sort of divine radiance’ and that it gave him profound pleasure ‘if anyone at whom he glanced keenly dropped his head as though dazzled by looking into the sun.’

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head, the only bronze portrait of Augustus to have survived with its original inlaid eyes, perfectly captures the enigmatic gaze of the Roman emperor. Depending on how the light falls, the expression of the head can vary from haughty disdain to melancholic introspection. The whites of the eyes are further emphasised by the dark green sheen of the emperor’s skin and hair. This is a result of the oxidation process that has covered the original bronze surface with a deep marine green patina. This otherworldly quality is fitting for a man who was deified as a god upon his death.

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head. Roman, 27–25 BC (British Museum 1911,0901.1)

The Meroë Head is one of the great treasures of the British Museum, selected as one of the objects featured in the the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 series A History of the World in 100 objects in 2010. However, it was but one of many portraits of Augustus, which were mechanically copied and sent to the far-flung corners of the Roman Empire as a form of imperial propaganda. Today, very few bronze statues from the Roman world survive; most were melted down due to the value of their metal. The story behind how the Meroë Head avoided such a fate is a fascinating one and told in the new display in Room 3, The Meroë Head: Africa defies Rome.

One of the first photographs of the Meroë Head taken in the field, December 1910. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

One of the first photographs of the Meroë Head taken in the field, December 1910. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

The head was first unearthed in December 1910, during an excavation led by Professor John Garstang (1876–1956) of Liverpool University, on the site of the ancient city of Meroë in what is now modern-day Sudan. Meroë was the capital of Kush, a powerful African kingdom that from 1070 BC onwards rivalled Egypt for control of the region. Like their neighbours they built vast pyramid complexes, which can still be visited today. What made this find so unexpected was that Meroë was located close to the sixth cataract of the Nile, hundreds of miles from the Roman border in Egypt. What could the head of a Roman emperor be doing here?

Clues lie in the writings of the Greek historian Strabo who reported that in AD 25, a Meroïte army led by King Teriteqas and the one-eyed queen Amanirenas attacked the Roman garrisons at Syene, Elephantina and Philae, ‘enslaved the inhabitants’ and ‘threw down the statues of Caesar’. Caesar here refers to the Roman title for emperor and it was thought that the Meroë Head may have once belonged to one of the statues plundered during these raids, before it was decapitated.

Remains of the building where the Meroë Head was discovered at the beginning of the 1910 season. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

Remains of the building where the Meroë Head was discovered at the beginning of the 1910 season. © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool

Lord Kitchener (1850–1916) and other British officials visit the site during the excavation (Kitchener is second from left, Professor John Garstang on the far right). © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool.

Lord Kitchener (1850–1916) and other British officials visit the site during the excavation (Kitchener is second from left, Professor John Garstang on the far right). © The Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool.

Garstang and his fellow archaeologists found the head buried in the doorway to a building, which was located outside of the main city. The building was decorated with frescoes showing the king and queen enthroned, while a line of bound, kneeling slaves are presented to them. Some of these slaves have the distinctive helmets and tunics of Roman soldiers. It was therefore thought that the building may have been a victory monument, or a temple. In burying the head, the Meroïtes ensured that everyone who entered the building would trample this image of the emperor Augustus beneath their feet, thereby ritually perpetuating the Meroïte victory over the Romans. Ironically, it was this act of desecration that ultimately preserved Augustus’ portrait for future generations to appreciate.

Although we might regard such acts of iconoclasm as the preserve of the ancient world, in fact the decapitation of statues has occurred with surprising regularity over the past 30 years. Targets range from the London Guildhall’s marble Margaret Thatcher, decapitated using a metal rope by protestor Paul Kelleher in 2002, to a statue of Lillestrøm SK football club’s star striker Tom Lund, whose bronze head was stolen by rival fans in 2013. The beheading of statues even features as a plot line in The Simpsons The Telltale Head ((season 1 episode 8, first aired in February 1990), in which Bart chops off the head of the statue of Jebediah Springfield, the eponymous founder of the Simpsons’ home town.

Contemporary acts of statue decapitation have the advantage over the Meroïtes in having mass media to spread their message. In April 2003, the toppling of a statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square in Baghdad became one of the defining symbols of the Iraq War. Initially, a former Iraqi champion power-lifter attacked the huge statue with a sledgehammer, but was only able to break off a few chunks of concrete. American troops then intervened, toppling the statue with the aid of rope and a tank. Once on the ground the head of Saddam was beaten with shoes and eventually wrenched from the statue’s body. The toppling was presented as a spontaneous event symbolising the fall of Saddam’s regime by the newly liberated Iraqis. However, it was in fact carefully planned by the US military and broadcast on news bulletins worldwide.

The demolition of the Firdos statue by American troops may itself be a symbolic act of revenge, for the regime’s placement of a portrait of US President George W. Bush on the floor of the Al-Rashid hotel in Baghdad. All visitors to the hotel, particularly Western politicians and businessmen who used to stay there, were forced ritually to trample the face of the leader of the biggest power in the West – just as the Meroïtes did with the face of Augustus outside their victory shrine 2,000 years earlier. Unlike the Meroë Head or the head of Jebediah Springfield, however, the Firdos Head of Saddam has not yet resurfaced. But who knows, perhaps it lies hidden somewhere, waiting to be rediscovered and become a museum piece in the future.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays The Meroë Head of Augustus: Africa defies Rome is in Room 3 from 11 December 2014 to 15 February 2015, admission free.
 

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Loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the Hermitage: a marble ambassador of a European ideal

Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

The British Museum is a museum of the world, for the world and nothing demonstrates this more than the loan of a Parthenon sculpture to the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg to celebrate its 250th anniversary.

The river-god Ilissos. Marble statue from the West pediment of the Parthenon.

The river-god Ilissos. Marble statue from the West pediment of the Parthenon, Athens, Greece, 438–432 BC (British Museum 1816,0610.99)

The British Museum opened its doors in 1759, just five years before the Hermitage. Sisters, almost twins, they are the first great museums of the European Enlightenment. But they were never just about Europe. The Trustees of the British Museum were set up by Parliament to hold their collection to benefit not only the citizens of Great Britain, but ‘all studious and curious persons’ everywhere. The Museum today is the most generous lender in the world, sending great Assyrian objects to China, Egyptian objects to India and Iranian objects to the United States – making a reality of the Enlightenment ideal that the greatest things in the world should be seen and studied, shared and enjoyed by as many people in as many countries as possible.

The Trustees have always believed that such loans must continue between museums in spite of political disagreements between governments. That is why in 2011 they lent the Cyrus Cylinder, the document setting out the humane ideals of the ancient Persian Empire, to Tehran. It is a position energetically shared by our counterparts in Russia. Last year, the Hermitage lent the spectacular collection of paintings, formed by Sir Robert Walpole and sold to Catherine the Great, back to his country house, Houghton Hall, for the summer. Loans from Russian museums enriched the recent exhibition Ice Age art: arrival of the modern mind and the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend both at the British Museum, and Malevich at Tate Modern earlier this year was an outstanding act of Russian generosity, enjoyed by thousands of visitors. Both Tate and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts are in return lending works to the exhibition Francis Bacon and the Art of the Past which opens at the Hermitage this weekend.

So, when our colleagues at the Hermitage asked if we might also make an important loan to celebrate their 250th anniversary, the Trustees immediately answered yes. And no loan could more fittingly mark the long friendship of our two houses, or the period of their founding, than a sculpture from the Parthenon.

Sculptures from the West pediment on display in the Parthenon Galleries (Room 18)

Sculptures from the West pediment on display in Room 18

The great leader of Athens, and the visionary spokesman for its exemplary status for all humanity, was Pericles. In 431 BC, in his famous funeral oration for the heroic Athenian dead, he proclaimed the world-wide renown to which destiny had summoned both them, and their city:

For glorious men like them, the whole earth is their sepulchre. And their memorial is carved not only on a headstone by their home, but far away in foreign lands, unwritten, in the minds of every man…

Marble portrait bust of Pericles. Roman copy of a Greek original (British Museum GR 1805.0703.91)

Marble portrait bust of Pericles. Roman copy of a Greek original (British Museum GR 1805.0703.91)

Two and a half thousand years later, I hope that Pericles would applaud the journey of Ilissos to Russia, where ‘far away in foreign lands’, this stone ambassador of the Greek golden age and European ideals will write ancient Athens’s achievements – aesthetic, moral and political – in ‘the minds of every man’. It is a message that Russia, and the whole world, need to hear and I am delighted that the British Museum has been able to lend such a remarkable object.

This post is based on the text of an article by Neil MacGregor for The Times, 5 December 2014.

Press release – British Museum loan of Parthenon Sculpture to State Hermitage Museum

The river-god Ilissos from the West pediment of the Parthenon is on display at the State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg, from Saturday 6 December 2014 until 18 January 2015.

More about the Parthenon sculptures on the British Museum website

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Changing faces: revealing ancient alterations in Saharan rock art

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Jorge De Torres, Cataloguer, African rock art image project

The Ennedi Plateau cliffs

The Ennedi Plateau cliffs, Chad

Fifteen years ago, I started my training as an archaeologist participating in a rock art survey in Extremadura, Spain. For a month I climbed cliffs and endured summer temperatures of 45ºC, looking for the flat rock faces where the schematic rock art we were looking for might be. One of those exhausting days, I crawled under a shelter during a break to escape the scorching sun. It was so small that you could only lie down and it had no space to turn sideways or sit. I rested for a while enjoying the shade, and then I saw them: four vertical, red lines painted on the inner part of the roof, clearly the imprints of four human fingers, made by someone who was once in my exact position, in a place where nobody but he (or she) – and thousands of years later, me – could contemplate them.

I’ve seen quite a lot of rock art since that summer morning, but I’ve always recalled that painting as one of the most important archaeological remains I’ve ever come across. Not because of its complexity, of course, but because of the exceptional possibility of recording and understanding the concrete action of an individual who existed thousands of years ago. Archaeologists like me are used to focussing on tendencies (chronologies, styles, geographical distributions) rather than individual human actions, which are usually very difficult to detect. However, while cataloguing the incredible collection of the African rock art image project, I found two such cases – both attempts to amend a picture once it was painted.

Figure 2 Detail of the engraved women at Niola Doa

Detail of the engraved women at Niola Doa, Chad

The depictions are found in the Ennedi Plateau in the north-eastern corner of Chad, a mountainous region on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert, full of huge outcrops and boulders, many of them covered with engravings and paintings dated from 5000 BC onwards. Although rock art in the Ennedi Plateau has a great variety of styles and depictions, probably the best known images in the area are the Niola Doa engravings: several groups of large figures (probably women), richly decorated, with one arm stretched downwards and the other bent upwards, usually resting sticks on their shoulders.

While describing these images, one caught my attention: an elegant, richly decorated woman, painted in red and white. There are several white lines around the neck, representing necklaces, and several more around the waist and hips, including series of white dots – possibly objects sewn onto a belt or directly to the skirt, reminiscent of the coin and shell belts often worn by dancers in the Middle East.

The painted woman from Niola Doa, before and after digital enhancement, showing the repainted arm position.

The painted woman from Niola Doa, before and after digital enhancement, showing the repainted arm position. Click on the image to see a larger version of the original.

Detail of the corrected arm from the painted woman

Detail of the arm from the painted woman, after colour enhancement.

There was something strange about the figure’s left arm: a red band under the left elbow, undoubtedly something painted, but a bit out of place. Using colour enhancement tools, such as those described by Elizabeth Galvin in a previous post, the result was astonishing. The enhanced photograph shows how the lower stain is in fact an arm that was painted stretching downwards, later corrected and repainted to bend upwards. The earlier arm is faint, but the enhanced colour shows how the tonality of both paintings is the same, implying that the same painter corrected the figure. Why was the image changed? We can only guess, but the final outline of the woman resembles the engraved figures of previous periods, so perhaps the painter was trying to emulate the impressive engravings that still give the place its name today (Niola Doa means ‘the dancing maidens’ in the local language).

The Archei Geulta (water pocket), Chad

The Archei Geulta, Chad

The second example comes from a very special place known as the Archei Guelta. A ‘guelta’ is a pocket of water in the desert (sometimes an oasis, but not always) that provides vital water to both people and animals. The Archei Guelta is one of the most important places in the region, with water available all year round, and home to one of the last remaining colonies of crocodiles in the desert. Like many other areas of the Ennedi Plateau, the whole area is full of paintings and engravings of many different periods and styles.

Painted panel of riders in ‘flying gallop’ style, before and after digital enhancement. The horse at the top is superimposed on an earlier painting of a man. See a larger version of the original image.

Painted panel of riders in ‘flying gallop’ style, before and after digital enhancement. Click on the image to see a larger version of the original.

One of these paintings is an extremely faint group of riders on horses, depicted in a very specific style of the Ennedi Plateau known as the ‘flying gallop’. Being so faint, the images were difficult to describe, and therefore I again had to use colour enhancement to identify them. By inverting the colours, I was able to see the riders and some previously undetected cows , but it also led me to an unexpected discovery: one of the riders was in fact a man on foot, with a horse superimposed. The paint of the man was much more degraded than that of the horse, implying that he was painted in an earlier period, perhaps prior to the introduction of horses to the desert. As in the first case, we can only speculate as to why the painters of the horses decided to amend the figure, but perhaps it was a way of incorporating older figures into the new scenes, adding as prestigious an animal as a horse. Perhaps they simply felt sorry for the lonely man walking among fast, powerful riders.

Detail of walking man superimposed by horse

Detail of the enhanced image showing a galloping horse painted over a standing man.

These two examples remind us that behind the broad categories into which we organize rock art were individuals who used these wonderful paintings and engravings as a way of sharing their own perspectives and interpretations of reality. The reinterpretation of older images raises interesting questions about how these populations interacted with their own past, integrating it within their narratives. And although the ultimate meaning of these changes can be difficult to comprehend, they nonetheless help us feel nearer to the people who made these images so many thousands of years ago.

This post is part of the African rock art image project at the British Museum, generously supported by the Arcadia Fund.

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

The Haig-Thomas collection: two stories from the Arctic

Jack Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Museum

A collection has recently been donated to the British Museum that throws light on two remarkable stories: how the Kalaallit people of Northwestern Greenland responded to Danish influence on their society during the early decades of the 20th century, and how one Englishman took it upon himself to explore their world.

David Haig-Thomas, 1932

David Haig-Thomas, 1932

The Englishman was David Haig-Thomas, educated at Eton and Cambridge, who while returning by boxcar from a fourth-placed rowing eight at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics stumbled across an old school friend named Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger had soon persuaded Haig-Thomas to accompany him in a journey across the Ethiopian desert. A week into the expedition the pair had bitterly separated, Haig-Thomas left with serious injuries, a hefty bill and the sincere desire to travel as far as possible from the heat of Africa.

He swiftly enlisted as resident ornithologist on the Oxford University Ellesmere Land Expedition of 1934, organised by Edward Shackleton. The expedition ventured far into the Arctic, Haig-Thomas spending extended periods with the Kalaallit people of West Greenland, learning the Kalaallisut language. On his return to Britain he immediately began organising his own return expedition, raising commercial sponsorship for a party of geographers to map the far northern reaches of the Arctic Archipelago. His own role was to search for the skeleton of a large dinosaur rumoured to be somewhere in the region.

Haig-Thomas never found his skeleton, but he did spend many months exploring the frozen channels and islands of the far north, living off seal, walrus and bear meat and discovering a previously uncharted land which he named Haig-Thomas Island. During this time he was accompanied by his Kalaallit friend and guide, Ootah, who shared the long dog-sled journey with cheerful good-humour, even during the long periods when there was no food to be found. Haig-Thomas also became well acquainted with Ootah’s family and made many friends in the region, most especially among the local children.

Haig-Thomas returned to Britain in the spring of 1939, following the German annexation of Czechoslovakia. In his account of the expedition he wryly noted on the impending war that ‘whatever happened I had had a wonderful fifteen months in the Arctic, even if, in a few weeks’ time, I was riddled with machine-gun bullets.’ He joined the army, serving with No.14 Commando, a unit made up of polar specialists for service in Northern Norway. He was never deployed in the Arctic, instead accompanying the airborne assault on Normandy on 6 July 1944, armed with an oosik, an Inuit club made from a walrus’ penis bone. He was killed in action on the morning of D-Day in combat with German forces near the village of Bavent.

Shortly after his return to Britain in 1939, Haig-Thomas donated to the British Museum a small collection of archaeological finds discovered by workmen under an ancient house near Thule, North Greenland. It consists of fragments of bone and ivory tools, including the remains of a pair of bone snow-spectacles, dating to approximately 1200 CE. He left the remainder of the souvenirs from his trip at his family home in Essex, where it remained until this year, when his son Anthony generously donated it to the Museum.

Walrus ivory cribbage board (2014,2004.62)

Walrus ivory cribbage board (2014,2004.62)

This collection not only enables us to tell his father’s remarkable story, it also allows for an examination of the Kalaallit people during a time of great turmoil. There are 70 items in the collection, which can be broadly divided into three groups. The first consists of souvenirs: Danish travellers, missionaries and traders were not uncommon among the Inuit communities of West Greenland, and a thriving trade in souvenirs had sprung up. The collection includes an ivory letter-opener, several ivory snow-knives and a cribbage board carved from a walrus tusk. At the time, items of this kind were decried because, in the words of Danish archaeologist Morton Porsild, they would ‘find their way to museums, just where they ought not to be, as generally, with a few exceptions, they are devoid of all scientific value’, but in truth these souvenirs provide remarkably clear insight into the economic, stylistic and commercial preoccupations of the Kalaallit during this period.

Ulu knife (2014,2004.10)

Ulu knife (2014,2004.10)

Sometimes they demonstrate this directly. Among the collection is an incised walrus tusk featuring scenes of Inuit hunters and fishermen using combinations of traditional and modern equipment. This is the second grouping, consisting of traditional tools often utilising European technology in their manufacture: a wooden awl with an iron nail for a point, brown thread used to stitch bone tools together and ulu knives cut from steel saws. The Kalaallit were and remain an ingenious and adaptable people capable of utilising all available resources in their daily lives and this collection amply demonstrates this important facet of their society.

Miniature ivory sled (2014,2004.12)

Miniature ivory sled (2014,2004.12)

The third group directly reflects Haig-Thomas’ close friendship with the Kalaallit boys he lived alongside. Among the Inuit peoples, once a child could walk and talk they were considered a full member of the community, and children would be expected to participate in family activities. Boys would be given small bows and harpoons, items we might consider toys but which to them were of vital educational value. Mock hunts would teach boys the skills required to procure the food necessary to keep the family alive during the long cold winters, while their sisters would be given utensils for cooking and making clothing, learning alongside their mothers in the home. The Haig-Thomas collection includes numerous such small weapons and equipment, obtained from his friends during his long months of residency with the Kalaallit.

With his generous donation, Anthony Haig-Thomas has enabled the British Museum to tell two intertwined stories of Arctic exploration: that of his father and that of the resourceful, hardy and intelligent friends that he made.

For further reading, see Haig-Thomas’ books, I Leap Before I Look and Tracks in the Snow, available at the British Museum’s Anthropology Library and Research Centre.
 
The objects that form the Haig-Thomas collection can be studied through the Collection online
.

Filed under: Collection, , , , , ,

Exploring objects and sharing cultures: supplementary schools and the British Museum

Emma Taylor, Supplementary Schools Programme Coordinator, British Museum

There are approximately 5,000 supplementary schools in the UK. They usually cater for minority ethnic communities and aim to raise the attainment of children and young people by providing learning opportunities in core curriculum subjects such as Maths, English and Science, and often also provide mother-tongue and cultural teaching. On 8–9 November the Museum’s Community Partnerships Team ran a supplementary schools and families activity weekend which saw 500 supplementary school students, teachers and their families attend, taking part in a range of fun, interactive activities and visiting the Museum’s galleries.

Our supplementary schools programme began in 2012 and since then we have organised six activity weekends which support community schools and their wider communities to access the Museum’s collection, but this was the first time that the entire programme of activities has been created by young people. The journey began in May when we invited supplementary schools to enter a competition to create an artistic project based on their favourite objects in the Museum. Three supplementary schools were chosen to take part, each partnered with an artist who worked with them over a series of three workshops to create a performance or installation to be showcased at the Museum during the activity weekend.

Students from EC Lighthouse researching the objects in the Roman Empire gallery. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Students from EC Lighthouse researching the objects in the Roman Empire gallery. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Students from EC Lighhouse performing ’Reawakening Rome’ at the Museum. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Students from EC Lighhouse performing ‘Reawakening Rome’ at the Museum. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Students from EC Lighthouse, a Lithuanian supplementary school in Tower Hamlets, took part in a dance project supported b Katie Green. Responding to objects in the Wolfson Gallery: Roman Empire (Room 70), they created a performance piece examining the interconnected stories of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra and Mark Antony. With an emphasis on bringing museum objects to life through movement, the dancers began by exploring how people represented themselves in the Roman era, reawakening the statues and busts in the gallery. They then went on to work with a broad range of themes including loyalty, power, competition and conflict to create their final piece which was performed at the Museum.

Students from IYDA  learning different artistic techniques. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Students from IYDA learning different artistic techniques. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Young people from IYDA next to their art installation ’Reimagining the Palace of Persepolis’ in the Great Court. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Young people from IYDA next to their art installation ’Reimagining the Palace of Persepolis’ in the Great Court. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Students from IYDA, a youth group for children and young people in the Farsi speaking communities (predominantly Iranian and Afghan), took part in a creative arts project inspired by the stone reliefs from the palace of Persepolis, displayed in the Rahim Irvani Gallery: Ancient Iran (Room 52). Based on their visit to the gallery, the young people were asked to imagine that they were a ruler, like King Darius I, who had commissioned a new palace. They were asked to think about what murals and scenes they would include, showing the type of ruler they would be. Supported by artist Stephanie Hartman, they experimented with different art techniques and created palace tiles and a garden mural for an installation that was displayed in the Great Court.

Students visiting the nef; gaining inspiration for their storytelling soundscape

Children from the Czech School without Borders visiting the nef; gaining inspiration for their storytelling soundscape

Children from the Czech School without Borders taking visitors up to the Clocks and Watches gallery with their nef. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Children from the Czech School without Borders taking visitors up to the Clocks and Watches gallery with their nef. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Finally 12 children aged 4-6 from the Czech School without Borders, London took part in a storytelling project with author and playwright Sam Gayton, based on the mechanical nef, an automated clock in the form of a ship, displayed in the Clocks and Watches gallery. When the children visited the nef, they were mesmerised by how it was used to signal the beginning of a banquet by playing music, gliding along the table and firing its cannons, although some weren’t so sure they would like it on their table at home!

As the nef is currently part of the exhibition Germany: memories of a nation they used the case where it normally lives in the Sir Harry and Lady Djanogly Gallery: Clocks (Room 39) to inspire songs, poems and stories about the object’s imaginary journey across the Museum and beyond. Here are the lyrics to the song they wrote:

I’m a mechanical golden ship
In the British Museum I sit
But nobody’s wound me up for a bit
I’m feeling sad and lonely!

I just sit behind this glass
Watching all the people pass
I better get me outta here fast!
I want someone to play with me…
I’m feeling sad and CRYING!

All of these responses were made into a storytelling soundscape which was played during the activity weekend in the Ford Centre. At the end of each soundscape performance the children invited guests to join them and visit Room 39 with the help of their own nef.

‘Enjoyable, educational, arty, interesting and just fun’ was how one student described the Museum having taken part in the project, but I would also use these words to describe the atmosphere during the weekend. The young people all took such pride in the work that they’d produced, which really added to the communal, feel-good atmosphere of the weekend.

There is a natural affinity between supplementary schools, which cater for diverse communities, and the British Museum’s collection, which spans the history of the world’s cultures. It has always been the aim of our programme to encourage cross-cultural and thematic connections in the Museum. This project and activity weekend allowed us to continue this practice but also to branch out and facilitate a deeper form of collaborative working between supplementary schools, artists and the Museum. All three projects also received support and guidance from curatorial teams and Anisha Birk, Sackler Scholar for Ancient Iran, met with students from IYDA and provided a tour of the Ancient Iran gallery which really added to the groups understanding of the historical period. Through the feedback we received and their reactions during the activity weekend it is clear that the young people developed a real appreciation and sense of ownership of the objects and galleries they chose to focus on and I am confident that taking part in these creative learning projects has allowed us to build more meaningful and sustainable relationships with our community partners.

Filed under: At the Museum, Collection, Room 38-39 Clocks and Watches Gallery, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

3D-imaging the Assyrian reliefs at the British Museum: from the 1850s to today

Matthew Cock, Head of Web, British Museum

In August this year, a team from CyArk scanned the British Museum’s collection of Assyrian reliefs displayed on the Ground floor, using three different techniques: LiDAR, structured-light and photogrammetry.

Detail of relief from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh, northern Iraq. The king is in his chariot shooting arrows at succession of lions (ME 124867)

Detail of relief from the North Palace of Ashurbanipal, Nineveh, Iraq. The king is in his chariot shooting arrows at succession of lions (ME 124867).

The reliefs were originally commissioned by powerful Assyrian kings between the 9th and 7th centuries BC for their palaces, at a time when the small kingdom of Assyria, in what is now northern Iraq, expanded through conquest to dominate the Middle East, from the Persian Gulf to the Nile. The carved images range from symbolic scenes of royal achievements to scenes of conquest and hunting that all serve to glorify the Assyrian monarch.

Reception of Nineveh sculptures at the British Museum, The Illustrated London News 1852, p. 184. Etching and engraving.

Reception of Nineveh sculptures at the British Museum, The Illustrated London News 1852, p. 184. Etching and engraving.

The reliefs were acquired by the Museum in the late 1840s and 1850s as a result of the Treasury-sponsored archaeological expeditions of Sir Austen Henry Layard, who began his excavations at the North-West Palace of Ashurnasirpal at Nimrud in 1845. The first reliefs arrived in London in June 1847, followed soon by the monumental human-headed winged bulls. To accommodate them, the Assyrian galleries were created – between the Egyptian sculpture and Greek sculpture galleries – where they remain today.

As well as contributing to CyArk’s archive of cultural heritage, the scans provide a fantastic resource that we can use to help people better understand and engage with these objects. The carved panels work like modern comic books, starting the story at one end and following it along the walls to the conclusion. They were designed as a narrative, to be ‘read’ by the king, court and visitors to the royal palaces. It is incredibly difficult to get a good sense of that narrative, or their scale or presence through still images or even video.

With the help of the 3D models created from the scans, we have the potential to develop interpretative media in the galleries, online and through mobile and wearable technology. There are many potential approaches, from delineating the carved scenes where the stone has deteriorated to reconstructing the original architectural scheme, complete with colour paint, and torch-lit ambience as they might have appeared to the Assyrians in their original setting. The video above shows an early trial developed by CyArk using scans from the Siege of Lachish reliefs in Room 10b.

Reconstruction of the interior of an Assyrian palace.

Imaginative reconstruction of the interior of an Assyrian palace. A H Layard, The Monuments of Nineveh, London, 1849, plate 2.

Computer 3D technology is being increasingly adopted in museums to aid with conservation, curatorial research and interpretation. When the Assyrian reliefs first arrived in the Museum almost exactly 160 years ago, the latest imaging technology of the time – photography – was in its infancy. Interestingly, it grew up closely connected with the developing discipline of archaeology. Indeed, the main players in the early histories of archaeology, photography and philology (the study of language, but particularly the decipherment of ancient languages) moved in the same social and scholarly circles in London, meeting, corresponding and collaborating.

The early pioneer of photography William Henry Fox-Talbot was also fascinated with archaeology and convinced of the usefulness of his invention to museum and archaeological practices. He had visited the British Museum Trustees in 1843 to demonstrate his invention, but failed to persuade Charles Fellows, then excavating in Lycia, in what is now southern Turkey, to take the bulky and fragile equipment on his next expedition.

But by the 1850s, the equipment and processes were simpler, and interest at the Museum had grown. Edward Hawkins, Keeper of the Department of Antiquities, responsible for the Assyrian objects, was keen for photographs to be made of the growing collection of cuneiform tablets (arriving from Assyria at the same time as the reliefs) to help allow Edward Hincks, an Irish scholar and expert in cuneiform, and others (including Fox-Talbot himself) to translate them.

Collotype print photograph of Roger Fenton, taken by an unknown photographer

Collotype print photograph of Roger Fenton, taken by an unknown photographer, c. 1860. © National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library (2003-5001/2/22878).

Hawkins talked to Lord Rosse, scientist and President of the Royal Society, and British Museum Trustee, and soon after the Trustees instructed the Museum to employ a photographer. The advice of another scientist, Charles Wheatstone, was sought. Wheatstone had invented stereoscopy, creating the first stereoscopic viewer in 1838 which created the illusion of 3D. This early model used illustrations, but photography provided a far more suitable medium. Wheatstone had been collaborating with the photographer Roger Fenton, and recommended him for the job.

Roger Fenton, The Assyrian Gallery, British Museum. stereoscopic pair of photographs, c.1850s

Roger Fenton, The Assyrian Gallery, British Museum. stereoscopic pair of photographs, c. 1850s.

Part of Fenton’s early work at the Museum was a series of stereoscopic photographs of galleries, which survive as part of Wheatstone’s collection now in the archives of King’s College, London. One of those shows a tantalising view of the newly opened Assyrian Gallery.

Stereo viewer, with view of Edinburgh Castle and Grassmarket. Photo by kind permission of Peter Stubbs

Stereo viewer, with view of Edinburgh Castle and the Grassmarket. This viewer is an example of the more portable development of the technology that followed Wheatstone’s earlier ‘desktop’ models. Photo © Peter Stubbs.

Stereoscopy became a huge craze in the late 1850s and 1860s, and persisted well into the 20th century. Today’s virtual reality wearable technology, such as Oculus Rift and Google Cardboard echo their forerunners in intention (an immersive experience) and appearance.

First in the series of Roger Fenton's photographs of the Kuyunjik Collection of cuneiform tablets. Albumen prints on card. Archives of the Middle East Department at the British Museum

First in the series of Roger Fenton’s photographs of the Kuyunjik Collection of cuneiform tablets. Albumen prints on card. Archives of the Middle East Department at the British Museum

Cuneiform Clay Tablet, a salt paper print photograph by Roger Fenton

Cuneiform clay tablet, a salt paper print photograph by Roger Fenton, c. 1854. © National Media Museum / Science & Society Picture Library (1937-4093).

As well as experimenting with this new 3D technology in the galleries, Fenton also made photographs of the objects, as was his brief. Between 1853 and 1854 he systematically photographed the series of cuneiform tablets known as the Kuyunkjik Collection. One of Fenton’s greatest challenges was lighting. He had a glass studio built on the roof of the Museum, based on his own studio in his home in North London. Portable objects such as the cuneiform tablets were brought there to be photographed. By May 1856, Fenton and his assistants had made more than 8,000 prints in the galleries and his rooftop studio.

Standing in the gallery watching CyArk’s scanners spinning and collecting millions of points of data, I reflected on how the British Museum and the Assyrian objects that so fascinated scholars and public alike in the late 19th century were once again the site of a new technology in its early years. Museum technologists have to make difficult decisions on what to adopt and when. Soon after the period discussed above, the British Museum’s early interest in photography waned, likely mainly due to the high cost of the equipment and materials. Fenton’s employment was ended in 1859, and many of his negatives were transferred to the South Kensington Museum, now the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they form part of the UK’s national collection of the art of photography. But still, of course, that doesn’t mean it never happened: 160 years on, and the British Museum now has over 1.2 million images of objects in the collection online.

CyArk have enabled us to investigate the possibilities of 3D with a significant group of objects from the collection, and I am optimistic that this is just the beginning. It doesn’t take much to imagine a time when 3D scans become the de facto method of recording objects in the collection. I believe that this project – and once again the Assyrian reliefs – are remembered as a key moment in that change.

The Assyrian reliefs are on display in Rooms 6-10 on the Ground floor of the British Museum.

If you are interested in stereoscopy, visit the BP Spotlight: ‘Poor man’s picture gallery': Victorian Art and Stereoscopic Photography at Tate Britain from 13 October 2014 – April 2015

A selection of 3D models of British Museum objects can be viewed, embedded and downloaded from our Sketchfab channel.

Filed under: Archaeology, At the Museum, Collection, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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