British Museum blog

The Kingdom and the Beauty

Chris Berry, Professor of Film Studies, King’s College London

I’m very excited about the screening of The Kingdom and the Beauty this Sunday afternoon at the British Museum. When I was asked to help the Museum put together a small series of screenings as part of the programme supporting the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, this was the film I was most determined that we should get. This Sunday provides a rare opportunity, so I’d like to tell you what makes this screening so special.

The Kingdom and the Beauty © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Kingdom and the Beauty © Licensed by Celestial Pictures Ltd. All rights reserved.

The Kingdom and the Beauty (‘Jiang shan mei ren’)is a big, lush, gloriously colourful, and unabashedly romantic musical set when the Ming dynasty was at the height of its power. A kind of Cinderella story with a tragic twist, it was made by the legendary Hong Kong studio Shaw Brothers in 1959, when they too were at the height of their power. The Kingdom and the Beauty was a huge hit across Southeast Asia, winning awards at film festivals and sparking off a series of similar Mandarin-language musicals.

The story is about the Zhengde emperor, who ruled from 1505 to 1521. He was known as a bit of a playboy, and the film shows him sneaking out of the court in Beijing and traveling south to the rich heartlands around the Yangzi Delta. There he falls in love with a village girl, played by Shaw’s leading star of the time, Linda Lin Dai. Recalled by his duties at court, he forgets about her, but she discovers she is pregnant and hopes to be reunited with him. Her character in the film is a girl with a sunny nature who suffers a tragic fate, as Lin did herself a few years later. The film is remembered for her upbeat renditions of charming and catchy tunes. But Lin killed herself in 1964, and became an icon who has endured through the ages.

Nearly all other films set in the Ming dynasty take place in the 17th century, when the dynasty begins to fade. They feature stories about patriotic outsiders trying to defend the country in the face of dynastic failure (the Ming were replaced by the Manchu Qing in 1644). The Kingdom and the Beauty is unusual in this respect as it is set in the early 16th century, and is more indicative of the splendour of the early Ming courts, as seen in the Museum’s exhibition. No film better communicates the image of the Ming as the largest, richest, and most successful civilisation of its time.

Sir Run Run Shaw, the great Shaw Brothers founder, who was also the producer of The Kingdom and the Beauty, died earlier this year. Our screening of the film, made possible by Celestial Pictures, which owns the 760-film Shaw Brothers library, is our way of honouring Sir Run Run and Shaw Brothers.

It’s a classic musical, a big, old-fashioned and indulgent pleasure for a Sunday afternoon that I think everyone would enjoy. Do join us to sit back and float off into a fantasy world of Ming luxury and romance.

Tickets for The Kingdom and the Beauty are available from the British Museum website.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

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Käthe Kollwitz, a Berlin story

Frances Carey, art historian

Statue of Käthe Kollwitz, Kollwitzplatz, Berlin. Photo by Rae Allen, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Statue of Käthe Kollwitz, Kollwitzplatz, Berlin. Photo by Rae Allen, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

The seated figure of an elderly woman cast in bronze presides over a square in a part of north east Berlin known as Kollwitzkiez, the ‘Kollwitz district’, where Käthe Schmidt (1867-1945) came to live in 1891 on her marriage to Dr Karl Kollwitz. The sculpture by Gustav Seitz, installed in 1960, was commissioned under the DDR (German Democratic Republic) just as the renaming of Wörtherplatz and Weissenburger Strasse had been done in her honour in 1947. The nearest U-Bahn station is Senefelderplatz opened in 1923 and named after another notable figure in the history of printmaking, Alois Senefelder, who is credited with the discovery of lithography in 1796. When I stayed on Kollwitzstraße in the summer of 2009, the formerly bohemian neighbourhood of the 1990s after Die Wende (‘The Change’, i.e. including the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification) was fast shedding its down-at-heel appearance. All the familiar signs of rising property values and gentrification were plain to see, much more so now: handsome, well-buffed apartment buildings, smart shops, cafés such as Anne Blume (called after Kurt Schwitters’s subversive poem of 1919), and nearby parks and playgrounds with brightly coloured equipment for children. TripAdvisor waxes lyrical about the area as a tourist destination.

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis nach links (Self-portrait facing left), 1901 © DACS, 2014

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis nach links (Self-portrait facing left), 1901, lithograph, 269 x 204 mm © DACS, 2014 (1951,0501.81)

It is a far cry from the surroundings where Käthe and Karl (d.1940) were to spend almost the whole of their adult lives. Prenzlauer Berg, the larger district in which Kollwitzkiez is situated, was developed as a working-class neighbourhood to cope with the great surge in population after 1871 when Berlin became the capital of a united Germany; by 1900 the population had grown from around 800,000 to 1.9 million. Street after street of Mietskasernen or tenements (literally ‘rental barracks’) were built where conditions were dire. The Frauenkunstverband (Organisation of Women Artists), co-founded by Käthe Kollwitz in 1913, protested that 600,000 Berliners lived in dwellings with five or more people to a room while 100,000 children had nowhere to play. The title of the polemic by Werner Hegemann published in 1930, Das steinerne Berlin: Geschichte der grössten Mietskasernenstadt der Welt (Stony Berlin: History of the Largest Tenement City in the World) captures the impact of this remorseless urbanization. Prenzlauer Berg was dominated by these tenements and the breweries that were the major employers.

Käthe Kollwitz, Arbeitslosigkeit (Unemployment) © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3945)

Käthe Kollwitz, Arbeitslosigkeit (Unemployment) 1909, 6th state, etching and engraving 382 x 530 mm. © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3945)

Kollwitz was rooted in the nineteenth century, drawing much of her inspiration from the narrative realism and emotive power of writers such as Dickens, Ibsen and Zola. She grafted her reading of fiction, whether it dealt with near contemporary circumstances or ostensibly historical ones, onto the direct experience of ‘the lives of others’ who were beset by the uncertainties of casual employment, deprivation, high maternal and child mortality, and often domestic violence. In this challenging environment she found a beauty and a grandeur that became her mainspring as an artist. It was a largely black-and-white world, but with many gradations of tone and texture. For the realization of its expressive potential she turned to drawing and printmaking, above all to the example of Max Klinger (1857-1920) and his championing of graphic art as having an important status of its own. His series of ten etchings and aquatints called Dramen, Opus IX (1883) comprised six tragedies set in Berlin among the different echelons of society. Two dramas – Eine Mutter (A Mother) and Märztage (March Days) – unfold over three plates each, while the other four have just a single sheet apiece. Märztage seemed to refer to the failed liberal revolution of March 1848, but Klinger made it clear that he had in mind the contemporary context of Germany’s Social Democratic movement in 1883.

Max Klinger, Eine Mutter I

Max Klinger, Eine Mutter I (A Mother I), Dramen, Opus IX 1883, etching and aquatint, 453 x 318 mm (1981,1107.23)

Max Klinger, Mârztage I

Max Klinger, Mârztage I (March Days I), Dramen, Opus IX 1883, etching and aquatint, 453 x 358 mm (1981,1107.28)

Käthe Kollwitz was similarly inspired by Gerhart Hauptmann’s play Die Weber (The Weavers, 1892), which she saw at its first performance in 1893, to create a print series that was more about the conditions of the poor around her, than Silesia in 1844. Her second graphic cycle Der Bauernkrieg (Peasants’ War) executed from 1902-7 and published the year after, used the religious and economic conflict of 1524-5 as yet another vehicle through which to express the heroism of the working class. This series along with her later work after the First World War in woodcut and lithography, earned her significant influence on the development of printmaking in Russia and China in the 1920s-40s and beyond.

Within a few years of commencing printmaking in 1890-91 Käthe Kollwitz had demonstrated considerable artistry and technical competence. Ein Weberaufstand (A Weavers’ Revolt) – three etchings and three lithographs completed in 1897 – propelled her to the front rank of artists in Germany. When she went to Paris in 1904 she was given a glowing testimonial for Rodin from Hugo von Tschudi, Director of the Berlin Nationalgalerie. Her greatest champion was Max Lehrs, Director of the Dresden Print Room who both acquired her work for the collection and published the first catalogue of her prints in 1902. He likewise encouraged a curator, later Keeper of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum, Campbell Dodgson (1867-1948). Dodgson bequeathed to the British Museum (which was not then permitted to buy the work of living artists) a remarkably fine body of impressions from the most innovative phase of Kollwitz’s career: none more so than a sequence of three states of the harrowing subject of Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead Child) of 1903, which shows Kollwitz’s mastery in every aspect of its accomplishment. The artist and her younger son Peter (b.1896) were the models at a time when her elder son Hans (b.1892) had narrowly escaped dying of diphtheria. The sculptural quality of her treatment of the motif anticipates her later interest in working with a three-dimensional medium which was one of her objects of study in Paris.

Käthe Kollwitz, Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead child)

Käthe Kollwitz, Frau mit totem Kind (Woman with dead child) 1903, 7th state, soft-ground etching and engraving with green and gold wash, 415 x 480 mm. © DACS 2014 (1949,0411.3928)

Frau mit totem Kind has none of the resignation of her later sculpture (1937) of a mother and her dead son, ‘something like a Piéta’, of which the artist said ‘There is no longer pain, only reflection.’ In the 1903 print there is only pain, but however much she drew upon personal experience and observation, it is nonetheless a carefully contrived artistic composition.

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait), woodcut, 1924, © DACS, 2014 (1980,0126.85)

Käthe Kollwitz, Selbstbildnis (Self-portrait) 1924, 6th state, woodcut, 209 x 301 mm © DACS, 2014 (1980,0126.85)

Kollwitz’s most unwavering commitment was to being an artist: ‘It alone is always stimulating, rejuvenating, exciting and satisfying.’ (New Year’s Day, 1912). Her intensely examined life as expressed in all her work, not just the many self-portraits, her journals and correspondence, is humbling to recall amidst the middle-class comforts of modern Kollwitzkiez. I admire her because she succeeded in doing what a great contemporary artist has advocated: ‘I thought women as artists should focus on how to start, lead, and sustain a creative life. It’s not a question of style or a break with tradition.’ (Bridget Riley, 2004).

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. In the episode Kathe Kollwitz: Suffering Witness, Neil MacGregor focuses on the art of Käthe Kollwitz, who expresses the loss and suffering of war, especially after the death of her younger son Peter at the front in 1914.

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Tears of the Buddha : gem stones in Ming China

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins
Craig Clunas, Professor of the History of Art, University of Oxford and co-curator of the BP Exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China

Hat-top ornament, from Nanjing, c. 1420-21, gold, decorated with gemstones. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Hat-top ornament, from Nanjing, c. 1420-21, gold, decorated with gemstones. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

In 2009, when I first saw the amazing finds from the tomb of Prince Zhuang of Liang (d.1441) in the Hubei Provincial Museum, it was impossible not to be impressed by the gleam and flash of the gems with which so many of the objects were decorated. Jewelled belts, jewelled buttons for a princely hat, the lavish gold hairpins of princely ladies all set with rubies, sapphires, turquoise and a variety of other precious stones; these conjured up like nothing else the luxurious lifestyle of the early Ming princely palace, and the splendour of its inhabitants. Since then I have done a bit more research on these gems, where they came from and how they were used, and I have become even more fascinated by what they can tell us about Ming courts and their contacts with the wider world.

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

Gold and gem-encrusted hairpins. Nanjing or Beijing, c. 1403-51. Excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and of Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province. © Hubei Provincial Museum 湖北省博物馆

China is not well supplied with precious stones, and almost all of the gems in the objects from Prince Zhuang of Liang’s tomb came from outside the Ming empire, where they were seen as exotic and precious imports. Take rubies for instance, with their impressive deep red hue. One of the world’s richest sources of these, the most rare of the major gem types, is a mine at Mogok, now in Myanmar (northern Burma). It is possible that the early Ming courts obtained rubies from here through overland trade with the Shan States who occupied this part of the world in the 15th century. But a much more likely source of some of the large and truly impressive gems, like the rubies which stud the centre of each carefully-worked filigree plaque of Prince Zhuang of Liang’s gold belt , is the island of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka had long been known as one of the best sources of red rubies and blue sapphires (which are almost exactly the same mineral in chemical terms; tiny differences in impurities account for their very different colours). In 1283, in the Yuan dynasty, one of the island’s rulers had written to a sultan of Egypt with the proud boast that ‘I have a prodigious quantity of pearls and precious stones of every kind’. At least five diplomatic missions from King Parakramabahu VI (r.1412-1468) of Sri Lanka to the Ming took place between 1416 and 1459, and the great Ming eunuch admiral Zheng He stopped off on the island on several of his voyages. One of Zheng He’s crew was the interpreter Ma Huan. In his account of the voyages, An Overall Survey of the Ocean’s Shores, he tells us how Sri Lanka is rich in gems of many kinds:

Whenever heavy rain occurs, the water rushes out of the earth and flows down amidst the sand; they search for and collect [the stones], and that is how they get them. There is a common saying that the precious stones are in truth the crystallized tears of Buddha the patriarch.

He also calls the gems by foreign and not Chinese names; he calls some of them yagu, which comes from the Arabic word yāqūt, meaning sometimes ‘ruby’. This use of an Arabic name tells us that the trade in gems in the Ming period was a very international one, as indeed it is today. Gems are not only very valuable, but very portable, and Ma Huan tells us that they could be bought at ports all round Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean, in Java and Thailand, at ports in modern Kerala in South India, at Hormuz in modern Iran and Aden in the Yemen. Wherever there were ships and traders there were gems. The Chinese city of Zhongxiang, where Prince Zhuang of Liang lived and died, is a long way from the sea. But these glittering fragments of the exotic must have told all who saw them, shining and gleaming on the bodies of himself and his wife, that these were people who, through their connections to the imperial court in Beijing, could command extraordinary resources from across the globe.

The BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China is at the British Museum from 18 September 2014 to 5 January 2015.
Supported by BP

Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall are editors of the exhibition catalogue, The BP exhibition: Ming: 50 years that changed China, which is available in paperback and hardback from the British Museum shop online

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The Weird Sisters

Felix Mortimer, RIFT Theatre Company

On the evening of Friday 10 October, we brought our interpretation of the Weird Sisters from Macbeth to Room 90 in response to the exhibition Witches and Wicked Bodies displayed there. We had developed the witch characters over a year of performance in different spaces.

Louise Torres-Ryan and Roseanne Lynch play two of the Weird Sisters for RIFT at the British Museum. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Louise Torres-Ryan and Roseanne Lynch play two of the Weird Sisters for RIFT at the British Museum. Photo © Benedict Johnson

The witches are the biggest challenge for the director of Macbeth. These undefinable women who are associated and intertwined with the story but strangely absent, on the periphery, commenting and disrupting. Macbeth’s witches can be harpies, ravens or rapping nurses. The most embarrassing or intriguing of Shakespeare’s characters.

Our 2014 production, set within Erno Goldfinger’s iconic Balfron Tower, opened with the sound of the witches and their discovery in an underground carpark. From the shadows, their faces illuminated only by firelight. Our main references were people cast outside of society, Albanian sworn-virgins and drug addicts.

We wanted to make the witches more three-dimensional, let the audience in on a side of them which might not usually be told. We commissioned Thomas McMullan to write a twenty-minute scene exploring the witches’ background.

Thomas explains his process here:

I approached the idea of the ‘witch’ from the perspective of a slur; the power for the word to dehumanise. The sister is made abject and, in turn, drifting from the forest to the city, she becomes detached from the world around her. She is greeted by the perpetrators of that violent dehumanisation with a mixture of fear and abuse, eventually choosing to inhabit the former over the latter.

Thomas’ work lent the witches a depth and humanity which we felt was needed. Only half of the audience witnessed this scene and those that did developed a markedly different sympathy in the later apparitions scene.

Louise Torres-Ryan, Roseanne Lynch, Jason Imlach and Zoe Williams for RIFT at the British Museum. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Louise Torres-Ryan, Roseanne Lynch, Jason Imlach and Zoe Williams for RIFT at the British Museum. Photo © Benedict Johnson

Our witches (Dominique, Louise and Roseanne) developed an almost familial bond during the production, experimenting with different dynamics and constantly refining the arc of the sisters throughout the piece.

Dominique explains their process here:

We interpreted The Weird Sisters as mortal women who had been subject to extraordinary circumstances and become damaged and shaped by these experiences. Thom’s writing allowed us to investigate what they why they felt distanced from the rest of society, especially in opposition to men.

We explored ideas around of being outcast, living on the fringes and helping each other survive. We worked extremely closely together, challenging and critiquing each other, and developed a bond between us which was really unique – it continues to feel special to have that connection. It was interesting to see how others reacted to this – I could start to see how some men find close bonds between women threatening.

It is still horrifying to think about how that same fear could have become the seed for the demonisation and persecution of women which bred the idea of witches in the first place

Working on the event to accompany the exhibition Witches and wicked bodies has allowed us to continue the conversation about the Weird Sisters which started with some experiments in October 2013 and continues today.

RIFT

Witches and wicked bodies is in Room 90, to 11 January 2015. Admission free.

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The Holy Roman Empire: from Charlemagne to Napoleon


Joachim Whaley, Professor of German History and Thought, University of Cambridge

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

The object labelled Charlemagne’s crown in the British Museum’s exhibition Germany: memories of a nation reminds us of a long history that ended over a century before the Third Reich began, but which nonetheless continues to shape Germany and German-speaking Europe even today. Like the polity which it recalls, the crown has a complex history. The object itself is a replica made in 1913 of the imperial crown which was once kept in Nuremberg and has been in Vienna since 1796. This crown almost certainly originated around AD 960, made by a Lower Rhineland workshop, perhaps in Cologne. Whether Charlemagne himself was actually crowned is unclear and while we know that he crowned his son at Aachen in 813 we do not know what crown was used.

Gold solidus of Emperor Charlemagne. France, AD 768-814

Gold solidus of Emperor Charlemagne. France, AD 768-814

Even so, the crown has come to stand for the Holy Roman Empire which originated in Charlemagne’s Frankish realm, which comprised much of what we know as France and Germany. It was in the eastern part of this kingdom that a German monarchy became established in the 9th and 10th centuries. The legitimacy and special status of this monarchy derived substantially from its presumed descent from Charlemagne and from the inheritance of his role as protector of the papacy and guardian of the Church. This was implicit in the title Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, as the German polity formally became known around 1500.

The special nature of the empire was also reflected in its election and coronation procedures. German rulers were elected as kings by their German peers. They were crowned at Aachen and then again at Rome by the pope. The first made them German kings; the second made them Roman emperors. The place of coronation moved to Frankfurt in the sixteenth century and the Roman coronation was discontinued. The German king now assumed the title of ‘elected Roman emperor’ when he was crowned at Frankfurt, which reflected a more distant relationship with the papacy in the early modern period.

From the outset the German monarchy inherited the interest in Italy that Charlemagne had developed by virtue of his protectorate over the papacy. In the time of the Hohenstaufen dynasty from 1138 to 1254 this became an overriding obsession and Frederick II even lived exclusively in Sicily and southern Italy. Thereafter, however, the significance of Italy for the empire declined, though Tuscany, Modena, Parma, Milan and Savoy remained fiefdoms of the emperors until the nineteenth century.

The main territories of the empire were German, and these were the only ones that came to have votes in the assemblies of prince and cities, known as the Reichstag or imperial diet from the fifteenth century. They included bishops and other ecclesiastical dignitaries, secular princes and free cities, all of whom enjoyed significant independence in the regulation of their domestic affairs within the framework of the empire. At first they were subject only to their feudal obligations to the emperor, and later to legislation agreed by them at the diet.
The most important fiefs were those ecclesiastical and secular princes who actually elected the kings and emperors. In 1356 the Golden Bull, which codified the election arrangements in a fundamental law that remained valid until 1806, formally designated seven princes as electors. They enjoyed particular prestige but their rights were otherwise identical to those of the other princes and by the imperial cities.

The elective system and the retention of significant rights by the German princes and towns, often referred to as the ‘old German liberty’, meant that the German polity developed as a vast decentralised federation. Despite having a designated place of coronation, it never had a capital city. The imperial diet came to be held at the free city of Regensburg and other key institutions were located at Wetzlar, Vienna and elsewhere. This ensured the survival of a proliferation of courts and cities which each sponsored culture and the arts; first the visual arts, architecture and literature, then music as well. But in the later Middle Ages it also led to disorder and lawlessness.

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I,  wearing the collar of the Golden Fleece over a brocaded mantle, and a fur-trimmed hat with an oval medallion of the Virgin and Child attached to the brim. Woodcut, 1518.

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Emperor Maximilian I, wearing the collar of the Golden Fleece over a brocaded mantle, and a fur-trimmed hat with an oval medallion of the Virgin and Child attached to the brim. Woodcut, 1518.

The solution to the inner instability of the empire in the fifteenth century came in the form of a series of agreements reached in the reign of Maximilian I (1493-1519). These set up a supreme court to resolve disputes and a series of regional organisations to implement its decisions. The assemblies of the princes and cities now also formally became the Reichstag (diet), which was designated co-ruler of the empire alongside the emperor.

No sooner established, this system was challenged by the Reformation. The church reform movement which swept through the empire following Luther’s rejection of papal authority in 1517 represented an acute threat to stability. Charles V (1519-1556) wanted to stamp out Lutheranism, but many princes saw this as an infringement of their rights. Indeed many viewed the Lutheran reform movement as a welcome opportunity to reform the church in their lands and to extend their authority over them. Since the Reichstag could not agree, it was decided in 1526 that each prince or city should have the right to determine whether they embraced reform or remained loyal to the Catholic Church. Despite many subsequent disputes, some of them escalating into military conflict, this principle remained fundamental to the empire until 1806.

The last attempt by an emperor – Ferdinand II (1619-37) – to reassert Catholicism in the empire precipitated the Thirty Years War. He failed to achieve his ambition and in 1648 the Peace of Westphalia reaffirmed the rights of the princes and cities and affirmed Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism as the three equally privileged confessions of the empire. It also added safeguards for the rights of subjects who did not share the official faith of the territory in which they lived.

Bronze medal with portraits of Charlemagne and Napoleon, designed by Bertrand Andrieu, 1806

Bronze medal with portraits of Charlemagne and Napoleon, designed by Bertrand Andrieu, 1806

As a system which both guaranteed the liberties of the princes and cities and secured the rights of their subjects the Holy Roman Empire existed until it was destroyed by Napoleon. It remains the longest lived political system in German history. And it was unquestionably better than many that succeeded it.

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor.

In the episode Fragments of Power, Neil MacGregor discovers how coins reveal the range and diversity of the Holy Roman Empire, with around 200 different currencies struck in the different territories of Germany.

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Dinggedicht poetry competition

Godela Weiss-Sussex, Senior Lecturer and Convenor of German Studies, Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR)

It all started when I attended a lecture given by Neil MacGregor about the British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition Germany: memories of a nation in January at Queen Mary College, University of London. I was inspired by his bold and perceptive approach to exhibiting German history and by the clarity of vision achieved by relying on the narrative power of objects. As soon as I came home, I sat down to write a long letter to him, suggesting that we at the Institute of Modern Languages Research could set up an event to complement the exhibition. I was convinced that language, and in particular literary texts, should have a place in this exhibition project, not only to complement the objects presented, but also to enhance their narratives.

Refugee cart from East Pomerania, probably early 20th century. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

Refugee cart from East Pomerania, probably early 20th century. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

Neil MacGregor put me in touch with the Museum’s Learning team, and we started to discuss how best to represent Dinggedichte within the exhibition public programme. Should we just collect existing texts on the exhibition’s themes and offer them as a reading? An extract from Goethe’s play Iphigenie auf Tauris might complement the Goethe portrait by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein in the exhibition: both emphasise the writer’s place in the classical tradition. Bertolt Brecht’s exile play Mother Courage and Her Children (1939) could add a further dimension to the significance of the refugee’s cart lent for the exhibition by the Deutsches Historisches Museum in Berlin.

Ernst Barlach, Der Schwebende  (Gustrow Cathedral) © Archiv Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow (Foto: Uwe Seemann)

Ernst Barlach, Der Schwebende (Gustrow Cathedral) © Archiv Ernst Barlach Stiftung Güstrow (Foto: Uwe Seemann)

Of course, some of the exhibits coming to London this autumn have directly elicited literary texts: notably Ernst Barlach’s sculpture Der Schwebende, a bronze memorial to the dead of the First World War. The beautiful stark expressionist bronze sculpture, which hovers over the altar in the cathedral of the North German town of Güstrow (and in another copy in the Antoniterkirche in Cologne), has inspired numerous texts, poetic and discursive, including a ballad by the legendary East German singer Wolf Biermann. Banned from songwriting because of his oppositional stance, Biermann illegally recorded the ‘Barlach song‘ in the late 1960s, in which he refers to the climate of political repression as a time when ‘the angels fall to their death’.

All of these are fascinating texts – and they would lend themselves beautifully to a reading accompanying the exhibition. In the end, however, we decided that best of all would be to hear a whole variety of fresh, original and individual responses to the objects coming together for Germany: memories of a nation. This is when Cecile Reese of the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) joined me to devise a Dinggedicht poetry-writing competition.

Dinggedichte (‘thing poems’), a particularly German form of poetry, are texts that zoom in on particular objects. The genre was pioneered by writers such as Conrad Ferdinand Meyer and others in the late 19th century, and then developed further in modernist writing of the early 20th century, most famously by Rainer Maria Rilke. The Dinggedicht writer attempts to recreate the object in the medium of language and poetic form, and by doing so creates a new work of art. The poet may aim for an objective, distanced presentation of the object, or he/she may attempt to express the object’s essential nature by finding the language that is specific to the object and letting it ‘speak’ for itself. Of course, the writing of a Dinggedicht also implies a personal, subjective interpretation or reaction, and the object may spark off reflections that go well beyond its own particular shape or meaning.

This is what the competition is trying to do: to trigger these personal responses. All you need to do is choose an object featured in the exhibition and write a Dinggedicht of up to 250 words. Entries are accepted in either English or German, and there are some special prizes to be won. Please note that the deadline for entries is 14 November 2014. If you are unable to come to the British Museum and see the exhibition itself, you can still participate in the competition. Simply use one of the images shown on the British Museum website and exhibition blog, and let yourself be inspired. We would love to see as many poems as possible!

And finally, please save the date! On Friday 12 December, the Museum is hosting an exciting BM/PM evening of festivities inspired by German folk and folklore. As part of the programme, the winning entries will be read out and celebrated. In addition, Berlin author Annett Gröschner, whose work combines literary and historical approaches to German history and to iconic objects representing it, will read her own response to one of the objects in the exhibition.

So, get writing!

Full competition brief and further information

The German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) is a German national agency for the support of international academic cooperation. DAAD supports students, researchers, and academics worldwide and plays a major role in promoting the German language at higher education level.

The Institute of Modern Languages Research (IMLR) is part of the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. Its remit is to facilitate, initiate and promote dialogue and research for the Modern Languages Community.

Germany: memories of a nation (16 October 2014 – 25 January 2015) is sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. Starts Monday 29 September.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , , , , , , , , ,

Luther, language and faith

Alexander Weber, Department of Cultures and Languages, Birkbeck, University of London

Martin Luther (1483-1546), portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), 1529. Oil on wood. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

Martin Luther (1483-1546), portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), 1529. Oil on wood. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

What attracted me – to be honest, a reluctant blogger – to contribute to the British Museum’s blog, is the historical connection between Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, the British Museum and my own profession as an academic teacher of German in England. Long before the universities discovered my discipline, German grammars and textbooks had been produced by generations of curators and librarians at the British Museum. From the eighteenth century onwards, German protestant pastors preached to emerging German communities in London on Sundays and during the week catalogued the great treasures of ancient Biblical manuscripts (such as the Codex Alexandrinus) still in the British Library today. They were leading experts on the textual history of the Old and New Testament mainly because they followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther. Luther believed in the authority of scripture and not the dogma of the Roman church and to prove his point he immersed himself in careful critical study of the best original sources available to him in Greek and Hebrew. His formula of restoring the freshness of the original and then expressing it in the spoken language of ordinary Germans of his time brought the great stories of the Bible to life.

The opening of the Book of Genesis from the Gutenberg Bible, 1455. © The British Library Board C.9.d.3, 4v-5

The opening of the Book of Genesis from the Gutenberg Bible, 1455. © The British Library Board C.9.d.3, 4v-5

It was Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, however, which disseminated Luther’s writings to a mass audience. One of the best places in the world to study the link between the media revolution of the printing press and the Reformation is the British Library. The German pastors in London were also involved in building up the great collection of Luther editions. They had inherited the enthusiasm for studying and cultivating their own language from Luther and fostered it in Britain through private lessons. They taught German in the royal household.

The front end paper of Luther's 1541 Bible with portraits of Luther and Johannes Bugenhagen and Luther's transcription from the 21st psalm and signature. Biblia, das ist, die gantze Heilige Schrift: Deudsch auffs new zugericht. D. Mart. Luth., etc. (Wittemberg, 1541). © British Library 679.i.15.

The front end paper of Luther’s 1541 Bible with portraits of Luther and Johannes Bugenhagen and Luther’s transcription from the 21st psalm and signature. Biblia, das ist, die gantze Heilige Schrift: Deudsch auffs new zugericht. D. Mart. Luth., etc. (Wittemberg, 1541). © British Library 679.i.15.

Before Luther the German language was regarded as too crude and fragmented into provincial rough dialects to be used in any cultivated discourse. In learned circles, Latin was used – both in writing and speech. The Lutheran Bible changed all this, becoming the benchmark of modern German. An unprecedented number of authorized copies and countless pirated editions were circulated in Germany. It is estimated that a very large proportion of literate households possessed a copy, and in many cases it remained the only or at least the most treasured book in the house for several generations. Even the tide of polemics against Luther had to use his language in order to reach the huge readership which the new medium had created.

How did Luther overcome the strong regional differences which had emerged through waves of sound shifts during the long history of the German language? Since his childhood he had moved across these linguistic borders and managed to balance the extremes of dialect in his own speech. He also built on a common language of officialdom, the chancelleries which issued decrees which had to be understood across the whole of Germany. He looked towards areas where the population had mixed through migration and where a more common version of the German language was beginning to emerge. I am not persuaded, though, by the argument that these developments would have happened anyway. What intrigues me most about this story is that an individual can change something as universal as a whole language. In fact, we all leave linguistic traces behind through mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of our speech, our individual linguistic fingerprint, if you like. The historical circumstances may have been favourable, but Luther was a character of greatness and literary genius, possessing a truly exceptional power to coin phrases and expressions which have become the nuts and bolts of the modern German idiom. In my view, Luther was a giant, a figure of supreme confidence in the power of the thinking self to turn the tables against lazy dogma and sophistry.

The two cornerstones of Luther’s theology are two existential faculties of the self: the use of logos, i.e. language, and faith; logos and faith alone can redeem us. His emphasis on the individual was so strong that Protestantism became increasingly subjective, which resulted in modern relativism. History gained a lot through Luther, especially because he encouraged ordinary people to get involved in serious matters of public life. This defining shift also fostered the German idea of nationhood. The republicans who gave this movement its direction often referred to Luther as their ideological starting point. Historically there was a loss, too. The universality of the Latin world of education and the church was undermined. The supranational identity of European Christianity was diminished and replaced by German, English and other national concepts of God. Very little was left to mediate between these fronts. Luther was a German, not a cosmopolitan figure compared to the broad-minded humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example. He was also a master of polemics in a period which one could call the golden age of mud-slinging. He inspired noble democrats but also nasty nationalists.

Luther’s cult of the word benefited the growth of standard German, but it also encouraged the attacks on treasures of visual art and sacred objects during the Reformation. It should not be overlooked that ordinary, illiterate people before Luther had access to the Bible through the so-called biblia pauperum (Paupers’ Bible), which was essentially a picture book. I find it fascinating to observe that the image is once again favoured in today’s digital media, just as the era of the printing press gave power to the word. Today the text no longer rules over the image. This exhibition, Germany: memories of a nation, focusing as it does on objects and making them speak, is a good example of the re-balancing of image and word. It would make Luther shudder, though, just as the relics and images of saints of his time did. In his youth he was a very stern Augustinian friar on the radical fringes of the Roman church, and he never lost his suspicion of the senses, especially the eyes as an inroad of sin into our souls. The word was abstract, an expression of the spirit, the same stuff that God was made of. Images and objects would pull us away from this, Luther thought. As a linguist I admire the greatness of Luther, the sheer might of his words, both pious and polemical, but many things which he dismissed have regained an unexpected importance again and probably for a good reason.

Germany: memories of a nation (16 October 2014 – 25 January 2015) is sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. Starts Monday 29 September.  The episode Luther and a Language for all Germans is available to listen to on the BBC website.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , , , , , , ,

Pilgrims, healers, and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand

Alexandra Green, curator, British Museum

One of my first jobs at the British Museum was to examine the Southeast Asian collections. I found that the holdings from Burma (formally known as Myanmar) and Thailand contain numerous popular posters, mostly on religious themes, that have never been on display, as well as good examples of lacquer, textiles, votive tablets and Buddha images. Other religious objects in the collection include protective diagrams on cloth, tattooing equipment and manuals, and boxes that display images of the zodiac and the eight days of the week (Wednesday is divided into two), both of which are important in divination and producing horoscopes. The material seemed to cry out for an examination of religion in the two countries.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Western scholars considered Buddhism to be an austere, monolithic religion focused upon meditation and nirvana (the escape from the cycles of rebirth). Many people still view it this way. Such a portrayal ignores the realities of religious systems in Burma and Thailand, where numerous people combine homage to the Buddha with such activities as spirit worship, divination and numerology.

The exhibition Pilgrims, healers and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand draws on the strengths of the Museum’s mainland Southeast Asian collections to explore how the principal religious systems in the region are revealed in lively daily practices from the 1700s to the present. Burma and Thailand have a long history of interaction and share some fundamental beliefs and practices, making them a good pair to use in a display of some of the religious variety found in the region.

Buddhists believe in rebirth, and an important concept is karma, the combination of all good and bad deeds a being has performed over across his or her lives. Good actions, such as paying homage to the Buddha and making offerings to monks, can lead to an individual being reborn with high social status, power, and eventually supernatural abilities. Anger, ignorance and hatred, and the behaviours associated with them, can result in rebirth in an unpleasant existence, as an animal or ghost, or even in one of the hells. This is the law of cause and effect that governs the universe, and it is exemplified by the stories of the Buddha’s lives, which are frequently represented visually.

Painting of the Vessantara Jataka story, Thailand, late 1800s. Pigment on cloth (1926,0217,0.4)

Painting of the Vessantara Jataka story, Thailand, late 1800s. Pigment on cloth (1926,0217,0.4)

On display are a number of stories of the Buddha’s previous lives (called jataka) in textile, lacquer and painted form. For instance, there is a painting from northern Thailand that depicts the Buddha-to-be, in his rebirth as Prince Vessantara, perfecting the virtue of generosity. Vessantara achieved this by giving away all things precious to him, including his children as seen here, and thereby demonstrated his non-attachment to the world.

The Buddha surrounded by scenes from the ten great jataka stories. Burma/Myanmar, 1990-91. Printing inks on paper (1992,0728,0.5.1)

The Buddha surrounded by scenes from the ten great jataka stories. Burma/Myanmar, 1990-91. Printing inks on paper (1992,0728,0.5.1)

More recently printed posters representing Buddhist biographies have become popular in Burma. The example here shows the Buddha surrounded by the ten past lives where he perfected the virtues necessary for enlightenment. When the names of these stories are recited together, they become a protective chant (paritta) due to the power emanating from the Buddha’s perfections.

A being with advanced spiritual status has power; those reborn in low existences, such as the realm of ghosts or in hell, lack it. Power can be acquired and shared. Those with it are in a position to use it for good or ill: to protect and strengthen followers or to cause harm. There are many ways to place oneself under the protection of, or draw upon another’s power.

Leaf-shaped amulet with three Buddhas and the portrait of the monk, Luang Pho Phra Khru Samutwichan. Thailand, about 1990. Bronze and enamels (1991,1023.56)

Leaf-shaped amulet with three Buddhas and the portrait of the monk, Luang Pho Phra Khru Samutwichan. Thailand, about 1990. Bronze and enamels (1991,1023.56)

People acquire powerful objects to protect themselves and to augment their abilities. Amulets, for instance, are popular in Thailand. They can be made of sacred ingredients, such as monks’ robes, palm-leaf manuscripts, monastic clay roof tiles, or lotus pollen, that have been soaked in holy water and had Buddhist prayers chanted over them. Their power comes from an association with powerful beings and things. The examples on display in the exhibition present images of famous monks, such as Somdet To, the religious advisor to King Rama IV of Thailand (reigned 1851–68), the next Buddha who will arise in the world, sacred temples and images, and protective diagrams.

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan State, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930,1018.1)

Figure of a Shan tattooed man of strength. Mong Nai, Shan State, Burma/Myanmar, Late 1800s to early 1900s. Stucco (As1930,1018.1)

Practitioners also adorn themselves with tattoos, charms, or embellished clothing that display protective Buddhist scriptures or imagery of powerful beings, including particular animals, the Buddha and spirits. The motifs provide protection, bring power or fortune, or charm others by drawing on the characteristics of the tattooed image, such as the Buddha, a spirit, animals or protective diagrams. Tattoos of animals transferred the abilities of the animal to the bearer. For instance, an image of a tiger would confer strength, agility and speed, while that of a bird could make the wearer persuasive with a beautiful voice. Not surprisingly, people choose designs according to personal needs. On display is a stucco figure of a man with red and black tattoos. The black ones cover his body from his waist to his knees.

Because there are so many ways to practise religion in Burma and Thailand, it is not possible to have a comprehensive exhibition or collection. However, the collection at the British Museum contains good examples of the types of activities in which practitioners engage. This exhibition also contains a sampling of the variety of religious pathways available. Together they demonstrate that religion in Southeast Asia is not necessarily an austere one, and that people choose what to focus upon, depending on their financial means, current needs and future hopes.

Pilgrims, healers, and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand is on display in Room 91 from 2 October 2014 to 11 January 2015. Admission free.

Filed under: Pilgrims, healers, and wizards: Buddhism and religious practices in Burma and Thailand, , , ,

A personal history in 190 objects: from Germany to the British Museum and back again

Paul Kobrak, series producer, Germany: memories of a nation, BBC Radio 4

To say that it was a life-changing moment would be to seriously over-egg it. But being made the second producer on a then unheard-of project in September 2009 gave my BBC career a much-needed shot in the arm. By then I’d already celebrated my 21st ‘radio’ birthday (I started working at the BBC in 1988) and I’d been making documentaries for more than 10 years. I was beginning to wonder where I could possibly go next.

Four months later A History of the World in 100 Objects began its life on Radio 4. I doubt I’ll ever work on another project that has the same impact. Not because others would not be equally good, or just as fascinating and challenging; rather that none would break new ground in the same way nor match the scope. And its popularity has been astounding, as sales of the accompanying book and the download figures for the series (37,693,121 and still counting) attest.

Since then I have worked on both follow-up partnership projects: 2012’s Shakespeare’s Restless World and this year’s Germany: memories of a nation. You could say that working on a series that brings together the British Museum and the BBC is like dancing with an elephant – but in truth it’s more like dancing with two. And with each project their complexity has increased.

Even a hundred programmes about objects all of which are in the British Museum were less of a challenge than twenty based on artefacts from around the UK, with our series on Shakespeare. Finding time to get to the objects and interact with them (in the unique way that Neil does) is no easy task. But aiming to do the same with thirty programmes and some 70 objects – all German in origin and the majority of them still in different parts of Germany – well, that’s just asking for trouble.

Paul Kobrak, being photobombed by Kathe Kollwitz in Kollwitz Platz, Prenzlauer Berg district, Berlin.

Paul Kobrak, being photobombed by Kathe Kollwitz in Kollwitz Platz, Prenzlauer Berg district, Berlin.

My job in all this is a bit of everything… and anything. It’s my responsibility to ensure that the programmes are made: so, ensuring the scripts are written (and to the right length), the interviews are done (and cut to the required succinctness), the locations and objects sufficiently represented (recording the ‘noise’ a delicate object makes is a challenge in itself, often helped by the tissue paper it may well be wrapped up in) and that the finished product hangs together, makes sense and – in the dictum of Lord Reith – informs, educates and entertains. But above all, it’s to ensure that the presenter is able to play the roles required of him, which is basically all of the above.

And, given the pressures on Neil MacGregor – running one of the largest and most comprehensive museums in the world (with some 8 million works in its permanent collection) – his time is incredibly precious. Nevertheless, we’ve made seven trips to Germany and one each to France, Czech Republic and Russia, visiting 15 different cities, interrogating objects and people along the way, and it’s been an education.

Neil MacGregor, working on the script, next to the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, Suermondt Ludwig Museum, Aachen

Neil MacGregor, working on the script, next to the crown of the Holy Roman Empire, Suermondt Ludwig Museum, Aachen

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

We’ve been to places and seen things that mere mortals – as I am when on holiday or away from work – would not get to see. Neil and I were left on our own with the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor (that features in programme 11); handled the unused wetsuit involved in a failed escape from East Germany to West (programme 2); picked up the vase that Goebbels personally declared as degenerate (programme 24); turned the page to Luther’s handwritten inscription in his 1541 translation of the Bible into German (programme 6); compared Dürer’s original monogram with the knock-offs that he pursued in the courts of Venice (programme 17); stood on a manhole cover in Kaliningrad, one of the few things you will find in that Russian city still marked with the original German name of Konigsberg (programme 3), and visited one of the first Synagogues to be built in Germany after World War II (programme 28).

Manhole cover, Kaliningrad, Russia, dated 1935.

Manhole cover, Kaliningrad, Russia, dated 1935.

In fact, on a personal note, it’s been more than an education; it has changed my own personal views of the country. Despite the fact that I have a German passport (a legacy of my German father, who left the country as a child over 75 years ago), I have never had a close affinity to the country that I have always viewed through the prism of 12 years of Nazi rule. In that regard, having never lived in Germany and rarely visited it, I am probably not very different from many British people. However, having spent much of the past nine months working on this series, I realised how limited my knowledge (and views) of Germany are – hat I need to broaden my own outlook and try to better understand the rich history behind it.

Radio programmes don’t change the world. They can’t. But if we can change the view of one person, then it’s a job well done. In that regard, I suppose the series is already a success. I can only hope that it doesn’t stop there.

The exhibition Germany: memories of a nation is at the British Museum from 16 October 2014 to 25 January 2015. Sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. Starts Monday 29 September 2014.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , , , , , , , ,

Banners of the North

relevant image alt textKathy Cremin, Director of Co-operation, Bede’s World

Banners of the North at Bede’s World (19 July – 28 September 2014) is the finale of three exhibitions in our treasures programme. This programme explores our local, national and international place in the world and is inspired by Bede and the monastery in Jarrow where treasure came from all over the world, where the community of monks and others were trying to make sense of the world, and capture the heart of those conversations and thoughts. In this spirit, Banners of the North was to be a celebration of our northernness, and we decided at the beginning to use these wonderful loans from the British Museum to create chatter about what it means to be northern to different people. We believe museums work best when they are a social space where people come together and have conversations.

We were also proud to be working alongside the British Museum as part of their Future Curators programme. Georgina Ascroft, who was placed with us, was able to inspire staff and volunteers about the objects that had been chose for loan, and to start sharing the stories and questions about these objects.

Hungry to learn more, seventeen members of staff, from café to front-of-house to farm, and from apprentices to director, travelled to London to handle the objects and feel their power. The point of that visit was for us to be able to talk about the loans among ourselves and talk about them even more with our visitors. For us it is in conversation that real learning happens about the impact and meaning of objects and the connections between understanding the history of the object in a place and how we feel about that place now.

This was no wine and canapés opening: the food was from a local smokehouse and Northumbrian sausage-maker, the beer a local hand-crafted award winner. Guests marched into the museum behind miner’s banners representing the five historic mines of South Tyneside, accompanied by the Westoe Brass band. After some passionate speeches from the mayor and others, we enjoyed a sing-along by South Shields Folk Club and the Deadly Earnest céilidh band, which opened up a weekend-long Banners of the North Folk Festival, featuring 24 bands and performers – more than 200 musicians volunteering their time. We were really proud of the opening of this exhibition because it set the tone for our summer programme.

Conversations of course are often intimate, and for the rest of the summer we shifted from thinking big to thinking really small, with intimate salons featuring around 40 guests speaking about their northernness, lives and traditions – voices of a diverse group of people from CAFOD activists to the local junior football league, from members of a Sikh temple to local painters, photographers, knitters and crafters, and from craft food-makers to fabric printers.

© World According to Bede

© World According to Bede

We didn’t quite know how these salons would work. Would people come to listen? Would they ask each other questions? Would the thing gel and lead to real conversations? We found these salons were a humanizing force, a cup of tea with people sharing their roots and emotions about the north and our place in it. Some but not all referenced the exhibition. Many connected to the objects with fresh eyes and thoughts and gave us more to think about.

Gold signet-ring, found on the site of the battlefield of Towton (1461), which has been associated with Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland, who died in the battle. (AF.771)

Gold signet-ring, found on the site of the battlefield of Towton (1461), which has been associated with Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland, who died in the battle. (AF.771)

Over the last year we’ve piloted using community radio to create a space and place for conversation about heritage, and a way of building connections and relationships. On the train back from London, as people chatted about the object that had most captured their attention, someone asked whether the Percy family in Northumberland might know more about the Percy ring. One of the community radio team wrote to the Duke of Northumberland about their family connection to the Percy Ring, and later interviewed him over a cup of tea in his kitchen.

The salons came out of this learning about reflecting on our feelings about objects, asking questions about what those mean, and looking for answers and stories that create a context for understanding what the objects can tell us. As we piloted the use of community radio we have develop our skills in facilitating conversation and reflection, listening to others, documenting our learning, and focusing on storytelling. You ca listen to our documentary about staff learning from our British Museum partnership.

To make our online broadcasts we use simple technology – a mixing desk, laptop, digital recorders, and free, open-source streaming and editing software. These are the tools of any bedroom DJ, yet rooting community radio in the unique setting of a museum is about making ourselves a social space, and a hub for the creativity and conversation that objects can inspire. Our loans from the British Museum, however, encouraged us to take this learning further. We worked in collaboration with a researcher and volunteer programmer James McNaughton from Durham University, to investigate using multi-touch interactives, both to enable visitors to explore high-quality images of the objects and connected information, and also to invite people to record their responses, thoughts or feelings about particular objects.

We will collate the results of this research later this month, and will be sharing our learning in a short radio documentary with our volunteer programmer, apprentices and intern who manned the interactives, meanwhile you can read James’ blog post about the experiment.

Next year, in the year of the general election and the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, our treasures programme will use collections to create a sense of activism, to create space for conversations about democracy, freedom of self, and the right for people to celebrate their own heritage in their own way.

Banners of the North is at Bede’s World until 28 September 2014.

Future Curators is supported by HLF.

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