British Museum blog

The Mildenhall treasure

Mildenhall Great Dish Richard Hobbs, exhibition curator, British Museum

This week, the display Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain opened. It features the magnificent Great Dish from the Mildenhall treasure, an example of the type of large, silver platter which may have been used to impress the guests of a wealthy family at a dinner party in the late fourth century AD. It’s an exhibition about dining and entertainment – and there’ll be more posts on this in the coming weeks.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The Great dish from the Mildenhall treasure.

The treasure at the centre of the display will be known to many people because of the writer Roald Dahl’s story about its discovery during the Second World War. In a previous blog post, I talked about my first encounter with this treasure, which came about when reading the short story when I was eight years old. It often strikes me as a perfect example of the vicissitudes of life that I could never have imagined, as a child like countless others reading Dahl’s story, that one day I would be in charge of looking after the Mildenhall treasure, the subject of Dahl’s piece! My only regret is that I was unable to talk to Dahl about the story direct – he died in 1990, some time before I became a curator here at the British Museum, and long before I became interested in the circumstances of its discovery.

But one person who did meet Dahl, specifically to talk about his story ‘the Mildenhall Treasure’, was John Gadd, a journalist and agricultural consultant. The British Museum acquired Gadd’s archive in 2008, with the support of the Friends of the British Museum – Gadd in turn had acquired the material in the 1970s. The archive consists of papers, letters, maps, photographs and memoranda belonging to an archaeologist called Thomas Lethbridge, whose connection with Mildenhall was his excavation of a Roman building in the 1930s, in proximity to the discovery of the treasure many years later. In Lethbridge’s papers, there was a considerable amount of correspondence concerning the discovery of the Mildenhall treasure, and the uncertainties surrounding the exact place of finding. In time, this led to Gadd becoming interested in the wider story of the Mildenhall treasure, which in turn led him to Dahl’s short story.

As I explained in my earlier post, Dahl based his story on an interview with Gordon Butcher, the tractor driver who found the treasure during the Second World War. Gadd wanted to find out if Dahl had any notes or other information beyond the published story, so he wrote to Dahl to find out. Such notes may have been important, because obviously Dahl was unlikely to have included everything in the final published version – maybe Dahl therefore, Gadd reasoned, had additional ‘inside information’. The British Museum possesses a few letters written from Dahl to Gadd in 1977, specifically concerning his story about the Mildenhall treasure; two were written before the first edition of ‘The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and six more’, the first edition of the book in which ‘The Mildenhall Treasure’ was re-published (the original version of the story appeared in an American magazine, ‘The Saturday Evening Post’, in 1947).

The first letter is written by hand, and as can be seen from the transcript, was penned from Dahl’s hospital bed as he was recovering from a hip replacement operation – the hand-writing itself has a decidedly ‘woozy’ appearance, hardly surprising under the circumstances.

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

Transcription:
c.13th March 1977
King Edward VII Hospital
Midhurst, Sussex

Dear Mr. Gadd

Sorry this messy reply. The Brit. Museum have hundreds of excellent photos of the Mildenhall Treasure. I’ve just got a new lot of them myself because I’ve rewritten that little piece for a new book of stories for older children. I have no notes. Nothing. Only the original long-ago article. I fear I would be of little use to you re. Mr. Lethbridge. I’ve just had a beastly hip replacement operation & for good measure pleuritis & an embolism on the leg.

Roald Dahl

The other letter Dahl sent to Gadd when home recuperating is typed and invited Gadd to talk directly to Dahl, which eventually he did.

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

© Roald Dahl Nominee Ltd

Sadly, Dahl could not find any of his ‘original notes’ – but we’re nonetheless fortunate to have these documents, given the importance to the literary world of the man who wrote them. All this shows how discovering the truth about past events is a challenge – whether it’s researching the 2,000 year old dish at the centre of the exhibition, or looking back 60 years to establish the events surrounding the treasure’s discovery.

Silver service: fine dining in Roman Britain is on display at the British Museum
until 4 August 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

Find out more about Roald Dahl and the Mildenhall treasure
Roald Dahl Museum & Story Centre

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Herculaneum: the unknown city

Herculaneum: the unknown city Vanessa Baldwin, exhibition project curator, British Museum

For many people visiting the exhibition, Life and Death Pompeii and Herculaneum, it may be the first time they have encountered the smaller city which lay west of Mount Vesuvius.

General view of Herculaneum with Vesuvius in the background © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

General view of Herculaneum with Vesuvius in the background © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

While Pompeii became a household name, immortalised in books, television and cinema, Herculaneum has remained relatively unknown in popular culture. In the exhibition we felt it was important to show why Herculaneum is just as important as its famous neighbour. The cities were destroyed by the same catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, yet at different times and under different circumstances. For these reasons Herculaneum differed from Pompeii, not only in its life as a smaller coastal city, but also in the incredible things that were preserved there. As a result it has different stories to tell.

Herculaneum was actually the first of the two cities to be re-discovered in the eighteenth century. In 1710 a well-digger chanced upon the theatre, where later finds included the bronze statue of the wealthy ex-slave and city benefactor, Lucius Mammius Maximus.

Bronze statue of Lucius Mammius Maximus © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Bronze statue of Lucius Mammius Maximus © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Herculaneum was buried much deeper by the volcano than Pompeii, more than 20 metres in some areas, so the first explorations of the site were carried out by tunnelling through the hardened ash. Pompeii, on the other hand, was only buried by about 4 metres of ash in some places. This meant that in the months following the eruption people returned to the city to salvage statues, building materials and whatever else they could find. However, it also meant that when Pompeii was rediscovered in 1748, it was possible to excavate large areas relatively easily. Visitors preferred to wander the open-air streets, houses and public buildings of Pompeii, than clamber down dangerous tunnels in Herculaneum. So although many of the most impressive discoveries, such as the bronze and marble statues from the Villa of the Papyri, were made in Herculaneum, it was Pompeii that attracted the tourists. As Pompeii became the focus of the excavations of the Bourbon kings of Naples, the tunnels of Herculaneum were filled in and interest in the site waned until open-air excavations began years later. The creation of plaster casts of the victims of Pompeii by Giuseppe Fiorelli in the 1860s sealed its fate as the city which set imaginations alight.

Herculaneum was also the first of the two cities to be destroyed in AD 79. The initial surge of superheated ash, rock and gas, following the collapse of the 20 mile high cloud ejected by Mount Vesuvius, raced towards Herculaneum and wiped it out in an instant. The temperature during the eruption is could have reached 450°C in Herculaneum, which meant that organic material, like wood and foodstuffs, were preserved. At these temperatures, and encased in volcanic material which rapidly compacted and hardened to rock, wood did not burn, but was instantly carbonised – turned to charcoal. At Pompeii, where temperatures may only have reached a cooler 350°C, organic material has very rarely survived. It is Herculaneum that has yielded the furniture, the straw baskets and the loaves of bread.

Carbonised furniture and food © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

Carbonised furniture and food © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.

The archaeological site open to visitors today presents a striking scene: lying metres below the current ground level, with the modern town of Ercolano perching above it and Vesuvius still looming in the background. There are two-storey buildings, wooden doors, staircases and even racks holding amphorae, still in situ. Once an ordinary city of the Roman empire, its destruction and preservation have made it an extraordinary place which truly deserves the same renown as its counterpart.

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

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

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Telling the human story of Pompeii and Herculaneum

Telling the human story of Pompeii and HerculaneumVanessa Baldwin, exhibition project curator, British Museum

Many of the objects on display in the exhibition Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, are not artefacts, they are people’s possessions. The people living in these two cities saw them and used them every day; they commissioned them or bought them for each other, and for themselves.

After years of researching, planning, designing and building, the exhibition is now open and it’s all about the people – people going through their daily lives with no idea of what was coming; the volcanic eruption in AD 79 that destroyed their cities, their lives over in an instant.

My favourite object, at the moment – because it does change from moment to moment – is a marble plaque from Herculaneum. It was set up between two houses and on one side it reads: ‘this is the property of Marcus Nonius Dama, private and in perpetuity’. And on the other side it reads, ‘this is the wall of Julia, private and in perpetuity’.

Marcus and Julia were ex-slaves, and they were living next door to each other. They must have had some sort of dispute about the boundary between their houses and this plaque was set up to resolve it. The extraordinarily human stories like this one are what I love most in the exhibition: to know people’s names, know who they were living next door to, and how they might have lived.

Seeing the trucks full of objects arriving from Italy really took our breath away. To then see them emerge from their crates to become part of a design that we’d only ever seen on paper has been the most special experience.

Over the 15 months I’ve been working on the exhibition, it has been a privilege to share the process of staging an exhibition with the curator Paul Roberts and the many fantastic people in the Museum who’ve worked alongside us. To go from object research and selection to their arrival and installation has been a whirlwind that I’ll never forget.

And now we get to share the stories, the objects and the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum with everyone.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is open from 28 March 2013.

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

Tweet using #PompeiiExhibition and @britishmuseum

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The spirit of Sierra Leone in London

Sowei mask naming ceremonyPaul Basu, University College London

The latest Asahi Shimbun Display Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone opened to the public this week. The display is the most recent outcome of collaborations between the British Museum’s Africa Programme and various partners including the Sierra Leone National Museum, the Reanimating Cultural Heritage project based at University College London, and members of the Sierra Leone diaspora community in the UK.

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

Throwing cowries to determine the name of the mask

The particular object in focus in the exhibition is a wooden helmet mask associated with the female Sande society. It was collected in the 1880s by Thomas J. Alldridge (1847-1916), whose entire career was spent in Sierra Leone, first as a trading agent and subsequently as a British colonial administrator. Alldridge, who travelled widely throughout the region, wrote two significant books about Sierra Leone, The Sherbro and its Hinterland (1901) and A Transformed Colony: Sierra Leone as it was and as it is (1910). Alldridge had a particular interest in native customs, cultural practices and masquerade traditions, and especially those associated with what were then described as ‘secret societies’ – chiefly the male Poro society, and its female counterpart, the Sande society. He wrote about these extensively in his books, assembled a large collection of local artefacts, and took some of the earliest photographs we have of traditional Sierra Leonean life. In 1886, Alldridge collected a number of objects from the Sherbro district of Sierra Leone specifically for display in the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held in London that year. The mask on display in the British Museum was one of them, and to the best of our knowledge this is the first time it has been on public display for over 120 years.

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Presenting the mask to the British Museum

Typical of collectors of his day, Alldridge recorded very little information about the mask. It was described in the lurid language of the time as ‘one of the most prominent Fetishes worshipped in [the region]’. In fact, as visitors to the exhibition will discover, such masks were – and continue to be – regarded as manifestations of particular spirits who act as guardians and teachers of the Sande society. They are mediators between the human world and the world of the spirits. Like people, every mask/spirit has a name and an individual personality.

In preparation for this display we worked closely with members of the Sierra Leonean diaspora community in London. On 16 February 2013 visitors to the British Museum were treated to a rare opportunity to see a special performance of the ndoli jowei, the Sande masquerade, to celebrate the opening of Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone.

During initial meetings with the Sierra Leonean community, the women were concerned that the mask to be displayed had lost its name. They proposed holding a special ceremony to give the mask a new name and, 127 years after originally entering the Museum’s collections, to formally present the mask to the British Museum on behalf of the Sande society.

The ceremony took place in a private room at the British Museum on 23 January 2013. The women were dressed in white and had white clay daubed on their skin as is customary in the Sande society. Accompanied by the shegbureh, a shaker made from a gourd surrounded by a network of beads, the women sang traditional Sande songs and danced around the as yet nameless mask. The participants then surrounded the mask in silence as the head woman addressed the spirit of the mask directly. After pouring a libation, the naming itself took place. Four cowrie shells were thrown to determine the name. If all four land the same way up, this is a sign that the spirit has accepted its name. After numerous attempts, the mask accepted the name Gbavo (meaning ‘to attract people’s attention’, ‘crowd-puller’ in Mende). A celebratory song was then sung in praise of the mask.

The mask is received by the British Museum

The mask is received by the British Museum

The next part of the ceremony involved the newly-named mask being presented to the British Museum. Accompanied by more singing, the mask was wrapped in white cloth, lifted onto the head of one of the participants and carried to a female representative of the Museum’s Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, also dressed in white. The mask is presented three times. Only on the third presentation is the mask received. Having accepted the mask, the Museum representative then stood at the centre of the women, while they danced around her, singing a farewell to the spirit: Oh Gbavo, Ggavo ma kɔlɛ ma sina fɔndei ta ngaye ta yi ma ju nga li nya ye [roughly translated as Oh Gbavo, when we separate tomorrow, tears and sweat will mingle and run down my face].

It was a privilege to be able to witness something of the spirit of Sierra Leone in the singing, dancing and traditional customs of the women gathered in this room in London. The ceremony was also an important moment in the ‘biography’ of this mask – another story to add to the others that we explore in the exhibition itself.

Sowei mask: spirit of Sierra Leone is on display at the British Museum
until 28 April 2013.

The Asahi Shimbun Displays

To find out more about Sierra Leone, please visit www.sierraleoneheritage.org

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Bubbles and bankruptcy: financial crises in Britain since 1700

Political-ravishment, or the old lady of Threadneedle-Street in danger!, print, James Gillray, 1797Thomas Hockenhull, curator, British Museum

The 2008 banking crisis plunged the UK into a recession from which it has been struggling to recover ever since. However, this crisis is not the first to have affected Britain and it is unlikely to be the last. Here in the Department of Coins and Medals we decided to look at the bigger picture in an exhibition looking back at Britain’s financial crises since the 1700s.

Drawing upon our extensive collection, we found we had an object that related to almost every crisis to affect Britain since the advent of organised banking. This material ranged from share certificates for companies that failed and notes from failed banks, to reports and recriminations about crises. In some cases these objects are fragile and sensitive to light, meaning that they can never go on permanent display.

Political-ravishment, or the old lady of Threadneedle-Street in danger!, print, James Gillray, 1797.

Political-ravishment, or the old lady of Threadneedle-Street in danger!, print, James Gillray, 1797.

For the rest of the exhibition we wanted to show how ordinary people have, and will continue, to respond to financial crisis. Numerous cartoons and satirical prints have been produced over hundreds of years relating to crises, including a James Gillray print from 1797.

Champagne bottle given to a Northern Rock employee in 1997.

Champagne bottle given to a Northern Rock
employee in 1997.

Additionally, the artist Steve Bell – perhaps best known for his work in The Guardian newspaper – has loaned a work from 2011 entitled ‘Bank Levy’ that depicts a banker as a distraught fat cat in a suit having its claws clipped by the Chancellor George Osborne.

Other exhibits, for example, include a champagne bottle given out by Northern Rock to its employees when the Building Society demutualised to become a bank in 1997. This object was retained by its recipient, a former employee, and provides an ironic reminder that demutualisation was greeted optimistically, supposedly enabling Northern Rock to expand its business more easily.

Instead, history records that its investment portfolio would fail within 10 years, triggering the first run on a UK bank since that which occurred during the collapse of Overend, Gurney and Co. in 1866.

The collapse of Overend, Gurney and Co. features elsewhere in the exhibition and, in both instances the banks failed because their customers lost faith in their ability to protect and reinvest their savings.

 

The centrepiece of the exhibition is a contemporary sculpture by Justine Smith, a London-based artist. Made from real UK banknotes built into a house of cards, the artwork neatly symbolises the occasionally precarious nature of financial investment.

I hope many people will get a chance to come and see the display, to find out how 300 years of boom and bust have helped to shape Britain’s financial landscape.

Bubbles and bankruptcy: financial crises in Britain since 1700 is open from
29 November 2012 to 5 May 2013.

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Shakespeare’s legacy: the Robben Island Bible

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace TrustMatthew Hahn, playwright

I first heard about a copy of the complete works of William Shakespeare known as the ‘Robben Island Bible’ when a good friend was reading Anthony Sampson’s wonderful biography on Nelson Mandela in 2002. I was fascinated by the story and found online the subsequent article that Sampson wrote ‘O, what men dare do’ in the Observer from 2001.

The works of Shakespeare, annotated by inmates at Robben Island Prison, South Africa. By permission of Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

The book’s owner, South African Sonny Venkatrathnam, was a political prisoner on Robben Island from 1972 to 1978. He asked his wife to send him a book of Shakespeare’s complete works during a time when the prisoners were briefly allowed to have one book, other than a religious text, with them. The book’s ‘fame’ resides in the fact that Venkatrathnam passed the book to a number of his fellow political prisoners in the single cells. Each of them marked his favourite passage in the book and signed it with the date. It contains thirty-two signatures, including those of Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada and Mac Maharaj, all luminaries in the struggle for a democratic South Africa.

These men signed passages within the text which they found particularly moving, meaningful and profound. The selection of text provides fascinating insight into the minds, thinking and soul of those political prisoners who fought for the transformation of South Africa. It also speaks to the power of Shakespeare’s resonance with the human spirit regardless of place or time. But, as he explains it, he just wanted a ‘souvenir’ of his time in the Leadership Section of Robben Island.

After hearing this fantastic tale, I determined to write a play based on interviews with as many of the former political prisoners I could find intertwined with the chosen Shakespearian texts. I first encountered Sonny’s ‘Bible’ in 2006 when it left South Africa for the first time to be a part of the Complete Works Exhibition hosted by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon. In 2008, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet and interview Sonny and seven other signatories of the ‘Bible’ to form the foundation of the play. I returned to South Africa in 2010 for further interviews and to workshop the research with the Market Theatre Laboratory.

It is an honour to have had the opportunity to spend time with these most gentle of men – each one a lion in the fight against apartheid. Many opened their homes to me, a complete stranger, for a couple of hours, shared with me a cup of tea and what their lives were like under an oppressive regime. As Ahmed Kathrada said, ‘After being locked up for all of these years, when I get a chance to speak to someone who is interested in my story, I find it hard to keep quiet.’

I was, and continue to be, fascinated by the resonance of the chosen texts and the men’s biographies – how life imitates art and; how great art, like holy books, seems to give strength to the oppressed.

Read more about this post and Matthew Hahn’s work on his blog .

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Quoting Shakespeare

Jacopo de’ Barbari, Bird’s eye view of Venice, a woodcut. Italy, 1500.Dr Peter Kirwan, University of Nottingham

As you walk around the exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, you’ll see objects drawn from across continents and time periods, all linked by Shakespeare. Sometimes the connection is to Shakespeare’s life and immediate world, but more often it’s the quotations from his plays that frame the exhibits and create the overarching theme of the exhibition. When seen in this fragmented way, it can be easy to take the words for granted, but in fact their presentation is less than straightforward.

Jacopo de’ Barbari, Bird’s eye view of Venice, a woodcut. Italy, 1500.

Take the quotation that illustrates the birds-eye map of Venice, drawn from Love’s Labour’s Lost:

I may speak of thee as the traveller doth of Venice:
Venetia, Venetia,
Chi non ti vede non ti pretia

The Italian proverb translates roughly as “Venice, he that does not see thee does not esteem thee”, and captures the wonder experienced by those standing before de’ Barbari’s magnificent woodcut. Yet the words read very differently in the 1598 quarto of the play:

I may speake of thee as the traueiler doth of Venice, vemchie, vencha, que non te vnde, que non te perreche.

For a modern reader of Italian, this is nonsensical; yet is it also ‘Shakespeare’, in the strictest sense. The role of the editor of an edition is to decide when to intervene to clarify meaning. Here, ‘traueiler’ would have carried the dual meanings of ‘traveller’ and ‘one who travails’, but the decision to modernise to ‘traveller’ is a useful clarification.

More difficult is deciding how to present the Italian. Is the character Holofernes accidentally misquoting this Italian proverb? Has Shakespeare written a phonetic version to help the actor speaking the line? Or is this a case of the scribe not understanding Italian and making a mess of what he heard or read?

In making the decision to ‘correct’ Shakespeare to recognisable, contemporary Italian, we make a decision to prioritise meaning and clarity over slavish fidelity to the earliest texts, a sometimes subjective process which results in every edition of Shakespeare being slightly different. As the actors’ performances throughout the show remind us, Shakespeare is remade every time he is performed or quoted, and the same is true of our quotations.

To read Jonathan Bate’s rationale for editing the Complete Works volume from which most quotations are drawn, please visit http://www.rscshakespeare.co.uk/first.html .

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Will the penny drop?

Gold medal of Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard. England, c. 1580–1590Barrie Cook, exhibition curator, British Museum

Perhaps there should be an official warning: working in a museum can spoil your fun. Well, not really and I don’t want it put anyone off a museum career, but while a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, too much knowledge can sometimes put a damper on things.

I spent the autumn and winter of 2011 preparing the exhibition running now in Gallery 69a until 25 November 2012, Crowns and ducats: Shakespeare’s money and medals, and the accompanying book. As a result, I have moved from having a vague awareness of Shakespeare’s use of coin and money references to, at least for a while, a pretty comprehensive knowledge of the subject.

So now I can’t see a Shakespeare play without a constant internal running commentary – and it’s usually: ‘Oh no! They’ve cut that out!’ But, in way, this points up why the exhibition is there in the first place. Shakespeare uses the coins and monetary units of his time constantly (native and foreign): angels and ducats, drachmas and doits, groats and crowns, dollars and pennies. He also makes metaphoric use of the ways in which coins are made, used and abused and he does this in every play he wrote. And all this was to help the audience, to give them an idea of value, to demonstrate character (Falstaff makes money-jokes constantly), to make a joke about what they had in their purses and what they all knew so well.

But, what was put there to help the audience is now more of an obstacle. Jokes based on what a three-farthings looks like are hardly going to bring the house down and will instead be utterly baffling. So it’s hardly a surprise when a performing edition trims them out on the ground that we don’t know that an angel is a coin, let alone how much it is worth; that we don’t routinely weigh our coins or check if the metal content is right. But if you come to the exhibition, you will know this and have the chance to get frustrated too.

Crowns and ducats: Shakespeare’s money and medals is on display at the British Museum until 25 November 2012.

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Guy Fawkes, Shakespeare and Occupy

Print portrait of Guy Fawkes, about 1606Sheila O’Connell, curator, British Museum

Members of the Occupy movement have recently taken to wearing Guy Fawkes masks. The face is distantly based on a print of the Gunpowder Plotters published in Germany early in 1606. Guy Fawkes’s grinning mask lends a playful air to political protest. We remember him because we enjoy bonfires and fireworks on 5 November, the anniversary of the day he was arrested in a storeroom beneath the House of Lords. But his contemporaries, including Shakespeare, would have seen nothing light-hearted in the plan to ignite 36 barrels of gunpowder under the chamber where parliament was due to be opened by the king.

A contemporary Guy Fawkes mask

A contemporary Guy Fawkes mask, complete with Halloween decorations

If the plot had succeeded, those killed, or at least seriously injured, would have included King James I, the entire government, senior members of all the leading families in the country, the queen and both the young princes, not to mention very many less eminent people. Shakespeare wrote Macbeth during the following months, when the plotters and their associates were being hung, drawn and quartered in the streets of London – some outside St Paul’s Cathedral at the very spot where the Occupy camp was set up earlier this year.

Group portrait of the eight Gunpowder plotters, all named, with title and text beneath. Etching, about 1606.

Group portrait of the eight Gunpowder plotters, all named, with title and text beneath. Etching, about 1606.

Macbeth’s story of the assassination (the first literary use of the word) of an ancient Scottish king has clear allusions to the Gunpowder Plot and to the terror it provoked. When Lennox arrives at Macbeth’s castle on the morning after the murder, he speaks of premonitions of disaster:

The night has been unruly: where we lay,
Our chimneys were blown down; and, as they say,
Lamentings heard i’ the air; strange screams of death,
And prophesying with accents terrible
Of dire combustion and confused events
New hatch’d to the woeful time: the obscure bird
Clamour’d the livelong night: some say, the earth
Was feverous and did shake.

Parallels with modern assassinations and politically- and religiously-inspired terrorist attacks are easy to make, and if the conspiracy had been successful the shock effect would have been comparable with that of 11 September 2001, the assassinations of John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Benazhir Bhutto. The outpouring of public grief at the tragic death of Princess Diana is some indication of how Britain would have reacted to the sudden violent death of members of the royal family.

The Gunpowder Plot was a horror on an unprecedented scale and, in the context of the continuing wars of the Reformation, conspiracy theories abounded. The Plot was not seen as the work of a small group of extremists, but as the latest in a succession of Roman Catholic threats to Britain. It was, after all, just 17 years since the Spanish Armada, when England only narrowly escaped invasion by the most powerful Catholic state of the day. Popular imagery linked the events of 1588 and 1605: the horseshoe-shaped fleet of Spanish ships and Guy Fawkes with his dark lantern approaching the vault beneath parliament.

Over the following centuries, the image of Guy Fawkes became shorthand for a threat to government and national security, see www.britishmuseum.org/collection for more than 70 examples. The Occupy movement is just the latest element in a legacy lasting more than 400 years.

Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Shakespeare: staging the world

Filming Shakespeare’s magic

Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter


Professor Tony Howard, University of Warwick

Caliban in The Tempest. Courtesy of the Don Boyd Archive at the Bill Douglas Centre, University of Exeter

When I was invited to think about curating a film programme to accompany the British Museum’s exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, my first thought was to connect with the idea of the Cultural Olympiad, and to focus on Olympic years. In 1948, when London last hosted the Games, Laurence Olivier and Orson Welles respectively directed Hamlet and Macbeth; they’re two radically different films, one a self-conscious classic involving Britain’s finest actors, designers and musicians, the other a ‘charcoal sketch’ filmed in a fortnight but nonetheless one of the most visually brilliant of all Shakespearean films. Together, they invented a genre.

There were attractions to the idea of tracing the parallel progress of the Olympics and Shakespearean film from London to Rome to Tokyo and beyond. But it was soon obvious that our programme should actually relate to the exhibition itself, and to its content. The exhibition is called Shakespeare: staging the world – how has cinema re-imagined the worlds that Shakespeare staged?

So there are three parts to the film programme: ‘Shakespeare’s Rome’, ‘Shakespeare’s England’, and ‘Shakespeare’s Magic’.

With both ‘Rome’ and ‘England’ we have presented two films. First an early landmark in the development of Shakespeare’s adaptation for the screen, then a more recent work, able to build on the groundwork and eager to experiment with ideas of history, politics, and the ways we all encounter them – via the media.

We began with the 1953 MGM Julius Caesar starring Marlon Brando, and we’ll follow it with Ralph Fiennes’ brilliant updating of Coriolanus into the Balkans War and our era of 24-hour television news. Then comes Olivier’s beautiful Henry V and Richard Loncraine and Ian McKellen’s Richard III, set in an Alternative History version of 1930s London, where King Edward married an American divorcee and lived in St. Pancras Station while his brother George…I’d best stop there: spoilers.

The season began with a packed house for Julius Caesar and a post-screening discussion that carried on into the street. We’ll conclude with a study day on Saturday 17 November. We’ll ask how directors have accepted the challenge of visualising the supernatural in Macbeth and The Tempest.

In the morning we’ll focus on ‘Macbeth on Six Continents’, exploring versions from Hollywood (Welles gets in after all), Ladywood, Madagascar and…sorry. No. Spoilers.

And that afternoon we shall celebrate Derek Jarman’s astonishing counter-cultural Tempest, which he filmed in Stoneleigh Abbey in Warwickshire during the 1979 Winter of Discontent.

We shall, I’m thrilled to say, be joined by Don Boyd, The Tempest’s producer (who himself went on to direct Richard Harris as King Lear) and David Meyer, Jarman’s Ferdinand (who previously played Hamlet on screen opposite Helen Mirren). Actually, to be precise, Don directed a modernised Lear set in Liverpool gangland, and David and his twin brother Tony played Hamlet simultaneously opposite Helen Mirren as Ophelia and the Queen.

Shakespeare on screen is extraordinary. It can be something very rich and strange.

The study day Filming Shakespeare’s magic: Macbeth on six continents and Prospero in England is at the British Museum on Saturday 17 November.
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Shakespeare: staging the world is open from 19 July to 25 November 2012.

The exhibition is supported by BP.
Part of the World Shakespeare Festival and London 2012 Festival.

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