British Museum blog

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.

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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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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.

Tweet using #ShakespeareExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Digging deeper into Shakespeare


Julian Bowsher, Senior Archaeologist, Museum of London Archaeology

For me, the Shakespeare; staging the world exhibition at the British Museum creates a wonderful journey through the worlds we associate with Shakespeare; the real and the fictional, the physical and the imaginary. Most journeys taken by Shakespeare’s contemporaries will have been the fictional and imaginary since few people at the time will have set foot outside England. Shakespeare – and others – certainly knew about, and exploited knowledge of, that outside world. Historical and archaeological evidence provides a wealth of such knowledge.

Wenceslaus Hollar’s 1644 view of Bankside showing the Globe and the bear baiting house, both of which have been partially excavated. In this picture, the labels were switched by the engraver. The Globe (1599) to the left whilst the baiting arena, originally the Hope playhouse (1613), is to the right.

London was a major port with international mercantile contacts. It was one of the largest cities in the world – and growing. Immigration – albeit mostly internal – made it a cosmopolitan city. It was the seat of royal power, national parliament and the country’s commercial and legal centre. The exhibition also introduces us to the great and the good, from the queen and the aristocratic patrons of the playhouses such as Leicester, Essex and Hunsdon to the playwrights and actors. By the 1570s there was a large and diverse ready-made audience with a thirst for leisure and entertainment which made London the first home of the professional theatre. Shakespeare’s contemporary playwright Thomas Heywood was immensely proud of his adoptive city and very conscious of its theatrical pre-eminence. He compared it with ancient Rome, but stressed this international importance:

Playing is an ornament to the Citty, which strangers of all Nations, repairing hither, report of in their Countries, beholding them here with some admiration: for what variety of entertainment can there be in any Citty of Christendome, more then in London?

Foreign visitors indeed left accounts of the new fangled London playhouses – they were very different from those in contemporary Spain but a playhouse built in Gdansk in 1611 was itself based on the Fortune playhouse built in north London in 1600.

1989 excavation showing the Rose remains amongst
20th-century concrete foundations. The outline of the
first stage of 1587 can be seen on the left whilst that of
the rebuilt stage of 1592 – either side of the 2m scale –
can be seen to the right, just in front of the modern
concrete

As an archaeologist I have specialised in the ‘Shakespearean theatre’ for a number of years and we, at MOLA (Museum of London Archaeology), have now excavated parts of the Theatre (1576), the Curtain (1577), the Rose (1587), the Globe (1599) and the Hope of 1613. We have also excavated two of the Bankside bear gardens. The archaeological contribution to Shakespearean studies has now provided a vast and immensely useful body of information on these early theatres and thousands of artefacts that illustrate the working life of Shakespeare and his audiences. Details of all these sites, and others, have been gathered in my book Shakespeare’s London Theatreland, published by MOLA this year. I was thus delighted to be asked what objects we have unearthed that might illustrate aspects of everyday life in Shakespearean London. The spirit of cooperation we, and other institutions, have had with the British Museum this year has triumphed in this exhibition.

In theatrical terms, the ‘Shakespearean period’ covers the years between 1567 when the first playhouse was built (when Shakespeare was 3 years old) to 1642 when parliament closed them all (26 years after Shakespeare died). It is this period that saw the flowering of English drama and the unique playing spaces built in London that Shakespeare and his contemporaries wrote for and acted in. Here, you could imagine yourself in the ‘vasty fields of France’, ‘the greatest part of Spain’, in ‘fair Verona’ or ‘with us in Venice’ and in more distant exotic worlds such as the ‘the furthest inch of Asia’ or even ‘America, the Indies?’

The archaeological finds on display in the British Museum’s exhibition are all from the Rose excavations of 1989 and represent the building itself (the baluster), what might be a prop (the fork, found in the stage area), and everyday items that might be lost by either actors or, more likely, audiences. Like the evidence for what playgoers ate and wore, many of these finds represented rich and exotic imports.

A luxury fork discovered on the site of the Rose playhouse

The objects from Stratford – shovel, watering can and ceramics – represent (Shakespeare’s) life in the country through similar everyday items. One of the striking pieces in the exhibition is a bear skull that was found on a building site near the modern Globe where the original bear baiting rings were situated. This cruel ‘sport’ was just another form of ‘entertainment’ to people at the time.

The range of material within the exhibition is wonderfully evocative of Shakespeare’s whole world(s) but a particular thrill for me was seeing, for the first time in the flesh, the Titus Andronicus drawing . Shakespeare’s play was first performed at the Rose on 23 January 1594 and the line at the front must represent the stage that we excavated there 23 years ago!

Julian Bowsher will be giving a lecture at the British Museum on Thursday 25 October on ‘Shakespeare and his theatres in London‘.
Find out more about Shakespeare events programme

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

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Filed under: Exhibitions, Shakespeare: staging the world

Pompeii and Herculaneum: two ordinary cities with an extraordinary story

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

David Prudames, British Museum

In AD 79, late in the year, two cities – Herculaneum and Pompeii – along with various small towns, villages, and farms in the south of Italy were wiped out in just 24 hours by the catastrophic eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius. This event ended the life of the cities, but preserved them to be rediscovered by archaeologists nearly 1,700 years later.

These were not extraordinary cities; they died in an extraordinary way, but they were ordinary ancient Roman cities, and because of this they have been able to become a lens through which we can see and understand a whole civilisation.

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79

Portrait of baker Terentius Neo and his wife. Pompeii, AD 55–79. © DeAgostini/SuperStock

In spring 2013, these two cities and their unique story will be explored in a major exhibition at the British Museum, that will – in the words of Museum Director, Neil MacGregor – be a chance ‘to visit the cities and to visit the houses in the cities; to be inside a Roman household, inside a Roman street; to know what it felt like, to know what was going on.’

Through objects from the British Museum collection and an immensely generous loan of 250 objects from Naples, Pompeii and Herculaneum – many of which have never been seen outside Italy – the exhibition will focus on the daily lives of the ordinary people who lived there.

Exhibition curator, Paul Roberts explained how in exploring daily life we have a chance to see how people like us would have lived in an ancient reflection of our own lives:

‘Daily life; the home, and domestic life, it’s something that we all share. The home gives us a wonderful opportunity to explore how people like us lived in Roman times: perhaps they didn’t all go to the baths, or the amphitheatre, but poor or wealthy they all had a home.’

Through some of the most famous objects to have emerged from the two cities, and finds unearthed during recent archaeological work there, the exhibition will look at the make-up and activity of homes – and the people who lived in them – at both Pompeii and Herculaneum.

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Gold bracelet in the form of a coiled snake, 1st Century AD, Pompeii

Often the stories revealed are surprising. For example, from Pompeii, the large industrial centre of the region with a population of around 12-15,000, comes a statue of a woman commemorating her funding – with her own money – of the largest building in the forum, the heart of the city. This, in a male-dominated society where women might not usually be known as the rich patrons of civic monuments.

While at the same time, the more mundane elements of life are revealed in objects such as an extraordinarily well-preserved loaf of bread that, in Paul’s words, ‘went in the oven in AD 79 and came out in the 1930s’.

But of course the reason we know this story and can see these wonderful objects is because of the tragedy which struck in AD 79. Incredible finds from Herculaneum, a smaller seaside town of some 4-5,000 inhabitants, include food, leather, and wooden furniture – from a table to a baby’s cot – and survive only because they were carbonised (turned into charcoal) by the 4-500 degree Celsius volcanic avalanche that engulfed the city.

As Paul explained:

‘We can’t imagine the horror of that day, but we can see what people did. Some of them were practical, taking a lantern or a lamp to help them stumble through the total darkness of the volcanic blizzard. Other people took gold and silver in the form of coins or jewellery. One little girl took her charm bracelet with pieces from all over the Roman world and beyond, such as cowries from the Indian Ocean, amber from the Baltic, rock crystal from the Alps, faience from Egypt. She had this with her when she died on the beach at Herculaneum with hundreds of others.’

Some 2,000 years later that charm bracelet will be among the objects on display at the British Museum next year, allowing us as it does to recall and remember the real people whose lives we are so privileged to be able to see and understand:‘We had to have the death of Pompeii and Herculaneum to know so much about the people who lived there, but it’s their lives that we will be celebrating in this exhibition.’

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.

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