British Museum blog

Who died in Trieste?

Ian Jenkins, curator, British Museum

I am sitting in the back of a taxi speeding through the narrow streets of Kolonaki, the posh bit of Athens. There is no conversation between me and the driver, but occasionally our eyes meet in the rear view mirror. Suddenly he speaks.

‘You look like some kind of professor’.

Before I can reply, he speaks again.

‘Who died in Trieste?’

I am on my way to the German Archaeological School. A number of such schools were planted in the nineteenth century on the lower slopes of Mount Lykabettos, where they were intended to catch the breeze in the long, hot summers and to command views to the sea or across the plain of Attica to the mountains. Now you just see across the street as far as the high-rise apartments opposite.

The German School is on Odos Fidiou, Pheidias Street. Founded in 1874, it was designed by Ernst Ziller and was anticipated by the French School, established in 1848, which was the first. The purpose of these institutions is to provide a base for operations in Greece, such as the German excavations at Olympia, the French at Delphi and the British at Knossos on Crete. All have wonderful libraries that serve not only home-grown researchers but also other nationals.

The taxi draws up at the entrance to the German School and the driver swivels round in his seat to give me a stare that is clearly meant to elicit an answer to his question.

Now it just so happened that the aforementioned deceased is one of my heroes. Just as well really, since I have reached the age where I cannot remember the name of anyone who isn’t dead. I was feeling confident and decided to tease him.

‘You mean, Who died on 8 June 1768?’

If he is impressed, then he  shows no outward sign, ‘Well’, he replies, ‘he was a good friend of the Greek people’.

It is so sweetly put. I hardly like to introduce the difference between Philhellenism and its love of the Greek people of today, and Hellenism as the admiration of Greek civilisation in the past. Byron – who died at Missolonghi – is the obvious example of a Philhellene, while our man is self-evidently a Hellenist, who never went to Greece. That is not to say that he did not think about going. Indeed, it seems that he was making plans to go but then, disastrously for him, he changed his mind and in June 1768 crossed the Alps to travel back to his native Germany. Passing through Bavaria, he was gripped by a fit of melancholia so acute that he determined to turn back and return to Italy. The best efforts of his travelling companion, Bartolomeo Cavaceppi, the principal restorer of ancient statues in Rome, could not persuade him to continue.

So it was that he found himself alone in a north Italian port waiting for a sea passage that would restore him to Rome and, he hoped, to his former self. There it was that he made the acquaintance of a creature named Francesco Archangeli, staying in the same boarding house. The circumstances are not clear, but in a savage knife attack Archangeli brutally murdered the defenceless antiquary.

His was a remarkable story, but not untypical for a true child of the Enlightenment. Born in 1717, the son of a shoemaker, he had largely educated himself in the Classics. His love of Classical antiquity took him to Italy, where he immersed himself in the antiquities of Florence and then Rome, eventually rising to become the Papal antiquary.

Our subject brought a moral imperative to the art and especially the sculpture of ancient Greece. The beauty of white marble sculpture of the human body represented a set of values that the Greeks called kalokagathia. The Roman wit Juvenal later coined the expression mens sana in corpore sano, which just about captures the idea nicely.

The development of our hero’s ideas can be traced through his earlier writing in the 1750s, culminating in the History of Ancient Art, published in Dresden in 1764. It was an instant success, swiftly translated into French for easier access to an intellectually curious European readership. It organised the famous artworks of antiquity into a narrative that traced the rise of the human body in Greek art as part of a revelatory account of the emergence of the human spirit, which he proposed as a paradigm experience of the past that should be reawakened in the present.

Writers that are more revered now than their works are read, such as Lessing, Schiller, Heyne and Goethe, were all participants in a German Romantic movement in literature that, when it was not praising nature, sought to capture the beauty of art. Theirs was the first prose writing of its kind in German and with them our tragic hero takes his place as one of the founders of a new mode of expression that was at once rational and poetic.

My driver’s face holds the same inscrutable expression at the end of my explanation as it had at the beginning. I realise then that I have made a mistake in thinking that he is interested in the man who died in Trieste, when all he wanted to know was whether I could correctly answer his question or not. Like the Sphinx, his victims are required only to give a simple answer that would be right or wrong.

Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), reading from Homer's Iliad; ornamental frame, as if a framed portrait resting on a ledge on which are placed olive branches, caduceus, inkwell with lion's feet, an open volume of his 'History of Ancient Art' with ring of stars above, and sheet with French titles referring to his writings on the Apollo Belvedere and the Belvedere Torso.  Engraving with etching by Maurice Blot, after Mengs, 1815. (1862,0208.225)

Portrait of Johann Joachim Winckelmann (1717–1768), reading from Homer’s Iliad; ornamental frame, as if a framed portrait resting on a ledge on which are placed olive branches, caduceus, inkwell with lion’s feet, an open volume of his ‘History of Ancient Art’ with ring of stars above, and sheet with French titles referring to his writings on the Apollo Belvedere and the Belvedere Torso. Engraving with etching by Maurice Blot, after Mengs, 1815. (1862,0208.225)

‘Yes, but who was he?’. His voice has a new tone of impatience and I think I catch a glimpse of a feline paw emerging from the cuff of his sleeve.

‘Oh’ I replied innocently, ‘Didn’t I say? Why, Johann Joachim Winckelmann, of course’.

The exhibition 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.

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Witches and wicked bodies

Giulia Bartrum, curator, British Museum

The major Prints and Drawings exhibition at the Museum this autumn, aptly timed to coincide with Halloween, will provide a rich and compelling survey of the history of witches and witchcraft from the Renaissance to the end of the 19th century. It has been co-curated by artist and writer Deanna Petherbridge, who has made a lengthy study of the subject in the visual arts. It is a version of the exhibition Witches and wicked bodies at the National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh, last year, with a focus on prints and drawings from the British Museum and a few loans from the V&A, the Ashmolean, Tate Britain and the British Library.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Witch riding backwards on a goat. Engraving, c.1500.

Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), Witch riding backwards on a goat. Engraving, c.1500. 1868,0822.188 (Cat. no 17). Dürer’s famous image of a shrieking hag clutching her broom and spindle influenced centuries of witch art. The goat, a symbol of lust, was thought to embody the devil, and the rain and hailstones seen above are a reminder that witches raise storms and destruction. The natural order of things is reversed throughout the print: the witch’s hair trails in the opposite direction to her drapery; a putto stands on his head, and even Dürer’s monogram is reversed.

Hans Baldung (c.1484/5-1545), Witches’ Sabbath,  1510.

Hans Baldung (c.1484/5-1545), Witches’ Sabbath, 1510. Colour woodcut from two blocks, the tone block in orange-brown. 1834,0712.73 (Cat. no 19). The artist and printmaker Hans Baldung was Dürer’s most successful pupil. This print is one of the most dramatic witch images ever produced. It shows an obsession with the malevolence of female sexuality, a subject in which Baldung specialised. It is likely that he found a ready market for such subjects in the affluent city of Strasbourg where he lived and worked. The violent Witches’ Hammer, written by Dominican inquisitors Kramer and Sprenger was first published in this city in 1487; by 1520 it had been re-printed fourteen times.

Efforts to understand, interpret, apportion blame and elicit confessions through hideous acts of torture for seemingly malevolent deeds have had a place in society since the world of classical antiquity and Biblical times. Men, women and children have all been accused of sorcery. The magus, or wise practitioner of ‘natural magic’ or occult ‘sciences’, has traditionally been male, but the majority of those accused and punished for witchcraft, especially since the Reformation, have been women. They are shown as monstrous hags with devil-worshipping followers. They were thought to represent an inversion of a well-ordered society and the natural world. Witches fly on broomsticks or backwards on dragons or beasts, as in Albrecht Dürer’s Witch Riding backwards on a Goat of 1501 or Hans Baldung’s Witches’ Sabbath from 1510.

Francisco Goya (1746-1828), ‘There is plenty to suck’, 1799. Etching and burnished acquatint. 1975,1025.128 (Cat.no 11)

Francisco Goya (1746-1828), ‘There is plenty to suck’, 1799. Etching and burnished acquatint. 1975,1025.128 (Cat.no 11). The two hooded crones gleefully sucking finger-bones are joined by a nude bat lady who flies in with her familiars. Splashes of highlight brilliantly left untouched on the plate illuminate the greedy pleasure of their faces and the infant parts packed into a lunch basket. The title depends on wordplay, as in other prints from Goya’s Los Caprichos series. Chupar, to suck is still used colloquially in Spanish to indicate exploitation, as in bleeding someone dry or sucking out their marrow.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664), Circe, c. 1650. Etching. W,6.37 (Cat. no. 14)

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione (1609-1664), Circe, c. 1650. Etching. W,6.37 (Cat. no. 14). This print shares many elements of the large-scale oil study by a member of the Genoese artist’s studio exhibited nearby in representing the classical witch whose magical powers were detailed in Homer’s Odyssey, and later in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The etching is notable for the brilliant use of the untouched white paper, isolating the wand-wielding Circe against the niche as she contemplates the men she has transformed into beasts. As in the drawing, the discarded armour in the centre reveals that her beauty and magical powers have vanquished mighty warriors although she will eventually meet her match in the wily Odysseus.

They are often depicted within cave-like kitchens surrounded by demons, performing evil spells, or raising the dead within magic circles, as in the powerful work of Salvator Rosa, Jacques de Gheyn and Jan van der Velde. Francisco de Goya turned witches into an art form all of its own, whereby grotesque women conducting hideous activities on animals and children were represented in strikingly beautiful aquatint etchings. Goya used them as a way of satirising divisive social, political and religious issues of his day. Witches were also shown as bewitching seductresses intent on ensnaring their male victims, seen in the wonderful etching by Giovanni Battista Castiglione of Circe, who turned Odysseus’ companions into beasts.

Picus and Circe, tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica)  bowl. The ‘Argus Painter’, Pesaro, c.1535-40. PE 1855,1201.89  (not in catalogue)

Picus and Circe, tin-glazed earthenware (maiolica) bowl. The ‘Argus Painter’, Pesaro, c.1535-40. PE 1855,1201.89 (not in catalogue). Circe fell for the handsome Picus, the first king of Latium (a central region of Italy where Rome was founded) while he was out hunting. She created a phantom boar which he followed into the forest. Having fallen into her trap, Circe tried to seduce Picus but was rejected so she turned him into a woodpecker. When his companions complained, she transformed them into animals too. This highly pictorial scene is based on a woodcut in Book XIV of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, first printed in Venice in 1497.

Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Serpent-Auréole (Serpent halo) 1890. Lithograph. 1949,0411.3508 (not in catalogue)

Odilon Redon (1840-1916), Serpent-Auréole (Serpent halo) 1890. Lithograph. 1949,0411.3508 (not in catalogue). This curiously dislocated witch figure, encircled by a huge snake, has her hands on her belly as she balances on a platform of a tall pedestal that suggests a crucifixion. Smoke billows out of a suspended cauldron on the right. Based on an enigmatic charcoal drawing (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) this work illustrates Redon’s investment in ‘everything that is receptive to symbol…the unexpected, the imprecise…the undefinable.’ It has also been interpreted as relating to Redon’s anxiety about his wife’s pregnancy at the time.

The exhibition also includes several classical Greek vessels and examples of Renaissance maiolica to emphasise the importance of the subject in the decorative arts. During the Romantic period, Henry Fuseli’s Weird Sisters from Macbeth influenced generations of theatre-goers, and illustrations of Goethe’s Faust were popularised by Eugène Delacroix. The rise of children’s literature and folklore studies meant that the image of the old hag with a broomstick was appropriated for children’s stories. Witch subjects appealed to the artists and writers involved with Romanticism, from the wild inventions of Delacroix and von Holst, to the mock classicism of late Burne-Jones or Waterhouse. The interest in emotion, poetic sources and a preoccupation with sexuality led the Pre-Raphaelites to the construction of the image of the femme-fatale. These alluring and predatory women range from Lilith and Circe to the Nordic Valkyries. Their danger to men is an expression of the fear of women’s increasing political and social power, but the images concur with the long misogynist tradition of representations of female witches. The international Symbolist movement including Redon, Franz von Stuck and Otto Greiner was profoundly inflected by the interest in the occult and Satanism at the end of the century. The key work was Joris-Carl Huysman’s banned novel Là-Bas (The Damned) 1891. Witchcraft was no longer feared in the same way in Europe, but the danger to society of the mysterious ‘other’ was an endless source of inspiration for artists and writers.

Witches and wicked bodies is in Room 90 from 25 September 2014 to 11 January 2015. Admission free.

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The making and meaning of Ming: 50 years that changed China

Visitors examining some of the exquisite textiles on display in the exhibition
Yu-ping Luk, Exhibition Project Curator, British Museum

One of our missions at the British Museum is to encourage visitors to think about cultures and periods that might be outside their everyday spheres. Everyone has heard of China, and most people have heard of Ming, but we wondered how many people fully appreciate the significance of the Ming era in Chinese and world history – beyond, of course, the making of exquisite porcelain. This was one of the motivations behind our major autumn show, the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, which has just opened and runs until 5 January 2015.

Carved lacquer dish Yongle Period, Ming Dynasty, 1403-1424. BM 1974,0226.20

Carved lacquer dish Yongle Period, Ming Dynasty, 1403-1424. BM 1974,0226.20

We hope that the exhibition will open visitors’ eyes to just how much happened in the years 1400-1450, when the Ming dynasty was in its ascendancy and took its place on the global stage. It was during this period that Beijing became the capital, the Forbidden City was built, and imperial fleets were sent far afield – in short, this was a Golden Age in China’s history.

We are telling the story of Ming-era China though a huge range of items – paintings, prints, ceramics, lacquer, gold, jewels, textiles, weapons and sculpture. Some of the most exciting pieces are spectacular artefacts excavated from the tombs of regional princes, many of them never seen outside of China. They include hats, silk costumes and even gold chopsticks once used by princes.

Gold belt set with gems, excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province, about 1403–25. Courtesy of the Hubei Provincial Museum.

Gold belt set with gems, excavated from the tomb of Zhu Zhanji, Prince Zhuang of Liang, and Lady Wei at Zhongxiang, Hubei province, c. 1403–25. Courtesy of the Hubei Provincial Museum.

One aspect of Ming China we are especially keen to showcase is the connections between China and the wider world during this time. This is wonderfully illustrated in a stunning gold belt, set with precious and semi-precious stones, from a princely tomb in Hubei province, central China. The gems include rubies, sapphires and emeralds that were imported to China from Southeast Asia, India and Sri Lanka. Made at the imperial palace, this belt would have been a gift from the emperor to the prince, which also highlights the movement of precious objects not only between China and the wider world, but also within China itself.

Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna, Italy, c.1495 - 1505 © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Adoration of the Magi by Andrea Mantegna, Italy, c.1495 – 1505 © The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The years 1400 to 1450 saw huge state-sponsored armadas journey from China to Southeast Asia, the Middle East and the east coast of Africa. These voyages fostered trade, diplomacy and emphasised the authority of the Ming empire. All this took place decades before Christopher Columbus reached the Americas and the discovery of a direct sea route between Europe to Asia. At this point, Chinese luxury goods such as porcelain were reaching Europe only in isolated numbers. This is suggested in a beautiful painting of the ‘Adoration of the Magi’ by Andrea Mantegna. It depicts one of the Wise Men presenting a Chinese porcelain cup filled with gold to the infant Jesus, showing the prestige and luxury that Chinese porcelain represented in Europe.

Visitors looking at some of the exquisite textiles on show in the exhibition

Visitors examining some of the exquisite textiles on display in the exhibition

I was recently asked what my own favourite items in the exhibition were, but I’ve seen so many fabulous things over the last few months that it’s not easy to choose. However, there are certain objects that come to mind. For example, there’s a painted scroll that shows scenes of the Ming emperor enjoying different sports in the imperial palace, such as archery, golf and football (you might not have expected to see these last two depicted in fifteenth-century China!). There is also tiny model furniture excavated from the tomb of a prince that includes a bed with its pillow and a towel rack that still has its cotton towel. And there are fascinating paintings made for a Buddhist ritual that depict ordinary people of different professions: actors, a tattooed acrobat, an eye doctor and a mother holding her baby. They really give a sense of everyday life in China in the early 1400s.

Presentation sword (jian) China, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1402–1424 © Royal Armouries

Presentation sword (jian) China, Ming dynasty, Yongle period, 1402–1424 © Royal Armouries

We wanted to focus both on the latest knowledge about Ming China, and also give people a real understanding of its culture. We therefore chose to focus on five themes: courts, the military, arts, beliefs, and trade and diplomacy. The artefacts we have chosen to illustrate these themes include examples of the very highest quality. We have been lucky enough to secure major loans from ten Chinese museums and many others around the world, making this one of the most ambitious explorations of Chinese art ever attempted in the UK – an undertaking that is unlikely to be repeated.

Another perspective that we were particularly keen to highlight was the proliferation of imperial and princely courts in this period, and the extent to which they were internationally engaged. This is a departure from past understandings that focused only on the imperial capital and gave the impression of a closed-off nation bound by the Great Wall. Significant archaeological discoveries have shed light on the importance and sophistication of princes in regions across China, something which remained unacknowledged until recently. The exhibition highlights the diversity of China, which, in my view, is actually critical to understanding China today.

Porcelain vase with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, Yongle period, 1403-1424, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. BM 1947,0712.325

Porcelain vase with underglaze cobalt-blue decoration, Yongle period, 1403-1424, Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province. BM 1947,0712.325

Sharing our work and resources across the regions is very important to the Museum, so for our celebration of Ming China we organised a spotlight tour that is running alongside the exhibition. A stunning blue-and-white early Ming imperial porcelain vase – similar to the one pictured above from the London exhibition – is touring four museums around the UK from April 2014 to April 2015. The vase is being displayed alongside China-related collections at partner museums, as well as new art commissions created by artists in response to the vase. The four partner museums are the Burrell Collection in Glasgow, Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, and the Willis Museum, Hampshire. The tour is part of the Museum’s ongoing programme of touring exhibitions and loaning objects across the UK, allowing more than three million people to see British Museum objects outside London every year. You can read more about the tour in a previous post.

Of course, we also hope that as many people as possible will be able to come to London to see this extraordinary exhibition for themselves. I don’t believe anyone who makes the journey will be disappointed; in fact, I’m certain that Ming: 50 years that changed China will surprise, delight and fascinate you.

Read more about the Spotlight tour: Made in China: an imperial Ming vase
Supported by BP

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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Museum Virals film project: how do you promote museums to young people?

Suzanne Cohen, filmmaker and educator

This summer a group of young people on the autistic spectrum participated in a week-long workshop at the British Museum on how to make viral videos to promote the Museum to other young people.

I delivered the course as part of the Camden Summer University programme in collaboration with speech and language therapists from Whittington Health NHS and British Museum Education Manager Katharine Hoare.

The group started by looking at films and campaigns that challenged stereotypes of young people, prisoners and Muslim women. This linked to the idea of how to challenge young people’s stereotyped perceptions of museums.

The group explored this concept thorough a series of practical exercises: vox pops, stop frame animation and live action silent films, before embarking on the final films. I was very impressed with the sophistication of their concepts, their appropriateness to the target audience and how they were realised using digital media within a limited time frame.

The workshop aimed to develop communication and interpersonal skills through group work as well giving participants the opportunity to meet and make friends with other autistic young people.

Speech & Language Therapist Co-ordinator Kate Bayley commented that ‘the course targets a number of vital skills for adulthood such as confidence, teamwork and independence. Social anxiety and individual needs can be supported by the therapists, so that the young people are free to focus on enjoying the galleries of the British Museum, and learning film skills from a professional. The feedback we get from young people and parents is that this can be a huge step in these young people’s lives!’

Earlier this year I facilitated the first Museum Virals project for National Museums of Scotland with Sound Delivery and Elaine Macintyre who came up with the idea for the Scotland Creates project.

Last year’s film made with young people with autism, ‘The Day of Red Ashes’, was based on the British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition.

Suzanne Cohen is a documentary filmmaker and educator at London Metropolitan University and runs various museum and community projects.

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The Lacock Cup: a rare survival

Naomi Speakman, curator, British Museum

The Lacock Cup. Plain and gilded silver, England, 15th century. 2014,8002.1

The Lacock Cup. Plain and gilded silver, England, 15th century. 2014,8002.1

As I write this post, I am drinking tea out of my favourite mug. Having a special cup or saving glasses for important occasions is something we can all recognise today. In the Middle Ages it was no different, and wonderfully ornate pieces of silverware were made for fine dining and special feasts. The Lacock Cup is such an object, and is the most recent and exciting addition to the British Museum’s Late Medieval collection that I am responsible for.

The Lacock Cup. Plain and gilded silver, England, 15th century. 2014,8002.1

The Lacock Cup. Plain and gilded silver, England, 15th century. 2014,8002.1

Formed of nearly 1kg of silver, this drinking cup topped with a sweeping lid was made in England in the mid-15th century and is a rare example of pre-Reformation secular silver. The survival rate for this type of object is extremely low. Fewer than 300 pieces of English silver have survived from before 1520. Why this low rate of survival? The single greatest reason is that, as tastes and fashions changed, so the silver was melted down and refashioned into more desirable objects. Silver during this time was also seen as a source of ready cash, so that when money was needed to secure credit, or to pay off a loan, it could be used quickly and easily, or melted down for its bullion value. The reason for the Lacock Cup’s survival is a unique part of its story, and something I will return to later on.

The Cup started its life as a high-status drinking vessel. It is of a type known as a ‘standing’ or ‘covered’ cup, which were popular in the late Middle Ages. The style of the Cup shows that its original role was for display on the dining table, which was as important as its function for drinking. It has a large bowl and tall trumpet-shaped foot and base, topped by a sweeping lid. With such exaggerated style, and standing at 35cm in height, the Cup was designed to be seen across the hall, making an elegant statement at the nobleman’s table. The design of the lid demonstrates this, it is almost as tall as the cup itself and when placed on top the Cup nearly doubles in height.

The Royal Gold Cup. Gold and enamel, France, 1370-1380. (1892,0501.1)

The Royal Gold Cup. Gold and enamel, France, 1370-1380. (1892,0501.1)

Mazer bowl with lid. Maple wood with silver and enamel and silver gilt mounts, Flanders, Belgium, 15th century. AF.3116.

Mazer bowl with lid. Maple wood with silver and enamel and silver gilt mounts, Flanders, Belgium, 15th century. AF.3116.

Drinking cups were popular with all levels of society, with the style filtering down through the court and the nobility. In Room 40, the Paul and Jill Ruddock Gallery 1050-1500 we can chart the types of vessels used by different members of Medieval society across Continental Europe through three objects. Firstly, the Royal Gold Cup may have been a drinking cup for a royal diner, King Charles VI of France (reigned 1380-1422). Judging by its style and material the Lacock Cup is believed to have been used by an English nobleman or member of the gentry. Finally, a mazer bowl with enamelled silver mounts from mid-14th century Flanders shows another popular type of drinking vessel more widely used.

Travelling spoon and case. Silver-gilt enamel and leather. Probably Flemish, 15th century. 1899,1209.3.

Travelling spoon and case. Silver-gilt enamel and leather. Probably Flemish, 15th century. 1899,1209.3.

Travelling spoon and case. Silver-gilt enamel and leather. Probably Flemish, 15th century. 1899,1209.3.

Travelling spoon and case. Silver-gilt enamel and leather. Probably Flemish, 15th century. 1899,1209.3.

The Lacock Cup was definitely a showpiece. It was firmly connected to the host of the feast, since cups were provided by them, and were shared around the table during dining (although it was the guests’ responsibility to bring their own cutlery, as illustrated by a collapsible spoon and travelling case also displayed in Room 40 which is a wonderfully playful and beautiful example).

Saint Cyriac’s Church, Lacock, Wiltshire.

Saint Cyriac’s Church, Lacock, Wiltshire.

Clearly a secular object, the Cup takes on a different role after the religious tumult of the English Reformation of the 1530s. At some point in its life after the Reformation the Cup became the communion chalice of the parishioners of St Cyriac’s church in the village of Lacock in Wiltshire, which lends the Cup its name. This new position as a sacred vessel, the cup is under divine protection, much less likely to be destroyed compared to its secular counterparts.

Although we don’t know exactly when the Cup was donated, or by who, it is likely to have been after the middle of the 16th century. Since the Cup bears no religious imagery, it was perfectly suited to its new function as a chalice in a post-Reformation church. Its size could also have been its saving grace: after the Reformation the whole congregation would drink from the same cup. Two possible donors are William Sharington, the first lay resident of Lacock Abbey after it had been suppressed in the Reformation, and Robert Baynard a local nobleman who lived in the 17th century. Both of these men held positions of local importance and have monuments within Saint Cyriac’s and a record of involvement with the church.

Whoever the original donor was, we do know that the Cup was used and treasured by the congregation for centuries. It was not until the 20th century that the importance of the Cup became known nationally and internationally. In 1962 a loan was agreed with the church for the Cup to come to the British Museum. There was a surprising clause to the loan. It was agreed that the Cup would travel back to Lacock from Paddington to be met by a ‘responsible person of the parish’ for liturgical use four times a year at Christmas, Easter, Whitsun and Harvest. We can assume that the Cup was historically linked to these festivals, as a report to the Trustees of the British Museum dated 26 September 1962 notes that ‘the parish is accustomed to using the Cup as a communion chalice on four occasions during the year and would wish to continue to do so’.

At the end of 2013 the British Museum and the Wiltshire Museum jointly acquired the Lacock Cup for the nation. As a mark of recognition of the importance of the Cup to the history and community of St Cyriac’s, the British Museum has commissioned a facsimile, made by an expert at the Museum, which will continue to have a role in the life of the church into the twenty-first century. 2015 will also see the story of the Lacock Cup continue as it goes on tour across the UK. The tour will open on 31 January at The Salisbury Museum, then onto the Palace Green Library, Durham, Norwich Castle Keep, Nottingham Castle and finishing at Wiltshire Museum in Devizes.

The Lacock Cup was acquired by the British Museum and the Wiltshire Museum with the support of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, John Studzinski, the Art Fund, the American Friends of the British Museum, the British Museum Friends, the Jean Sibley Bequest, the Charity Fund of International Partners Limited in memory of Melvin R Seiden, Howard and Roberta Ahmanson, the Headley Trust and individual contributions.

Naomi Speakman and Lloyd De Beer are authors of the latest volume in the Objects in Focus series: The Lacock Cup.

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What I want from the British Museum

Bonnie Greer OBE, playwright, novelist and critic, former British Museum Trustee

I wrote in my recently published memoir A Parallel Life, about my first encounter with the British Museum. My dad worked in a factory at night making tin cans and during the day he read. One of the things he read voraciously was the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it is in its pages that I first saw the Parthenon Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and the British Museum – the edifice – itself, very feminine and welcome, Muse-like to me. Decades later, after I had moved to London from New York, I was given a Reader’s Card, a pass which enabled me to take books out of the British Library, then housed in the Museum. I can’t tell you the fear and the excitement I felt going through those faux-Grecian pillars for the first time, me – a kid from the Southside of Chicago – here, for free, with no restrictions on what I could see.

And feel.

The British Museum

The British Museum

I came to see, after eight years on the Board here – four of them as Deputy Chair – that every museum, large or small, is an ecosystem. It is the objects; the physical building itself; the curators, other staff and visitors. And then it is the things that cannot be seen: the scholarship; the energy of everyone involved; the connections with the museum’s various communities.

And the Point.

Every museum has a Point. All of the modernisation, the furbelows, bells and whistles must never obscure the Point. And this is held – in a delicate balance – with the Board and the Director and his/her team. The Point, to me – at this moment in what we call the West – is simply to justify the West itself. We take this for granted because the West has been ruler for so long, so long in control, in charge. But this will not be the case in the rapidly approaching future.

Marble relief (Block XLIV) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival, the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena. 1816,0610.43

Marble relief (Block XLIV) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival, the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena. 1816,0610.43

We must ourselves understand the West: individual freedom; the free flow of ideas; the equality of men and women, ethnicities, abilities and sexualities. The modern Agora. Freedom of religion and speech and thought… and the freedom to roam, which to my mind, is peculiarly British and apt in relation to the time that the Museum came to be, the Age of Enlightenment.

In the 21st century the Age of Enlightenment also means digitisation – not simply the ‘wiring’ of the Museum, but an understanding of what a digital edifice is, that it exists not just on screen or increasingly in digital ‘wearables’. A digital Museum understands the concept of the ‘Internet of Everything’, in which every object – even the space itself – can interact with the visitor.

Be the Visitor.

The concept of being a ‘visitor’ itself will become a multi-faceted experience, increasingly one that will not just be in situ.

But everywhere.

The Museum must face Everywhere.

We must not only know what our values are, but the Museum becomes the very demonstration of them. All nations and peoples are welcomed in the spirit of Enlightenment and the Museum must have neither fear nor favour in doing this. The agora of itself therefore extends out, encompassing, fearless. Free.

A group of children using a tablet in a Museum gallery

A group using a tablet in one of the Museum’s galleries

And now, we are in a time when this can actually happen – digitally – and museums must acknowledge this, and to some extent enter into a new partnership. Because the Visitor, the Engager, will also take a more and more active part in creating the Museum of the future.

There has to be space for this to happen.

I also don’t think that ethnicity will play a large part in the scheme of things in 50 to 100 years’ time. There will be little or no such thing as ‘ethnic diversity’. In the West we are blending, becoming new people and so the Museum will become a kind of staging post and also a way-station, in which objects, ideas and experience will document the movement toward this cohesion and perhaps point toward possible futures.

Before I first entered the British Museum, I had dreamed about it, refashioned it to fit me.

Door panels and lintel  from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

Door panels and lintel from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

This can only happen if the Museum continues to make itself an equal and never allows class or other banalities to get in the way of its mission. And is vigilant about this. Strong and determined.

I have a friend who told me that, when she was a young girl, she used to pass through the British Museum with her eyes closed, on her way to the Library. For her, the Museum, all Western museums, are storehouses of old, sentimental and in the case of the British Museum, colonial and imperial loot. She couldn’t look because there were things inside that belonged to her. I’ve grown to understand the enormous value of global collections, but we must all know why they hold objects that do not ‘belong to us’. This is not only an intellectual explanation, but an emotional one.

Museums must make their Boards younger, swifter, more diverse, able to react to change. The British Museum has made good steps in this area already, but nobody can be complacent; change and turmoil will be the ‘terrible twos’ of the 21st century, and our children, too, if we see them in a positive way. Every day the 21st-century museum must be rebuilt anew. The point of it all has to be revisited, refreshed constantly. In simplicity, precision and elegance.

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. 1939,1010.93

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. 1939,1010.93

Sitting next to my dad back then, poring over those heavy encyclopaedias, we read the stories attached to the objects and we saw, within ourselves, the lands and the times and the people. The British Museum belonged to us then. And yet, it belonged to itself, too. The coming together of these two ideas: The Visitor and the Museum, their conjunction, projection and protection, is what the British Museum in the 21st century has to be about.


Bonnie Greer is on the panel for A living building: how could the British Museum best deliver its constant purpose for a changing public?, on Thursday 11 September, 18.30–20.30. This is the first in a series of debates as part of Museum of the future, in which we are discussing big questions about the Museum’s future. Visit our Tumblr to get an introduction to the debate and the Museum’s history.

Bonnie Greer’s memoir A Parallel Life is published by Arcadia Books.

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Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion

carved netsuke in the form of a sleeping ratNoriko Tsuchiya, curator, British Museum

Distant view of Mount Tsukuba, depicting a merchant wearing a dark kimono in a restaurant in Shinagawa (Tokyo).

Distant view of Mount Tsukuba, depicting a merchant wearing a dark kimono in a restaurant in Shinagawa (Tokyo). Kitao Masanobu (Santō Kyōden’s pseudonym, 1761–1816). Colour woodblock print (1931,0513,0.12)

I have been working on a new Asahi Shimbun Display Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion that introduces the visitor to accessories that made men’s fashion a talking point during the Edo period (1615-1868). Although laws of the ruling samurai class strictly dictated garment choices for townsmen in Edo (now known as Tokyo), these plain garments could be offset with decorative additions, providing that they were worn discreetly or were hidden in the folds of their robes.

As there were no pockets in kimono, Japanese men instead used to hang personal belongings from a sash (obi). Netsuke (pronounced net-ské) were essentially a toggle or stopper to prevent these dangling items (sagemono) from falling to the ground. While fundamentally utilitarian in function, Japanese crafstmen turned them into miniature masterpieces of sculpture, made of materials such as wood, ivory and porcelain, intricately carved into human figures, animals, plants or everyday objects.

Japanese pond turtle

Japanese pond turtle. The intricate detail of the animal’s features demonstrates the skill of the artist and his close observation of nature. This netsuke in high quality Japanese silver feels weighty in the wearer’s hand. By Kikugawa, late 1800s, Japan (HG.291)

Goldfish

Goldfish. This ugly, yet adorable, goldfish is known as the lion-head goldfish or ranchū, and is highly regarded in Japan. Keeping goldfish as pets became popular from the 1800s onwards. By Masanao I of Ise (1815–90), Japan. Made of boxwood, inlaid with light and dark horn eyes (F.1074)

Sleeping rat

Sleeping rat. This ivory rat was carved by Masanao, one of the greatest netsuke artists. It may have been worn by a man born in the year of the rat. This netsuke might also have served as a talisman for attracting prosperity, since rats are associated with Daikoku, one of the Seven Gods of Good Fortune. By Masanao of Kyoto, late 1700s, Japan. Made of ivory. (F.782)

Sleeping rat

Sleeping rat. By Masanao of Kyoto, late 1700s, Japan. Made of ivory. (F.782)

Because of this utilitarian purpose, netsuke were used by all classes of society. However, merchants notably used netsuke and other items to demonstrate their wealth, status and taste — with men often selecting and coordinating their outfits to fit the weather, season, occasion and their mood.

The exhibition also features a bespoke kimono, a sword, smoking implements and beautifully lacquered medicine- and seal-cases to demonstrate how Japanese men of the past dressed to impress.

Chinese couple playing a flute

Chinese couple playing a flute. This is one of the earliest netsuke in the British Museum made around 1700. The Chinese Tang emperor Xuanzong (AD 685–762) and his beautiful consort Yang Guifei (AD 719–756) sit together playing a flute. Unsigned, about 1700. Japan. Made of ivory. (1945,1017.595)

Chinese boy holding a mask for a lion dance.

Chinese boy holding a mask for a lion dance. Porcelain netsuke are less common than those made of ivory or wood. The Chinese lion (shishi) mask is used in a dance known as shishi-mai, performed at festivals throughout Japan, particularly around the New Year. Unsigned, early 1800s, Mikawachi kilns (Saga prefecture), Japan. Made of porcelain. (Franks.1462.+)

Netsuke and traditional Japanese accessories are not simply things of the past. Although such outfits and ornamentation fell out of fashion with the adaptation of Western styles of dress at the beginning of the twentieth century, kimono have recently started to make a comeback in Japan. Perhaps netsuke will be a must-have item for the fashion-conscious male not too soon into the future!

The Asahi Shimbun Displays
Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion is in Room 3, from 19 June to 17 August 2014
Supported by The Asahi Shimbun

We will be holding a free public event on Friday 27 June, 17.00-20.00 in Room 3. Experts will be on hand to show how traditional kimono are worn. Feel free to try on some cool kimono and take a #KimonoSelfie to share with the world!

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A Viking ship on a Chinese note

banknoteHelen Wang, curator, British Museum

‘There are Viking ships on Chinese banknotes’ I said to Gareth Williams, curator of the BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend, thinking that I could easily research them before the exhibition. After all, these notes were issued in the 1920s by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank, one of the many foreign and joint-venture banks in China at the time. But it has turned out to be more demanding than I expected, thrown up a number of interesting questions along the way, and what follows is by no means the full story.

5 yuan note issued by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank (CM 1979,1039.18)

5 yuan note issued by the Sino-Scandinavian Bank (CM 1979,1039.18). View a larger version

The Sino-Scandinavian Bank was given its charter by the Chinese government on 21 July 1921, and began operating on 7 January 1922. It was actually a Chinese-Norwegian joint venture, with the larger part of the funding coming from Chinese sources, and a smaller part from Norwegian investors. The Bank’s first notes are dated 1922, but the majority that have survived (about 30 different types) were probably issued after 1924. The bank appears to have gone bankrupt sometime in 1926 or 1927. Most of the information we know about the Sino-Scandinavian Bank comes from Bjørn R. Rønning’s unpublished master’s thesis ‘Sino-Scandinavian Bank (1921-ca.1927) En norsk bank i Kina?’ (Hovedoppgave i historie ved Universitetet i Oslo, våren 1979). Unfortunately, my Norwegian’s not up to reading it in its entirety in the original, and for the time being I’m indebted to Jan Eriks Frantsvåg’s English summary and images on his website.

Like most of the paper money issued by foreign and joint-venture banks in China in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, this note aims to serve both Chinese and foreign users. At first glance, the Chinese and English sides look bilingual. But a closer look reveals lots of things that don’t quite add up.

Let’s start with the name of the bank. In Chinese this reads Hua Wei yinhang 華威銀行. This translates as the Sino-Norwegian Bank (or Chinese-Norwegian Bank). The first character hua 華 (magnificent) is often used when referring to China. The second character wei 威 (power) is from the Chinese term Nuowei 挪威 (i.e. Norway). The last two characters yinhang 銀行 are the usual term for ‘bank’. It’s interesting that the Chinese and English names aren’t an exact match. I wonder who decided the two names? The Chinese name is a more accurate reflection of the nationality of the investors. On the other hand, wei is much more meaningful (and auspicious) than any of the other characters in Sikandinaweiya 斯堪的納維亞, which is a bit of a mouthful in Chinese. But in English, the Sino-Scandinavian Bank sounds better than the Sino-Norwegian Bank, even if it is more ambitious in meaning.

The images are different too: a scene of Beihai Park in Beijing on the Chinese side, and the Viking ship on the English side. Beihai Park was once an imperial garden, but opened to the public in 1925 (according to the park’s website), three years after the date printed on the notes. The Viking ship was chosen to represent Norway/Scandinavia, an iconic symbol that works very well here (much better than a polar bear, which, according to Jan Eriks Frantsvåg, was one of the motifs originally planned for these notes.

The denomination is also interesting. The Chinese side has ‘five yuan in national currency’ printed in brown below the image, and the English side simply ‘five yuan’. The five black rosettes overstamped just below the denomination obscure the letters PEKING, and the black overstamps on the images inform us that there was a change in use to ‘Yungchi currency’ (in Chinese: ‘for circulation in Yungchi’). Yungchi (pinyin: Yongqi) literally means ‘Yong 7′ and refers to an administrative region encompassing Yongping and six other counties in Hebei province in north China. The name of Changli, one of those counties, is overstamped in black above the image, but only on the Chinese side. Yungchi and ‘Yungchi currency’ are not familiar terms, and it’s interesting to see such local references on a joint-venture banknote.

As we might expect, given the different cultural traditions, the English side has personal signatures in black, and the Chinese side has red seal impressions of authority. However, while it was standard practice to put seal impressions on notes issued by Chinese banks, it was not consistently the practice to do so on notes issued by joint-venture banks.

The signatories were J.W.N. Munthe and Fartsan T. Sung, who were very well connected with the Chinese military and government. Johan Wilhelm Normann Munthe (1864-1935) was Norwegian. Born in Bergen in 1864, he moved to China in 1886 and spent the rest of his life there. He worked for the customs service, and eventually became a general in the Chinese army. He participated in the Sino-Japanese War (1894) and the Siege of Peking (Boxer Rebellion) in 1900. He also collected Chinese art and antiquities, many of which he donated to the Vestlandske Kunstindustriemuseum in Bergen.

Fartsan T. Sung (pinyin: Song Faxiang宋發祥 (1883-?) was Chinese. Born in Fujian, he went to the USA in 1900, and studied science at Ohio Wesleyan College and Chicago. After returning to China in 1907, he held a number of important government positions before the 1920s. He was Technical Expert of the Ministry of Finance, Co-Director of the Ministry’s Assaying Office, Director of the Soochow (pinyin: Suzhou) Mine, Co-Director of the Bureau of Printing and Engraving, Inspector General of Mints, Director-General of the Nanking (pinyin: Nanjing) Mint, private English secretary to President Feng Kuo-chang (pinyin: Feng Guozhang 馮國璋, 1859-1919) and political advisor to the President’s Office. He was a ‘councillor-at-large’ of the Ministry of Finance in 1920, and again from 1922-1924, during which time he was elected a Member of the Commission for the Consolidation of Domestic and Foreign Debts (1923). He co-founded the Sino-Scandinavian Bank in the spring of 1921 and became manager of its Peking office in 1924. From 1928 he was serving in Chinese consular offices overseas: in Southeast Asia between 1928 and 1937, and in Vienna between 1938 and 1940. I haven’t been able to trace him beyond this.

There are a lot of interesting things about this banknote that don’t quite add up at the moment, not least why we have the signatures of two extremely well-connected men on notes being used in a very local area. It’s curious that the Sino-Scandinavian Bank does not appear in the beautifully illustrated bilingual catalogue Currencies in Old Shanghai (老上海貨幣, Shanghai, 1998). And even more curious that the great expert on Chinese banking, Eduard Kann (1880-1962) did not include the Sino-Scandinavian Bank in his list of foreign and joint-venture banks in China. Kann started his career in a British bank in China in 1901, moved to the Russo-Asiatic Bank, the French Banque Industrielle de Chine and the Chinese-American Bank of Commerce before becoming an independent bullion-broker in Shanghai in the 1930s (the British Museum acquired his superb collection of almost 200 silver ingots in 1978), so we might expect him to have heard of it.

Perhaps there is more to this Chinese note with a Viking ship than meets the eye?

The BP exhibition Vikings: life and legend is at the British Museum until 22 June 2014.
Supported by BP
Organised by the British Museum, the National Museum of Denmark, and the Museum für Vor- und Frühgeschichte, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Tweet using #VikingExhibition and @britishmuseum

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Did women in Greece and Rome speak?


Mary Beard, Professor of Classics, Cambridge University
Did women in Greece and Rome speak? Stupid question; of course they did. They must have chattered and joked together, laughed at the silliness of their menfolk, advised (or chatted up) their husbands, given lessons to their children… and much, much more.

But nowhere in the ancient world did they ever have a recognised voice in public – beyond, occasionally, complaining about the abuse they must often have suffered. Those who did speak out got ridiculed as being androgynes (‘men-women’). The basic motto (as for Victorian children) was that women should be seen and not heard, and best of all not seen either.

This streak of misogyny made a big impression on me when I first started learning ancient Greek about 45 years ago. One of the first things I read in Greek back then was part of Homer’s Odyssey – one of that pair of great epic poems, the Iliad and the Odyssey that stand at the very beginning of the whole tradition of western literature.

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily GR 1867,0508.402

Gold finger-ring with a seated woman, perhaps Penelope. Western Greek, around 400 BC – 300 BC, possibly made in Sicily. GR 1867,0508.402

I remember even now coming across an extraordinary passage in the first book of the poem. Penelope, who is waiting loyally for her husband, Odysseus, to return from the Trojan War, comes downstairs from her apartment in the palace to find a bard singing. His song tells of the terrible and deathly struggles the Greek heroes are having in getting back home after the war to conquer Troy. Not surprisingly Penelope, thinking of her own husband’s troubles, is upset and asks the bard to choose a happier theme. But no sooner has she spoken than her son Telemachus – not much more than a wet-behind-the-ears teenager – tells her to pipe down and go back upstairs to her weaving, “for speech is the business of men”.

It stuck in my mind (as I kid, I always rather admired the Greeks, but this seemed a terrible black spot almost to match slavery). I never imagined then that I would come back to reflect on this incident again, when I was thinking about how the voices of modern women have often been silenced too. Of course, that silence isn’t so dramatic. But when I agreed to give a London Review of Books Winter Lecture at the British Museum, on the public voice of women today, I kept coming back to the ancient world – and to the sense that women’s silence was very deeply embedded in our culture.

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper.  Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, 'The Legend of Goode Wimme’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

Edward Burne-Jones, Philomene, with a woman (Philomela) standing by her loom holding a shuttle in an interior, with a half-woven tapestry with the story of Philomene and Tereus, looking out of the window. Wood-engraving on India paper. Proof of an illustration designed by for the Kelmscott Chaucer, p.441, ‘The Legend of Goode Wimmen’. 1896. PD 1912,0612.372

It was fascinating (if slightly chilling) to collect some of the different ways that the Greeks and Romans so clearly paraded the idea that women should not speak out. These ranged from Ovid’s story in his Metamorphoses about the rape victim Philomela having her tongue cut out to prevent her naming her rapist (though she eventually managed to denounce him by weaving an account of what happened) to the abuse of one Roman woman who did get up to speak in the forum as a ‘barking’ (that is, non-human) androgyne.

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena's temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

Red-figured hydria, depicting the rape of Kassandra by the lesser Ajax, son of Oileus, in Athena’s temple at Troy. In the centre, the Trojan princess Kassandra kneels on the base of the statue of Athena, the Palladion. Attributed to the Danaid Group. Made in Campania, Italy. GR 1824,0501.35

In fact, it was hard to choose which examples to use for my lecture, and many people have written in since with even more, and sometimes even better, examples. One of the very best is the myth of the virgin prophetess Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy, who was – when the city fell – taken by king Agamemnon to be his concubine (she was eventually murdered, with the king, by his wife Clytemnestra). But before that, Cassandra’s lot was always to prophesy the truth but never to be believed. It is a wonderful twist on the idea that women’s speech is never authoritative: even when it really is true, it doesn’t seem so to listeners.

In antiquity, it is true that – almost without exception (perhaps the weird Diotima in Plato’s Symposium is one) – you only hear a woman speak when she is about to die, or when she is speaking up for the concerns of women and the home (as did Antigone, when she defends the proper burial of her dead brother). Otherwise, as Telemachus put it, speech is for men.

Now, of course, I don’t think that the classical tradition simply explains why many women have such a hard time getting their voice heard even now. We have come a long way since then. All the same, my lecture does argue that if we want to do something about some of the current issues women face when they try to speak up, it’s important to think of the very long western history of women being shut up.

Mary Beard blogs at A Don’s Life.
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Facing Enlightenment: a musical conversation with the past

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery
Peter Sheppard Skӕrved, violinist

On Friday 13th December between 18.30 and 20.00, I am performing in a concert in the Enlightenment Gallery, setting up a musical conversation between past and present, one that is reflective of the ideas of renewal and rediscovery summed up in the word ‘Enlightenment’. Music of the 1600s and 1700s, by Giuseppe Torelli, Nicola Matteis, and Johann Jakob Walther will be played alongside brand new works, including one by leading composer David Gorton, responding to the challenge of the past.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved performing in the Enlightenment Gallery, 2006, photo courtsey of Richard Bram

David Gorton played a central role in my 2006 intervention in the Enlightenment Gallery, when 11 international composers created new work in conversation with my ideas about the space and the collection. Gorton’s new work takes a bold imaginative leap, inspired by the Enlightenment’s ‘discovery of the past’: how might we, in 2013, re-imagine musicians of the Enlightenment reviving, exploring, the music and the works of earlier epochs?

Gorton’s first work for the Enlightenment Gallery was inspired by the copy of the Rosetta Stone made for George III. The resulting Rosetta Caprice has been played hundreds of times worldwide, recorded and filmed, and most recently, I presented it at a TED Conference in Norway. Follow the link to see a short film of its first appearance in the British Museum, in 2006.

Some of the composers working with me were inspired by the layers of history, the ‘false leads’, overlaying some of the most ancient man-made objects in the Enlightenment Gallery. Nashville-based composer Michael Alec Rose was inspired by the Grays Inn Handaxe, at one time thought to have been a Roman weapon. The title, Palimpsest, is a reflection of these layerings.

The Enlightenment was as much a revolution of technology and science as ideas and discovery. One of its most enduring legacies proved to be the instruments of the violin family, pioneered and perfected in the Italian cities of Cremona and Brescia across this period. This concert will be performed on a beautiful early example by the ‘father of the violin’, Andrea Amati, whose grandson Niccolo, would later teach Antonio Stradivari.

Peter Sheppard Skӕrved is the dedicatee of over 400 works for violin, and has recorded over 70 critically acclaimed albums of works from the 17th century to the present day. He regularly performs in over 30 countries, and has a unique record of collaboration with museums, working regularly with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Library of Congress, Washington DC and the National Portrait Gallery, where he curated a major exhibition, Only Connect, in 2011-12. To see more of his work, visit www.peter-sheppard-skaerved.com

The performance Facing Enlightenment is in the Enlightenment Gallery, Friday 13 December, 18.30–20.00, Free, just drop in.

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