British Museum blog

The British Museum: A Museum for the World

Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

The British Museum was founded in 1753 by an act of Parliament and is the embodiment of Enlightenment idealism. In a revolutionary move, it was from its inception designed to be the collection of every citizen of the world, not a royal possession and not controlled by the state. Over the succeeding 260 plus years it has gathered and exhibited things from all over the globe – antiquities, coins, sculptures, drawings – and made them freely available to anyone who was able to come and see them. Millions have visited and learned, and have been inspired by what they saw. Today the Museum is probably the most comprehensive survey of the material culture of humanity in existence.

The world today has changed; the way we access information has been revolutionised by digital technology. We live in a world where sharing knowledge has become easier, we can do extraordinary things with technology which enables us to give the Enlightenment ideal on which the Museum was founded a new reality. It is now possible to make our collection accessible, explorable and enjoyable not just for those who physically visit, but to everybody with a computer or a mobile device. Our partnership with Google allows us to further our own – extraordinary – mission: to be a Museum of and for the World, making the knowledge and culture of the whole of humanity open and available to all.

MuseumOfTheWorld

Screen grabs of the microsite

History connected: ‘The Museum of the World’ microsite allows users to explore and make connections between the world’s cultures.

But this isn’t just about putting the collection ‘online’. Through our partnership with Google, we hope to give people new ways to experience and enjoy the Museum, new ways to learn, new ways to share and new ways to teach. Thousands of objects from the Museum’s collection will be available to view through the Google Cultural Institute site and through a special microsite ‘The Museum of the World’ which will allow users to explore and make connections between the world’s cultures. One of the Museum’s most important Chinese scrolls, the 6th-century Admonitions Scroll has been captured in super high-resolution to give you a closer and more intimate view than could be achieved with the naked eye. We’ve captured the whole Museum via Street View, meaning that if you can’t get to the Museum in person, you can do a virtual walking tour of every permanent gallery, and all its outdoor buildings. And virtual exhibits allow you to see Celtic objects from across UK museums brought together in a unique tour, or a thematic exhibition detailing Egypt’s history after the pharaohs. None of this is to deny the power of seeing an object in the flesh in a gallery, nothing will replace that experience, but it does allow a far greater public access to the Museum and its unparalleled collection.

streetview

Take a tour: all of the British Museum’s permanent galleries are now on Street View.

Virtual exhibits: snapshots of a specially curated tour of Celtic objects from museums across the UK (above) and

Virtual exhibits: snapshots of a specially curated tour of Celtic objects from museums across the UK (above) and a thematic exhibition on Egypt’s history after the pharaohs (below).

egypt_exhibit

And this is just the beginning. We’re in a brave new world of information dissemination. As we are transformed by globalisation, it is more important than ever to understand the past of the whole world. The breadth of the British Museum’s collection, the authority of the Museum’s scholarship and the skill with which it is presented and mediated: all these are now ready and available for anyone anywhere on the planet. The more we can work with partners in the technology sphere, and the more we rise to the challenge of making our world a digital one, the greater will be our impact on community cohesion and understanding, domestically and internationally. Through technology, the Museum’s collection can become the private collection of the entire world. And so our great Enlightenment vision moves into a phase our founders in the 18th century couldn’t even have dreamed of.

Visit the British Museum on the Google Cultural Institute

Visit the Museum of the World microsite

Take a tour of the Museum via Street View

Egypt: faith after the pharaohs virtual exhibit

Celtic life in Iron Age Britain virtual exhibit

See more exhibits

Take a closer look at the Admonitions Scroll

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An interview with manga artist Hoshino Yukinobu

In the second of our interviews to celebrate The Asahi Shimbun Display Manga now: three generations Nicole Rousmaniere, the IFAC Handa Curator of Japanese Arts, interviews the manga artist Hoshino Yukinobu. A specialist in science fiction and mystery manga, Hoshino Yukinobu has recently created a new series Rainman, first published in Big Comic in June 2015. The display features a portrait of Rainman’s protagonist Taki Amamiya, who, through an accident of birth can unintentionally see the dead.

One of Hoshino Yukinobu’s most enduring characters is the crime-fighting anthropologist Professor Munakata, who appeared in his own British Museum adventure in 2011. In this interview Hoshino Yukinobu discusses his creative process, connection to the British Museum and the inspiration behind his new series Rainman.

Nicole Rousmaniere: Can you tell us how you go about creating a manga?

Hoshino Yukinobu: In an ideal world, I would like to create manga which I would like to read. But once I start, this ideal becomes difficult to achieve. It is not an easy task to surprise myself. After having selected many key elements required for the story and managing to begin the series, what I would like to read or draw do not seem to matter. You like it or not, the deadlines approach and surviving each of them pushes me forward.

An illustration from 'Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure'.

An illustration from Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure.

Nicole: How did you go about creating the story for Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure?

Hoshino Yukinobu: This story had to be part of the series which I had been working on so I could not begin with a completely original plot. I made a story based on my great admiration for the British Museum, to introduce the Museum and its history, collections and what goes on behind the scenes, which I myself had seen and learned first hand when I visited in 2008.

Nicole: Will Professor Munakata return to the UK and to the British Museum?

Hoshino Yukinobu: When there is an opportunity someday. Both Professor Munakata and I adore the United Kingdom.

Nicole: What do you feel about manga as an art form being displayed and represented in the British Museum’s collections?

Hoshino Yukinobu: Personally for me, I had never dreamed that my manga would have been displayed and collected at the British Museum. It is an honour beyond any words. I cannot thank those involved with the project enough. I also admire from my heart the British Museum’s spirit to accept Japanese manga in its collection along with other artistic objects from all times and places.

Hoshino Yukinobu (b. 1954), ‘Rainman’. Ink on paper, 2015. (© Hoshino Yukinobu)

Hoshino Yukinobu (b. 1954), Rainman. Ink on paper, 2015. (© Hoshino Yukinobu)

Nicole: What is your inspiration for Rainman?

Hoshino Yukinobu: For a long time, I have been creating manga with themes ranging from science and space to Japanese history. What I had been interested in even long before then provides the basis of the Rainman. That is to say the issue of human consciousness, the soul, life and death. No one can ignore these issues. It appears to me that the scientific and spiritual worlds are getting very close through quantum physics today. I am hoping to get these two worlds to connect in Rainman.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Manga now: three generations is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 15 November 2015. Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , , ,

An interview with manga artist Chiba Tetsuya

The Asahi Shimbun Display Manga now: three generations, explores manga’s diverse appeal through specially commissioned pieces by three contemporary manga artists. To celebrate the display, the exhibition’s three curators have each interviewed one of the featured manga artists.

In the first interview, Head of Japanese collections Tim Clark interviews Chiba Tetsuya – the leading master of manga in Japan. Born in Tokyo in 1939, Chiba Tetsuya has been creating best-selling works for over 50 years. He specialises in sports manga, in which an individual overcomes obstacles, experiences failure and finds eventual redemption. Chiba Tetsuya has a particular passion for golf and is known for his series Stay Fine (Ashita tenki ni naare), which tells the story of Mukai Taiyō’s journey from humble origins to the Open Championship at St Andrews. For this British Museum display, Chiba Tetsuya created a one-off scene of a young Japanese golfer crouching to contemplate a difficult putt on the green of Fair Isle Lighthouse Keepers golf course – one of the most remote courses in the world.

Chiba Tetsuya (b. 1939), Extract from 'Stay Fine' showing Mukai Taiyō in the Open Championship at St Andrews playing against Jack Niklaus. Ink on paper, 1990. (© Chiba Tetsuya)

Chiba Tetsuya (b. 1939), Extract from ‘Stay Fine’ showing Mukai Taiyō in the Open Championship at St Andrews playing against Jack Niklaus. Ink on paper, 1990. (© Chiba Tetsuya)

Tim Clark: How do you create your storylines for your manga?

Chiba Tetsuya: Each work is different. It is always a human storyline intertwined with a particular sport. I go to where the sports are being played and watch the players – be it high school baseball or a Sumo dôjô. With golf there are so many tournaments all over Japan and the world. But the top is of course the British Open at St Andrew’s Old Course. I decided to travel there and play the course to understand it. Based on my personal experience, the Old Course played a pivotal role in Stay Fine.

Tim: What do you take as your inspiration?

Chiba Tetsuya: I read books, watch movies and meet people. I think that in the end individual people are my inspiration. One person whom I am inspired by is Helen Keller.

Tim: Do you play sports? What do sports mean to you?

Chiba Tetsuya: To be honest when I was young I did not have much to do with sports. But at one point I became unwell in my 20s for two years, from working too many long hours on manga, and I ended up staying at home. Then an editor asked me to try to write a baseball manga, which then I knew little about. He took me outside and we started throwing a ball around for a few hours. That evening I slept well for the first time in years and have not looked back since. I will try any sort of sport. It helps not only your body but also importantly your mind and well-being.

Chiba Tetsuya (b. 1939), 'Fair Isle Lighthouse Keepers Golf Course, Scotland'. Ink and colour on paper, 2015. (© Chiba Tetsuya)

Chiba Tetsuya (b. 1939), ‘Fair Isle Lighthouse Keepers Golf Course, Scotland’. Ink and colour on paper, 2015. (© Chiba Tetsuya)

Tim: Does golf have a special place for you?

Chiba Tetsuya: Golf does have a special place for me. While I enjoy all sports, I feel golf is less a sport and more of a game against oneself. It is different from all other sports and so has a special place for me. I worked hard at my golf game and often went to the Arakawa River near my home in a local park to practice. It is hard to create a manga on golf as it is a solitary pursuit but that turned out to be a wonderful challenge for me.

Tim: Can you tell us how you created the protagonist of Stay Fine, Mukai Taiyō? What was your inspiration?

Chiba Tetsuya: There is a high school golf tournament in Japan called Midori Koshien. One team that surprising consistently won the tournaments was a rather average high school in Osaka. I went to see them practice. I realised they had an amazing coach, who, while rather chubby and silent, was inspirational and had the respect of the entire team, leading them to triumph. I based Mukai Taiyō loosely on that person.

The Asahi Shimbun Display Manga now: three generations is on display in Room 3 at the British Museum until 15 November 2015. Supported by The Asahi Shimbun.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, , , ,

The spirit of Mexico’s Day of the Dead

Laura Osorio Sunnucks, Project Curator, British Museum

In Mexico, on 1 and 2 November, which fall on the Roman Catholic Church’s All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days respectively, the spirits of the dead are invited into the world of the living. At home and in cemeteries, the family and friends of these spirits make offerings of fragrant marigolds, pine resin incense, food, drink and light. Unsure of direction, time or space, the smells and colours help to lead the spirits home.

Families and friends will usually also provide the food and drink enjoyed by the person when they were alive. A sweet bread, called pan de muerto (bread of the dead), and food or drinks made from maize, a central component of Mexican diet, are among other traditional gifts. Home altars are decorated creatively, perhaps with coloured tissue paper and garlands, while markets are flooded
with seasonal flowers and sugar skulls.

Cemetery offering of candles, marigolds and incense. (Photo: Altar: Antonio Olmos)

Cemetery offering of candles, marigolds and incense. (Photo: Altar: Antonio Olmos)

The Day of the Dead is not a static tradition. Celebrated diversely across the country, it is multi-faceted, evolving and personal. From 30 October until 2 November the British Museum will celebrate the Day of the Dead with a free festival, supported by BP and in association with the Government of Mexico as part of 2015: Year of Mexico in the UK. Designed as a fully immersive experience, this Mexican tradition will be honoured with a series of events that will focus on performance, participation and dialogue. One of the central display features will be Betsabeé Romero’s conceptual altar and intervention in the Great Court. Dedicated to migrants worldwide, this hanging installation captures the importance of the Days of the Dead in Mexico. The artist has reduced her palette to the colours traditionally associated with this festival: pink, purple, orange and white. These symbolise celebration, mourning, the life-giving properties of the sun and purity. Paper banners, printed with images of figures moving by foot and by boat, framed with barbed wire, are perhaps a reference to the many Mexicans who die crossing the USA/Mexico border. Romero not only explores the contemporary politics of migration, but also its heritage as a vehicle of cultural contact and exchange. The sharing and blending of beliefs and practices through the movement of peoples, images, objects and ideas, is at the core of the Day of the Dead festival, which contains elements from pre-Hispanic Mesoamerican and European religious practice.

contemporary art installation based on a Day of the Dead altar.

Betsabeé Romero’s contemporary art installation based on a Day of the Dead altar.

Another participative installation invites visitors to leave a message or flower for their deceased loved ones on trees. These trees stand on a page from the Tepetlaoztoc Codex (from the British Museum’s collection), a painted book written in the 1500s by the inhabitants of Tepetlaoztoc, a town near Lake Texcoco in modern-day Central Mexico. The image shows four feather crests (penachos) crowned with cactus leaves. Beneath one of these crests is a gaping mouth, an ancient symbol representing a cave. In pre-Hispanic and colonial Mexico, locations were often described using geographical features and Tepetlaoztoc derives from the Nahuatl words for stone-mat cave. Shown as being born from trees, earth, rivers and caves, rulers were connected to the sacred landscape. Caves were sites of ritual practice and often burial places, as they were linked with the transition between cosmological spheres, such as the world of the living and that of the dead. Trees were also important metaphors in Mesoamerican iconography, symbolising strength, growth, genealogy and the earth’s fertility. Pictorial manuscripts often depict rulers gaining legitimacy for their power by communicating with community ancestors in the sacred landscape, marked by trees and caves.

The Tepetlaoztoc Codex. Pre-Columbian Mexico, 16th century. 21.5 x 29.5 cm. British Museum Am2006,Drg.13964

The Tepetlaoztoc Codex. Pre-Columbian Mexico, 16th century. 21.5 x 29.5 cm. British Museum Am2006,Drg.13964

These interventions, alongside the Museum’s permanent collection of ancient to modern objects from around the world, can create a deep understanding of diversity. Mexicans celebrate the Day of the Dead in order to remember their deceased loved ones and, as such, the festival is necessarily poignant and personal. It is with this tenderness for humanity that we can engage with the personal history behind all of the objects in the Museum’s collection, which represent our world heritage.

The Days of the Dead Festival is on at the British Museum from 30 October to 2 November 2015
Supported by BP
In association with the Government of Mexico
as part of 2015: Year of Mexico in the UK

Filed under: At the Museum, , , , , , , ,

Discovering hidden Celtic creatures

Jane Findlay, Head of Schools and Young Audiences Education and Emilia McKenzie, Education Manager: Digital Content, British Museum

Our newly-opened special exhibition Celts: art and identity has been developed with visitors of all ages in mind, and we’ve enjoyed discovering the animals hidden in the designs of many of the objects. If you’ve visited the exhibition already, you’ll know that the more you look at Celtic art, the more strange and wonderful creatures seem to appear!

2,000 years ago, people across much of Europe shared an art style that today we call ‘Celtic art’. Their fascination with animals is one of the common artistic traits that links them together. For the Celts, animals were more than just subjects for art, they played a key role in these people’s lives: as pets, livestock, mythical creatures and symbols of power.

Take this boar. We don’t know exactly what this fierce little pig would have been used for, but it would have been proudly displayed; perhaps on top of a helmet. Perhaps people wanted to evoke the qualities associated with boars – strength and courage – to make them feel brave and look ferocious going into battle.

An Iron-Age boar figurine found in Ashmanhaugh, Norfolk (Photo: © Norwich Castle)

An Iron-Age boar figurine, 100 BC–AD 100. Found in Ashmanhaugh, Norfolk. Copper alloy. L. 8.7 cm (Photo: © Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery)

We liked this boar so much we even used him as the mascot for our family labels. You’ll find these dotted throughout the exhibition, full of fun tips and ideas to help families unlock the stories behind the objects together.

Some animals are more obvious than others in the exhibition. For example, take a look at this image of the dazzling Gundestrup cauldron – how many different creatures can you spot? You might want to challenge others in your family too.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gundestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded. Gundestrup, Denmark, 100 BC–AD 1. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (Photo: (c) The National Museum of Denmark)

How did you get on? Some animals look familiar, while others are strange and mysterious. Did you notice the man riding the fish? What about the horned man in the middle, holding a snake? We think he might be a god.

Other objects demand even closer inspection to unpick their secrets. Take the shield pictured below, from near Lincoln. Look closely at the patterns at the top and bottom – what do you see? Can you make out the long-faced bull or cow? Why do you think the artist might have chosen to include this on the shield? Perhaps it was meant to give protection to the shield’s owner, or maybe it was a symbol of their family or tribe, a bit like a coat of arms.

Witham shield. River Witham, Lincolnshire, England, Iron Age, around 300–200 BC. L. 110 cm. British Museum 1872,1213.1

Shield, with detail shown on the right. River Witham, Lincolnshire, England. Iron Age, around 300–200 BC. L. 110 cm. British Museum 1872,1213.1

Visit the Celts: art and identity exhibition with your family to decipher more secrets and find out what else you can discover when you look a little closer at the objects. Don’t forget – if you’re planning a trip in October half term you can also immerse yourself in a Celtic world with free family activities taking place in the Great Court. Add your own creatures to our cauldron art installation, try your hand at Celtic crafts (you can take yours home!) and listen to some Celtic music. You’ll find something to enjoy no matter how old you are!

Celts: art and identity is at the British Museum until 31 January 2016.
Organised with National Museums Scotland

Supported by
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Celts: art and identity, Exhibitions, , , , , , ,

‘Wayfinding’: The Bridget Riley Art Foundation and Central Saint Martins at the British Museum

Sarah Jaffray, Project Officer: Bridget Riley Art Foundation, British Museum
A new display entitled ‘Wayfinding’ has been put up in Room 90 as part of the Bridget Riley Art Foundation (BRAF) Programme at the British Museum. For this exhibition of 14 works I have paired the drawings of BA Fine Art students from Central Saint Martins with the works that inspired them during their visit to the Prints and Drawings Study Room. The display explores drawing as a tool that artists, both emerging and established, use to find their way. Their ‘way’ may be an examination of their artistic process, the development or destruction of a personal style or the path to a finished work. Regardless of what form the path takes, drawing is a method through which an artist can clarify their direction.

Students drawing in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

Students drawing in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

The BRAF Programme is a three year project in the Department of Prints and Drawings that supports two posts: a project curator, Isabel Seligman, and myself as project officer. A key part of the programme is to research the drawing practice of emerging artists, specifically university art students. In the past year we have brought almost 500 students into the Prints and Drawings Study Room to take inspiration from drawings. We do this through curating and leading workshops, and selecting works from the Museum’s rich drawing collection, one that stretches from the fifteenth century to the present day. Responses from the students and tutors have been invaluable to our understanding of the role of drawing in contemporary arts practice and education. These insights have also contributed to Isabel’s curation of an exhibition of British Museum drawings that will tour the UK in 2016–2017.

Throughout the project, we have been privileged to work with many bright and engaged young artists, but we were particularly lucky to spend a significant amount of time with a small group of second year students from Central Saint Martins. Organised by their pathway leader Anne Eggebert and led by their tutor, artist Rachel Cattle, the course was entitled ‘On not knowing – drawing at the British Museum’. The title comes from Bridget Riley’s essay ‘At the End of My Pencil’, published by the London Review of Books in 2009. In the essay Riley states that, for her, ‘drawing is an inquiry, a way of finding out – the first thing that I discover is that I do not know.’

Students drawing from drawings in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

Students drawing from drawings in the Prints and Drawings Study Room. (Photo: Sarah Jaffray)

The course encouraged students to discover more about their own practice through the journey of drawing rather than working towards a defined, end point. By recognising that they ‘do not know’, the artists were freed from any limitations that might stifle true exploration.

Over the course of three months, we witnessed the students’ drawing practice reveal new directions in their work, as they responded to artists exploring similar ideas. The following works are just a few examples.

The Boxer, by Leo Claudon, acrylic on paper, 2015. (© Leo Claudon)

The Boxer, by Leo Claudon, acrylic on paper, 2015. (© Leo Claudon)

Leo Claudon found resonance with Picasso’s idea that in the metamorphosis of a picture ‘one might discover the path followed by the brain’. Instead of working from a defined concept, Claudon lets his drawing unfold through a series of reactions to line and form. This allows Claudon to draw without restriction; the work that emerges is a response to the energy of the moment in which it was drawn. The raw, overlapping lines that construct the muscular energy of the boxer show the artist’s process, the metamorphosis of his picture.

Conversing to/about form and surface. - Blue You & An introductory artist’s lecture, by Jordan Mouzouris, 2015, mixed media. (© Jordan Mouzouris)

Conversing to/about form and surface. – Blue You & An introductory artist’s lecture, by Jordan Mouzouris, 2015, mixed media. (© Jordan Mouzouris)

Jordan Mouzouris was inspired by the pulsating rhythms of a drawing by Mannerist artist Bronzino. Mouzouris’s piece was created with a method known as concrete poetry. In this practice, the artist uses visual composition to guide interpretation of text. Mouzouris frequently works from this method, sketching and arranging word and image in his notebook. It is no surprise that the artist connected to Bronzino, an artist who was not only a painter, but an accomplished poet.

Untitled, by Aurélie Poux, 2015, graphite on BFK Rives paper. (© Aurélie Poux)

Untitled, by Aurélie Poux, 2015, graphite on BFK Rives paper. (© Aurélie Poux)

Aurélie Poux drew Untitled shortly after working from a drawing by British abstract artist Paule Vézelay. Poux’s modulations of grey and subtlety of line are experiments drawn from what the artist has called ‘Vézelay’s silent delicacy’. The stability of Poux’s monumental figures is undone by the cracks and fissures that materialise from the drawing’s gradation of tone. Her meticulously drawn surface is intended to create an unsettling contradiction between youth and decay. Through exploration of Vézelay’s graphic mark-making and tonal variation, Poux found the artistic language she needed to confront the difficult subject of sickness and abuse through aesthetically pleasing form.

Beyond these artworks, visitors can also see the drawings of George Grosz, Frank Auerbach, Sol LeWitt and Giuseppe Galli Bibiena paired with responses from emerging artists Katherine Illingworth, Isabelle Cole, Pooja Patel and Rianne Owen.

The works in the display demonstrate the diversity of artistic experience that drawing can unlock. In drawing from drawings these artists were able to examine and explore their own artistic process from a different perspective. Much more than direct copying, their responses were pathways to discovery.

I hope this blog inspires people to come and see the display of student work and the works that inspired them. I also hope this inspires people to come and use the Study Room, where over 2 million works on paper can be seen first-hand. The display is in Room 90 through the first week of November. Appointments to draw in the Study Room can be made by clicking here.

Filed under: British Museum, Exhibitions, Prints and drawings, , , ,

Coming of age: The Hirayama Studio celebrates 21 years conserving the British Museum’s magnificent Asian paintings collection

Carol Weiss, Conservator of Chinese Paintings and Joanna Kosek, Head of Pictorial Art Section, Conservation and Scientific Research, British Museum

Anyone who has ever visited the Hirayama Conservation Studio in the British Museum has seen what a unique and impressive place it is. For within its venerable walls an old room found new life as the centre for the most delicate and artistic operations: the care, conservation and mounting of uncounted precious scrolls and similar art on paper and silk from East and South Asia.

This autumn the Hirayama Studio comes of age. For twenty-one years now work has been carried out in this studio and every year it is busier and busier. We have no idea how we would have coped had Professor Ikuo Hirayama and the Five Cities Art Dealers Association of Japan not come to our rescue in 1994, and given us our specially-designed studio housed in the Grade I listed building, once home to the Bloomsbury Savings bank.

The Hirayama Studio on its opening 21 years ago, with conservators (left to right) Sydney Thomson, Jin Xian Qiu, Andrew Thompson, Winnie Fleming (Head of Eastern Pictorial Art) and Ann Evans. (Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum)

The Hirayama Studio on its opening 21 years ago, with conservators (from left to right) Sydney Thomson, Jin Xian Qiu, Andrew Thompson, Winnie Fleming (Head of Eastern Pictorial Art) and Ann Evans. Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Over the last year, four conservators from Japan have been working with us. Sent from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures (Kokuho Shuri Sokoshi Renmei), thanks to the generous sponsorship of the Sumitomo Foundation, the conservators have been working with us on our Collaborative Project for the Conservation of Japanese Paintings in the British Museum, now in its eighth year.

Conservators from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures working in the Hirayama Studio (clockwise from top left: Aya One inpainting; BM textile conservator Anna Harrison discussing treatments with Masanobu Yamazaki and Keisuke Sugiyama; Iwataro-Yasuhiro Oka, Tim Clark (Curator of Japanese Collections) and Makoto Kajitani selecting mount silks; Keisuke and Jun Imada lining a handscroll)

Conservators from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures working in the Hirayama Studio (clockwise from top left): Aya One inpainting; BM textile conservator Anna Harrison discussing treatments with Masanobu Yamazaki and Keisuke Sugiyama; Iwataro-Yasuhiro Oka, Tim Clark (Curator of Japanese Collections at the British Museum) and Makoto Kajitani selecting mount silks; Keisuke and Jun Imada lining a handscroll. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

A recent highlight of the project has been collaborating on remounting the newly-acquired and breathtaking painting by Kitagawa Utamaro (c.1753–1806). Old and beautiful kimono silks used in the 19th-century mount were refurbished, combining modern textile conservation techniques with traditional Japanese scroll-mounting skills (watch out for our next blog for details on this).

At the same time, with generous support from the American Friends of the Shanghai Museum, three scroll-mounting experts from Shanghai Museum visited us. These experts worked with us, assisting and enabling our own Master Chinese scroll-mounter, Jin Xian Qiu, to conserve and remount two huge Chinese silk paintings (both measuring around 3.5 m x 1.5 m).

Visiting scroll-mounters from Shanghai Museum (from left to right): Chu Hao adhering a painting to the drying board with Jin Xian Qiu; Hirayama Studio conservators Mee Jung Kim and Joanna Kosek assisting Huang Ying and Jin Xian Qiu remove a painting’s backing papers; and Shen Hua and Jin Xian Qiu preparing new backing papers

Visiting scroll-mounters from Shanghai Museum (from left to right): Chu Hao adhering a painting to the drying board with Jin Xian Qiu; Hirayama Studio conservators Mee Jung Kim and Joanna Kosek assisting Huang Ying and Jin Xian Qiu remove a painting’s backing papers; and Shen Hua and Jin Xian Qiu preparing new backing papers. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Thanks to this collaborative help, several paintings which were previously inaccessible due to their poor condition are now fully conserved and remounted.

This year was also a time of great change for the Hirayama Studio, as our Senior Conservator of Japanese Paintings, Keisuke Sugiyama, who has worked with us for the past eight years, returned to Japan to take up a teaching position. Keisuke is sorely missed. Our consolation is that Kyoko Kusunoki from the National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Tokyo will join the team next spring, to continue the fantastic tradition of Japanese scroll-mounting that the Studio enjoys.

At the same time we are busily responding to the daily needs of the Museum. This means that every Asian painting, print, album, fan or screen in the Museum galleries (or any of them out on loan round the world) has been carefully checked and probably treated by us. Highlights in the last year have included the wonderful BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, the newly refurbished Korea Foundation Gallery, The Prince and the Pir Middle-Eastern painted miniatures display, and the soon-to-be-displayed remarkable paintings by contemporary artist Qu Leilei (watch out for a short film on this on the BM YouTube channel in November.

Jin Xian Qiu in conversation with artist Qu Leilei about mounting his recently acquired paintings

Jin Xian Qiu in conversation with artist Qu Leilei about mounting his recently acquired paintings. Photo: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Over the year, staff have contributed to a number of major international conferences, especially the International Institute for Conservation (IIC) congress in Hong Kong. We have given talks and welcomed many groups of students, hosted student placements – one an Institute of Conservation (Icon) intern – and continued our own specialist training under the watchful eyes of our scroll-mounting masters. (Remember that there is normally a ten-year training period to qualify as a scroll-mounter in East Asia).

Jin Xian Qiu and Carol Weiss performing the final backing of a Chinese hanging scroll whilst Camberwell College Conservation students observe; Icon intern Marie Kaladgew presenting Japanese tools and materials to visitors

Jin Xian Qiu and Carol Weiss performing the final backing of a Chinese hanging scroll while Camberwell College Conservation students observe; Icon intern Marie Kaladgew presenting Japanese tools and materials to visitors. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

And we are never short of visitors at the Studio: colleagues, VIPs, journalists and cameramen come from all over to visit us and learn more about scroll-mounting work.

This sums up this last momentous year, while the highlights over our first twenty-one years include:

  • Work for the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Gallery displays (opened in 1990; refurbished in 2006)
  • Work for the Korea Foundation Gallery displays (opened in 2000)
  • Conservation of a six-fold Toyoharu screen by Mitsuhiro Abe, Andrew Thompson, Sydney Thomson and Sara Burdett, filmed as Secrets of the Screen, narrated by Sir David Attenborough (2001)
  • Conservation and mounting of around 100 fragmentary Dunhuang paintings by Jin Xian Qiu and Zhu Pin Fang from Shanghai Museum (2002)
  • The remarkable Sumitomo Foundation-funded Collaborative Project for the Conservation of Japanese Paintings in the British Museum which has to date allowed 14 conservators from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures to come and treat with us important paintings, including the imposing Tiger painting by Gan Ku which we have filmed and you can see here and here
Sumitomo Project (clockwise from top left): invited visitors observing the mounting of Gan Ku’s Tiger by Yukihiro Takegami, Takao Miyata and Keisuke Sugiyama; Hisashi Hakamata, Sara Burdett, Eoin Kelly and Keisuke removing the backing papers of a Japanese painting; Dazaifu ceremony celebrating the newly mounted painting Sambo Kojin; and Winnie Fleming observing the finishing of a folding screen

Sumitomo Project (clockwise from top left): invited visitors observing the mounting of Gan Ku’s Tiger by Yukihiro Takegami, Takao Miyata and Keisuke Sugiyama; Hisashi Hakamata, Sara Burdett, Eoin Kelly and Keisuke removing the backing papers of a Japanese painting; Dazaifu ceremony celebrating the newly mounted painting Sambo Kojin; and Winnie Fleming observing the finishing of a folding screen. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Admonitions Scroll (l-r): photography of the Admonitions Scroll by Valeria Ciocan; discussing treatment options with experts from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures, British Library, China National Silk Museum, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Museum of Korea, Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Peking University, The Beijing Palace Museum, School of Oriental and African Studies, Shanghai Museum, Taipei National Palace Museum; and treating the painting in preparation for its redisplay

The Admonitions Scroll (from left to right): photography of the Admonitions Scroll by Valeria Ciocan; discussing treatment options with experts from the Association for Conservation of National Treasures, British Library, China National Silk Museum, Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, National Museum of Korea, Tokyo National Research Institute for Cultural Properties, Peking University, The Beijing Palace Museum, School of Oriental and African Studies, Shanghai Museum, Taipei National Palace Museum; and treating the painting in preparation for its redisplay. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Cooperation with the Shanghai Museum’s scroll-mounters
  • Re-papering of the Korea Foundation Gallery’s Saranbang and the Mitsubishi Corporation Japanese Gallery Tea House
8_Re-papering

Mee Jung Kim and Valentina Marabini re-papering the Museum’s Korean saranbang; and Eoin Kelly and Keisuke Sugiyama re-papering the shoji of the Museum’s Japanese tea house. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

  • Work for major British Museum exhibitions including The first emperor: China’s terracotta army, Kuniyoshi from the Arthur R. Miller Collection (at the Royal Academy of Arts), the BP exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China, and Shunga: sex and pleasure in Japanese art
  • Training in both Japan and China for our conservators (to learn about Valentina’s year at Shanghai Museum, click here)
  • Hosting numerous Masterclass workshops, including those by Jin Xian Qiu, Andrew Thompson, Yukio Yamamoto (sponsored by the Daiwa Anglo-Japan Foundation), Keisuke Sugiyama as well as many experts of the Association for Conservation of National Treasures in Japan, including Yukihiro Takegami, Itawaro-Yasuhiro Oka and Ryoko Kamei (sponsored by the Sumitomo Foundation)
  • Countless talks, lectures and publications including ‘The study and conservation of the silk painting Death of the Buddha’ by Keisuke Sugiyama et al. in the BMTRB vol 8

It is never quiet in the Hirayama Studio! So as we celebrate our 21st birthday we look forward with new energy and excitement to all the projects that the coming months and years will bring.

9 Finale

Hirayama Studio staff (from left to right): Valentina Marabini, Keisuke Sugiyama, Jin Xian Qiu, Mee Jung Kim and Carol Weiss. Photos: (c) The Trustees of the British Museum

Filed under: Conservation, , , , , , ,

Who were the Celts?

Julia Farley, Curator, European Iron Age collection, British Museum

As lead curator of the project, I am extremely excited that the exhibition Celts: art and identity at the British Museum is now open. Organised in partnership with National Museums Scotland, this is the first major exhibition to explore the full history of Celtic art and identity – but who were the Celts?

Classical authors conjure up a fantastical picture of a strange people, unfamiliar to the civilised inhabitants of Greece and Rome. The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century BC, tells us that they were prone to arrogance and overindulgence – addicted to wine and frequently drinking so much that they fell into a stupor. The men grew their moustaches so long that when they were drinking, it was as if the liquid passed through ‘a kind of strainer’. They dressed ostentatiously in brightly coloured shirts and trousers, and striped or checked coats. They were hospitable hosts, welcoming strangers to their feasts, but they were fierce warriors, and quick to take offence at the smallest provocation. In battle, some charged into the fray naked, while others wore elaborate horned or animal-crested helmets, perhaps like the example below, dredged from the River Thames near Waterloo. Yet Diodorus also remarks that, for all their warlike swagger and boastfulness, these were not an uneducated people. He writes that they spoke in riddles, hinting darkly at their meaning and using one word to stand for another. Among their number were poets, and philosophers who could foretell the future and were so well respected that they could halt an army in full charge.

Horned helmet. Bronze, glass, c.150–50 BC. Found near Waterloo, along the River Thames, London. W. (between horns) 42.5 cm. British Museum 1988,1004.1

Horned helmet. Bronze, glass, c.150–50 BC. Found near Waterloo, along the River Thames, London. W. (between horns) 42.5 cm. British Museum 1988,1004.1

This is an immediate and engaging picture, but it leaves us with more questions than answers. These ancient descriptions might be very rich, but they are varied, and very few are based on first-hand evidence, so the real people behind these stereotypes continue to elude us. Sources vary on where and when these people lived. There are few objects to show us how the Celts represented themselves, although the extraordinary silver cauldron from Gundestrup in Denmark (pictured below) shows people wearing and using Celtic objects, and coins made in the Celtic world reveal a complex and varied iconography. The Celts left no written records of their own to tell us about their society, or whether indeed they were a unified group. It is much more likely that their lives revolved around smaller tribal, ethnic or family units. Much of their world is lost to us, but archaeology is gradually filling in the details of how these peoples lived.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gudestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

Cauldron. Silver, partially gilded, 100 BC–AD 1. Gundestrup, Denmark. Diam. 69 cm; H. 42 cm. (c) The National Museum of Denmark.

Celts: art and identity tells the story of the Celts through the incredible objects they made. Shortly after 500 BC, around the time the Parthenon was being erected in Athens, a very different art was taking shape north of the Alps. In contrast to the clean, naturalistic lines of Greek art, the peoples that Greek writers would come to call the Celts were inventing their own way of representing the world. Theirs was an abstract, shapeshifting art, which writhes and transforms in the eye of the beholder. From one angle a sinuous line might resemble leafy tendrils, from another perspective it resolves into a hidden beast or bird. On close inspection, the swirling plant-like decoration on the circular shield boss from Wandsworth (pictured below) becomes two waterbirds, rearing back with wings outstretched, each with a single webbed foot curling down in front of its hooked beak. Like the riddling speech alluded to by Diodorus, the simple lines and curving forms of this Celtic art hint at complex meanings which could only be decoded by those familiar with its mysteries, a knowledge now long forgotten.

Shield boss. Copper-alloy, 350–150 BC. Found in Wandsworth, on the bed of the River Thames, London. Diam. 32.8 cm. British Museum 1858,1116.2

Shield boss. Copper-alloy, 350–150 BC. Found in Wandsworth, on the bed of the River Thames, London. Diam. 32.8 cm. British Museum 1858,1116.2

By around 300 BC, versions of this art style had spread across Europe, from the Atlantic to the Black Sea. Although Britain and Ireland were never explicitly referred to as Celtic by the Greeks and Romans, they were part of this world of shared art, values and beliefs. Where the Greeks, and later the Romans, saw a single people, archaeology reveals a mosaic of communities, connected but also locally distinct.

The torc (a kind of metal neck-ring) is one example of how our understanding has changed. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, torcs were a universal symbol of Celtic identity, but in fact it was not an exclusively Celtic phenomenon. Men and women across Europe and beyond wore torcs to display their power and status. Even within the Celtic world, the shape, design and decoration of these neck-rings varied from region to region, and it is likely that they were used to express local identities, rather than a universal ‘Celtic’ one. A stunning example (pictured below), a silver torc from Trichtingen in Germany on loan from the Württembergisches Landesmuseum in Stuttgart, weighs over 6 kg. The terminals are made in the shape of cow or bull heads, each wearing a tiny torc of its own.

Torc. Silver, iron, 200–50 BC. Trichtingen, Germany. Diam. 29.5 cm. (Photo: P. Frankenstein/H. Zweitasch; (c) Landesmuseum Wurttemberg, Stuttgart 2015)

By around 50 BC, life across much of Europe was changing. From around 200 BC, Roman control had gradually expanded to create an empire that extended from Spain to Syria and across North Africa. After the conquest of Britain in AD 43, the lives of the local inhabitants were dramatically transformed, both within the Roman province of Britannia and beyond its frontiers. In the south, the Roman army led the construction of forts, towns and cities with new facilities like amphitheatres and bathhouses. Local people mixed with invaders and settlers from around the empire, creating a cosmopolitan world where Roman and indigenous ways of life combined to create a unique Romano-British culture. Ireland and northern Scotland were never conquered, but people were still affected by the impact of Rome. Communities here found themselves the neighbours of a powerful empire, and responded by creating objects that reflected their independent, non-Roman identities. One such example is the massive armlet (the technical archaeological name!) from Belhelvie, on loan from the National Museum of Scotland. It was made in Scotland while southern Britain lay under Roman rule, and is decorated with a distinctive local style of art that echoes earlier Iron Age motifs.

Massive armlet. Copper-alloy, AD 50–150. Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. H. 11.5 cm. National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

Massive armlet. Copper-alloy, AD 50–150. Belhelvie, Aberdeenshire, Scotland. H. 11.5 cm. National Museums Scotland, Edinburgh.

After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a distinctive form of Christianity emerged in Ireland, Scotland and western Britain, regions which were outside the old heartlands of Roman control. Monasteries in these areas stood out as European centres of art and learning. Although connected to wider Christian communities across Europe, they continued to develop their own local traditions, and their languages, art and religious practices set them apart.

The name ‘Celts’ had fallen out of use after the Roman period, but it was rediscovered during the Renaissance, when people became more interested in understanding their own local histories. From the 16th century, ‘Celts’ was used as shorthand for the pre-Roman peoples of western Europe. In the early 1700s, the languages of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Cornwall, Brittany and the Isle of Man were given the name ‘Celtic’ to reflect their pre-Roman origins. In the context of a continually shifting political and religious landscape, ‘Celtic’ acquired a new significance as the peoples of these Atlantic regions sought to affirm their difference and independence from their French and English neighbours, drawing on long histories of distinctive local identities. Over the following centuries, a Celtic revival movement led to the creation of a rich, reimagined and romanticised Celtic past, expressed in art and literature.

Although the Celts are not a single people, a distinct race or genetic group that can be traced through time, the idea of a Celtic identity still resonates powerfully today, all the more so because it has been continually redefined to echo contemporary concerns over politics, power and religion. The word Celtic continues to strike a chord, both nationally and globally. For most people, it has now come to stand for the distinctive local histories, traditions, music and languages of the modern Celtic nations: Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales, and for people around the world who trace their ancestry back to these regions. ‘Celtic’ is still a word that creates a sense of difference, but what began as a label applied to outsiders by the ancient Greeks has now been proudly embraced to express a sense of shared heritage and belonging, reflecting a long history of regional difference and independence.

Celts: art and identity is at the British Museum until 31 January 2016.
Organised with National Museums Scotland

Supported by
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Sheila M Streek
Stephen and Julie Fitzgerald
Fund for the Future donors

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Celts: art and identity, Exhibitions, , , , , , , ,

The art of the masters: drawing in silver and gold

An Van Camp, Curator, Dutch and Flemish drawings and prints, British Museum

Our latest Prints and Drawings exhibition recently opened in Room 90: Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns. Organised in collaboration with the National Gallery of Art, Washington, the show brings together over one hundred stunning works of art, around half of which are from the British Museum’s own superb collection; the other half includes some of the most spectacular pieces from museums and private collections around the world. For the curatorial team involved in this show (Hugo Chapman, Giulia Bartrum and me) it was incredibly exciting to see all the drawings we’ve been researching for the past four years displayed together at last, and reproduced in the beautiful accompanying catalogue. It was also exhilarating to finally welcome the couriers who had flown in from museums all over the world to unpack, condition check and hang the drawings they had brought with them.

In this picture you can see the conservator Kim Schenck condition checking some of the drawings from the National Gallery of Art.[HYPERLINK TO NGA Exhibition Webpage].

In this picture you can see the conservator Kim Schenck condition checking some of the drawings from the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Every one of the works on display are masterpieces in their own right, made by Dutch, Flemish, Italian, German, British and American artists, dating from the late 1390s up until the present day. Some of our highlights include Leonardo da Vinci’s Head of a Warrior and Jean Fouquet’s Portrait of a Man. 

All these drawings are united by one unique feature: they have all been made using one particular drawing technique, called metalpoint. It is quite unusual to stage an exhibition around a specific drawing technique but we felt so compelled by these metalpoint drawings that we wanted to show examples from all around the world. The show reveals how the most brilliant artists in history used this technique and how it has evolved from its earliest use up until the present day.

So what is it? Metalpoint is quite a complicated but mind-blowing drawing technique in which the draughtsman draws with a metal stylus or rod, either in silver or gold (hence the exhibition title). We all know it is impossible to draw with metal on a sheet of paper; you can even try to draw with some of your silver or gold jewellery to test this… So the paper first needs to be prepared with a special layer which will abrade the metal. This abrasive ground is made of glue mixed with burnt animal bones which have been crushed into powder. The mixture is then brushed onto the paper, after which the artist can start drawing. As the stylus is drawn over the surface it leaves tiny traces of metal particles, resulting in a visible drawing.

Different metals used for drawing in metal point.

Different metals used for drawing in metalpoint.

Washington conservator Kim got slightly obsessed by this metalpoint technique and started experimenting herself. This resulted in a fascinating essay in our beautiful exhibition catalogue and Kim herself even features in our exhibition as she can be seen in a video demonstrating the technique.

Some artists working in metalpoint prefer a coloured ground, and so may add pigments to the mixture. When you visit the exhibition, see if you can spot some of these beautiful drawings on yellow, orange, pink, red, green and blue grounds. In fact, some of my favourite drawings in the exhibition are made on a brightly-coloured ground: for instance the Self-portrait by the Dutch artist Hendrick Goltzius is made on a yellow tablet, while the female saint by the Italian Fra Filippo Lippi is drawn on salmon pink.

So why did draughtsmen decide to use this complicated drawing technique? The answer varies from century to century. Initially metalpoint was used in the workshop as a drawing tool to make very fine and precise lines as other drawing tools, such as a chalk sticks or quill pens, were not accurate enough. The preciseness of metalpoint allowed for highly-detailed drawings and this made it a very suitable technique for young artists learning how to draw, or for more experienced artists who copied other works of art for reference. From the beginning of the sixteenth century onwards artists started to take metalpoint outdoors for use in their small sketchbooks. As the metal stylus did not smudge or require liquid, it was of course very useful to artists who were travelling around to make topographical views or portraits of their patrons. Although most of these sketchbooks were taken apart in later centuries, we show three intact examples in our exhibition. With the discovery of graphite in the late sixteenth century, the use of metalpoint diminished as it was now possible to use a cheaper and easier material, while at the same time producing precise lines as the point of a graphite pen could be sharpened. Surprisingly, however, metalpoint continued to be used in the Netherlands, mainly by artists recording snapshots of their family life and their travels. Only a few metalpoint drawings by the famous Dutch artist Rembrandt have survived and they were made during a trip in 1633 to the north of the Netherlands, when he got engaged to his future wife, Saskia van Uylenburgh. Some of the drawings on show are of typical cottages from that region and give us a glimpse of the world of Rembrandt. There are almost no metalpoint drawings from the eighteenth century but the technique underwent a revival in England in the nineteenth century as artists wanted to copy and learn from the techniques of the Old Masters. For example, in the exhibition you can compare a study of the Virgin and Child by the Italian artist Raphael, made around 1509 with an almost exact copy made after the original in the British Museum by Alphonse Legros around 1885/90. Contemporary artists also still use metalpoint, especially in the United States, as a way to test their artistry and master this long-forgotten technique.

Apart from the three sketchbooks in the show, we have also included other objects related to the drawings: a few prints, a silver statue and even a cat mummy!

Here is a great picture of the Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department, Hugo Chapman, installing the showcase.

Here is a great picture of the Keeper of the Prints and Drawings Department, Hugo Chapman, installing the showcase.

Photo 4 - Mummified cat eyeing up some dead mice.

And we also experienced another great moment during the installation when the cat went after some of the mice drawn by the British artist Charles Hazelwood Shannon.

It was such a great relief to finally see all the drawings hanging on the walls, and here is the moment when the last frame was installed:

It was such a great relief to finally see all the drawings hanging on the walls and here is the moment when the last frame was installed.

I really hope that these small insights into the preparations behind this show have inspired you to come and see the show yourself, and perhaps even experiment with metalpoint too. One of the contemporary artists who is featured in the show will come and give a demonstration of metalpoint, so why not come and give it a go yourself?

Drawing in silver and gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns is on until 6th December 2015. For associated events, see our Events programme.

Filed under: Drawing in silver and gold, Exhibitions, Prints and drawings, , ,

Linking cultures: Sudan, Egypt and Nubia at the British Museum

Anna Garnett, Amara West Project Curator, British Museum

The land of Nubia, the ancient name for the Nile Valley in the far south of Egypt and northern Sudan, was the vital link between the ancient Egyptian and Mediterranean worlds and the cultures and raw materials of sub-Saharan Africa. Although heavily influenced by Egypt over millennia, the Nubian and Sudanese cultures along the Nile were distinctly different from that of their northern neighbour, Egypt. During certain periods, Nubian states conquered parts of Egypt.

The Egyptian pharaoh Kamose, who reigned 1555–1550 BC, spoke of his struggle to reunify Egypt at the end of the Second Intermediate Period (1650–1550 BC):

‘To what end am I to understand this power of mine, when a chieftain is in Avaris, and another in Kush, and I sit in league with an Asiatic and a Nubian, every man holding his slice of Egypt?’

Earlier this year, new displays in Room 65: The Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Sudan, Egypt and Nubia were created with the aim of showcasing the diversity of the Nubian and Sudanese civilisations, and to further highlight the great cultural and political flowerings in this region over more than six thousand years of history. As part of my role in the Future Curators programme at the British Museum, I worked closely on the initial planning stages of this refreshment project with Derek Welsby, Assistant Keeper of Sudan and Egyptian Nubia.

These displays include the first public exhibition of a number of objects excavated by the Sudan Archaeological Research Society in collaboration with the British Museum. Contextual images have been introduced to complement the objects, including panoramic views of Sudanese and Nubian landscapes, such as the Kushite royal pyramids at Nuri.

Kushite royal cemetery at Nuri, Sudan. (Photo © SARS Archive.)

Kushite royal cemetery at Nuri, Sudan. (Photo © SARS Archive.)

The refreshed display is chronological. It begins with the story of Prehistoric Sudan with a focus on tools, weapons, pottery and items of personal adornment from the Neolithic period (4900–3000 BC). The oldest object in this display is a quartzite hand axe dating to around 100,000 BC (British Museum 1935,1109.208).

The narrative continues with the development of early food-producing societies in Sudan, known as the A-Group, C-Group and the Pan-Grave cultures, who lived along the Sudanese Nile Valley between around 3700 and 1070 BC. A selection of objects including jewellery, pottery and stone tools demonstrates the increasing sophistication of the material and funerary cultures of these distinct groups of people.

The Kingdom of Kush, the first urban society in sub-Saharan Africa, flourished from around 2500 to 1450 BC. Excavations at the site of Kerma, the ancient capital of the Kushite kingdom, have revealed residential and industrial areas, cemeteries, palaces and two huge mud-brick buildings (known as deffufa) which may have had a religious function, perhaps as temples. The most iconic objects of the Kerma culture are the delicate handmade pottery vessels, which highlight the technological sophistication of this period.

Western Deffufa at Kerma (Photo © SARS Archive.)

Western deffufa at Kerma (Photo © SARS Archive.)

Kerma Moyen period burial containing sacrificed goats/sheep and ceramic grave goods (Northern Dongola Reach Site P37) (Photo © SARS Archive.)

Kerma Moyen period burial containing sacrificed goats/sheep and ceramic grave goods (Northern Dongola Reach Site P37) (Photo © SARS Archive.)

Another key aim of the refreshed displays is to draw visitors’ attention to the evolution of burial customs in Sudan: a reconciled tomb-group excavated from the A-Group cemetery at the ancient town site of Faras and dating to around 3000 BC, is presented alongside a showcase containing a reconstructed burial based on the typical layout of a Kerma Moyen period grave (see above). The grave, dating to around 2050–1750 BC, was excavated in the region of the Northern Dongola Reach in Sudan.

Kerma Classique period spouted beaker. British Museum EA 65577 (Photo © Trustees of the British Museum.)

Kerma Classique period spouted beaker. British Museum EA 65577 (Photo © Trustees of the British Museum.)

Moving to more recent times, a display of weaponry and items of personal adornment from the period of the Kushite Empire includes objects dating from the late 1st century BC onwards when the Roman Empire increased contact and conflict with the Kingdom of Kush, a vast political entity extending from the Butana region in central Sudan to Lower Nubia. Due to the extraordinary level of preservation at Qasr Ibrim, a major religious centre and Roman garrison during the Kushite Period, we were able to richly illustrate the theme of everyday life and conflict during this period with a variety of objects including weaponry and leatherwork. A figure of a bound prisoner dating to the late 1st century BC (pictured below), preserving an inscription which calls him the ‘King of the Nubians’, also demonstrates how the Kushites typically represented their defeated enemies during this period.

Figure of a bound captive. British Museum EA 65222 (Photo © Trustees of the British Museum.)

Figure of a bound captive. British Museum EA 65222 (Photo © Trustees of the British Museum.)

It is hoped that these new displays will enable visitors to better understand the developments in Nubian and Sudanese history while also gaining a new appreciation of the beauty and diversity of the material cultures of those who lived and died along the Nile Valley in ancient Sudan.

You may also be interested in this upcoming event at the British Museum on 7th September.

Filed under: Collection, Egypt and Sudan, , , , ,

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Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum In 2000, the Queen Elizabeth II Great Court designed by Foster and Partners transformed the Museum’s inner courtyard into the largest covered public square in Europe. We love this striking photo by @adders77 showing this incredible space at night #regram #repost
Share your photos of the British Museum with us using #mybritishmuseum and tag @britishmuseum This wonderful photo by @what_fran_saw captures the stunning Great Court #regram #repost
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