British Museum blog

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.

Filed under: Uncategorized

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.

Filed under: Museum of the Future, Uncategorized, , , , ,

Teaching History with 100 Objects

Richard Woff, Head of Project, British Museum

I just attended the press launch in the Museum of Teaching History with 100 Objects, a series of online resources for teachers supported by the Department for Education. Each resource is based on a museum object which connects to the key topics of the new history curriculum for England and to wider themes for teachers across the UK and the world. The objects are drawn from the collections of the British Museum and a network of partners around Britain.

The website uses object-based learning to enable a wide understanding of British and world history to support teaching for Key Stages 1, 2 and 3. Resources feature background information, activity ideas, images to download and links to videos and other media. The project takes inspiration from our collaboration with the BBC, A History of the World in 100 Objects, but includes a new selection of objects – dating from around 500,000 years ago to the present day. They provide vital components in teaching and learning about the past, to stimulate enquiry and to open up cultures and periods for investigation.

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.

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.

The first 30 resources are available on the site today. They include objects as diverse as the Sutton Hoo helmet from the British Museum, which transformed our understanding of Anglo-Saxon England; Guy Fawkes’ lantern from the Ashmolean Museum, which offers young children the chance to study a famous individual and a famous event, and The State Entry into Delhi, a huge painting by Roderick MacKenzie (1856-1942) from Bristol Museum and Art Gallery depicting the proclamation of Edward VII as Emperor of India and an extraordinary springboard into the study of the British Empire.

Square Guy Fawkes' lantern © The Ashmolean Museum

Square Guy Fawkes’ lantern © The Ashmolean Museum

Roderick Dempster MacKenzie, The State Entry into Delhi, 1907, Oil on canvas. © Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Roderick Dempster MacKenzie, The State Entry into Delhi, 1907, Oil on canvas. © Bristol Museum and Art Gallery

Resources to be added during the next few weeks will include a Roman medical encyclopaedia written in Arabic, an Akan drum from Ghana, and a Maori hand club from New Zealand. The mummy and coffins of Asru (from around 750–525 BC) and important pieces from Manchester Museum’s ancient Egypt collection will also feature.

At the launch of the website today, the Schools Minister Nick Gibb cited the American educationist E.D. Hirsch in his belief that knowledge builds on knowledge: the more you know, the more you are able to learn. We hope that this new resource helps teachers and children build their knowledge of the past, understand how to use artefacts in learning history, and engage with the objects and events that form their personal, local, national and global stories.

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Conserving the pottery, terracotta and tablets from Ur

Duygu Camurcuoglu, conservator, Ur Project, British Museum

My job is to assess the condition of the objects from Ur being studied as part of the Ur digitisation project, conserve them if necessary, and guide the project team on handling and safe storage of the objects before/during photography and further digitisation work. I joined the project in August 2013 to lead the conservation and my first responsibility was to assess and conserve the terracotta objects and the clay tablets with ancient cuneiform inscriptions on study loan from Iraq.

Assessing the condition of the Humbaba terracotta mask

Assessing the condition of the Humbaba terracotta mask

Fired clay mask of Humbaba. Old Babylonian, 2000–1700 BC; From Ur, southern Iraq.  (ME 127443)

Fired clay mask of Humbaba. Old Babylonian, 2000–1700 BC; From Ur, southern Iraq. (ME 127443)

There are over a thousand terracotta objects from Ur in the British Museum’s collection, primarily reliefs, figurines and models. Although some are skilfully modelled, the majority are rather crude and mass-produced in moulds. My initial task was to assess each one, selecting those that needed treatment and completing the work before they could be handled and photographed. In the image above, you can see me assessing the condition of one of the important objects from Ur, the fired clay mask of Humbaba, a fearsome monster slain by Gilgamesh in Mesopotamian literature. During the process, colleagues from ceramics and glass conservation joined me to complete the assessment work on the objects, while I undertook the actual conservation treatments.

Following the terracotta objects, I assessed the condition of the pottery from Ur. This large collection comprises over a thousand ceramic vessels in various sizes, shapes, colours and fabrics. This was a huge challenge! Every day, my colleague Gareth Brereton and I went to one of British Museum’s storage areas where the pottery from Ur is housed. We set up a small working area in this room for object assessments, photography and registration. There were a large number of cupboards to go through, so Gareth and I worked almost every morning together, assessing the condition of each pot so that Gareth could handle, photograph and register them. We had plenty of exercise going up and down the ladder each morning as some of the objects were stored very high up in the shelves.

Most terracotta objects and ceramic vessels from Ur are in good condition. They sometimes require conservation work, since they have unstable fragments, flakes or cracks on their surfaces. This is very normal due to the age of the objects, most are which are about 4,000 years old. It is crucial that the necessary treatments are undertaken. When unstable objects are not treated using proper conservation techniques and materials, further problems may occur during storage and handling, such as loss of surfaces and decoration, cracks, breakage of fragments that can make it difficult to study and learn more from the objects.

Stabilising the surface of a large ceramic vessel from Ur

Stabilising the surface of a large ceramic vessel from Ur

I identify any cracks and/or unstable flakes on the surface of the vessels before stabilising them using conservation grade materials. I often use a fine brush or a micropipette for this work. Once the treatment is completed, I enter all my treatment records onto the British Museum’s curatorial database, Merlin, so that the information is accessible across the Museum and the world via the collection online.

Assessing a cuneiform tablet from Ur

Assessing a cuneiform tablet from Ur

I have also been assessing and undertaking conservation on the cuneiform tablets from Ur. It is particularly important to prevent the loss of surfaces from tablets, because that would mean loss of the text.

Apart from undertaking remedial ‘hands on’ work with objects, I am also responsible from supporting the Ur team when they have any questions about handling the objects safely, as some are very fragile. I also monitor the environmental conditions in the Ur project lab and storage cupboards, using digital sensors which we place in different areas. This is important because fluctuating temperature and relative humidity can severely damage archaeological objects. For example, soluble salts in the ceramic and clay fabrics can react very quickly with the fluctuating conditions, resulting in delamination and loss of object surfaces, which can contain elaborate decorations, pigments and reliefs.

When I have completed the conservation work on the pottery and the cuneiform tablets, I will move on to the conservation of other types of objects and materials from Ur, in order to prepare them for digitisation and further study. I am looking forward to the challenge!

Read more about the Ur digitisation project in Birger Helgestad’s post in July.

The Ur Project is supported by the Leon Levy Foundation.

Filed under: Conservation, Ur Project, , , , , ,

The British Museum guide 2069

‘Saxo Japonicus’, curator, British Museum (writing in 1969)

In the year that Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, the Boeing 747 made its first flight and The Beatles released Abbey Road, a British Museum curator (using the pseudonym Saxo Japonicus) wrote an article in Colonnade, the staff magazine, about what he thought the British Museum would be like 100 years from then – in 2069. Below are some highlights.

Cover of Colonnade, staff magazine of the British Museum, Spring 1969 edition.

Cover of Colonnade, staff magazine of the British Museum, Spring 1969 edition.

‘Your Trustees are pleased to welcome you to the world-renowned British Museum, the friendly Museum of the Future as we like you to think of us. We wonder if you are one of the many who have delayed getting our stamp on your Certificate of Culture because you thought we were stuffy and formal? Not a bit of it. As you step out of the lift of the 100-storey Forecourt Heliport (from which on a clear day you can see the strikingly shaped tower of Birmingham Suburb Comprehensive) you will be faced with a colonnade painted in a gentle pastel pink especially selected by our psychiatric adviser to make you feel at home. Inside the door computer-composed light music will release all your preresistance and tensions, and there you will be greeted personally by the British Museum Greeting Keeper of the week who will tell you just how pleased we Trustees are to have the honour of your company. The rota of the weekly Greeting Keepers can be had by post from the Publications Building (see later), so you can choose whom you wish to meet, from a Palaeolithic flint expert to an authority on mid-20th-century plastic teaspoons or even one of the bibliographer of probable and possible books. There may be a little wait while your queue reaches him, but this is a privilege we cannot let you miss. The Greeting Keeper will be most happy to shake your hand. Indeed, if he doesn’t shake the hands of at least 2000 of you honest, average people during his week’s duty we consider it just a tiny bit naughty of him!

Original article in Colonnade

Original article in Colonnade

Perhaps, too, you have been misled into thinking that the British Museum is concerned with history and the past? [NB The Trustees of the British Museum are specially licensed to use the words 'history' and 'past' in terms other than those of denunciation as being fit persons to use them for educational and non-corruptive purposes.] We must admit that after the Re-Education Act of ten years ago, with its much praised clause ‘Towards the suppression of the past’, it seemed to many of us that the only public spirited thing to do was to scrap the whole collection and turn the buildings over to more humanitarian ends such as temporary accommodation for the under-integrated. But the Public Re-educator would not hear of it. He said, to our great pride, that the 37,000-strong British Museum staff were too highly trained to be used anywhere else in the public sector and it would be a pity if their rarefied skills could not continue to be used in the service of progress. He pointed out that since every development in the past had once been in the future to somebody, an since all change, as everyone knows, is improvement, so every culture and period in history justifies the superior one which succeeded it, and thus proves at every stage the inevitable rightness of progress (how obvious it all seems now!)

We have been happy and obliged to rearrange the British Museum on these doctrinally sound lines. The main exhibition runs in a circle round the ground floor, and you will be taken round it in your chair on a continuous moving band at 3kph. We regret that you must be strapped in for the trip. This is for your own safety, for owing to shortage of staff we could not guarantee to recover you if you fell from the band into the pit below it. This is overrun with a population of picturesquely savage cats estimated to have increased to several thousand since they were declared a Protected Cultural Property in 2047. The exhibition begins with the Old Stone Age, seen from the point of view of a visionary technologist of the Old Stone Age. His recreated thoughts are broadcast over your headphones. And so it goes on right up to the present day, which is described in a concluding 15-minute recorded lecture called ‘The Present: Prelude to the Future’. We hope in this way to educate your historical imagination.

The theme of every one of our labels (they are in six-feet-high neon lettering easily read at 3kph) is improvement. We show clearly and graphically just how the artifacts of each age were an improvement on those preceding. Take those plastic spoons again. You can see how the design of English spoons steadily improved from clumsy Medieval ones with their awkward bowls and narrow handles, through the more technologically advanced but far too fussy and ornate silverware of the 18th century, to the beautifully stark and almost practical white plastic spoons of the late 20th century (some from excavations of the BM Canteen of that period), and then to our own dry-ice disposables, which just melt into the air during use. Finally we try to project the future and the possibility, or rather certainty, of the non-spoon, the spoon perhaps which could be created in the user’s mind by taking a hallucinatory pill.

There are a number of special and temporary exhibitions. In the North Entrance, there is a selection of ‘The Ten Most Famous Objects of the British Museum’ arranged with the convenience of the One Day World Tour Company in mind. The objects are displayed in a large circle so that they can be seen from the glass dome of the ODWTC thermonuclear craft when it has descended through the hinged roof for its 5-minute stop. Other visitors can see the objects at the same time from the outer perimeter. Protective suits and masks are available at a moderate fee. The objects are of course plastic reproductions made by our laboratories. Thus do we prove to the world that modern technology can surpass anything done in the past, for our models not only reproduce every detail but also do not deteriorate in the tiresome way the originals did after only a few years of thermonuclear exhaust and vibration….

…Your stay in the BM will not be complete without a visit to the publicateria, where food and coffee machines are tastefully and imaginatively alternated with the automatic vendors of publications, postcards and replicas. The publicateria used to be deep underground until the regrettable affair of the Great Fleet Flood (you must not miss the exciting memorial in fibre-glass which stands over the spot where the passages were sealed off) but it has now been moved to a huge transparent plastic platform fitted across the dome of the Reading Room. This not only uses valuable space, but allows you, while having your repast, to look down on the wonderful scene of scholarly activity below you. Powerful binoculars can be hired so that you can actually read what the researchers are writing in their notebooks. Thus you too can stand on the threshold of new knowledge! Down there in the Reading Room, the Research Students of this country and the USA in their tens of thousands work intensively through their two-hour shifts. It is no longer possible, because of lack of space, to allow students to read for more than two hours a day, but the extension to 24-hour opening admits twelve shifts a day. Through the floor you can also see the amusing scenes when a Student’s two-hour meter runs out, lets out a loud alarm bell, and sets off a mechanism which propels him automatically out of the door if he has not left within 60 seconds.

You, of course, will be equipped with a similar 60-minute meter. Our popularity has led naturally to this measure. So don’t spend too long reading this, but get on with your visit. And the best of luck to you!’

We are discussing big questions about the Museum’s future in a series of three monthly debates in September to December 2014, and online. You can book your place at one of the debates now, and we’ll be inviting you to share your views online in September. In the meantime, visit our Tumblr to get an introduction to the debate and the Museum’s history.

Filed under: Museum of the Future,

The divided self: Germany, art and poetry

Edward Doegar, General Manager, The Poetry Society

When the British Museum contacted the Poetry Society about commissioning an event responding to their exhibition Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation, we were thrilled. It seemed particularly fitting as the fate of the artists represented was shared by so many of the poets of the period. The exhibition traces the work of a generation who were all, at some point, forced into exile moving from East to West Germany. This unwelcome journey was also familiar to many of East Germany’s dissenting poets, most famously in the case of Wolf Biermann who found himself stripped of his citizenship in 1976 while on an officially organised tour in the West. Sarah Kirsch, Reiner Kunze and Kurt Bartsch all followed soon after.

If the challenges of artistic life in the GDR were shared by many, this certainly didn’t reduce the vitality and range of the art (and poetry) that it produced. Indeed, the author of the exhibition catalogue, John-Paul Stonard, has explained (in a post on this blog) how the sense of division that exile created was often intensely personal and psychological in its effect, so the highly individual artwork that resulted seems inevitable. With this in mind, we decided to broaden the commission to an evening of poetry exploring the theme of the ‘divided self’ and asked three remarkable poets to write a new poem responding to this. The poems were then premiered during an evening of readings in the Museum’s Clore Education Centre as part of the British Museum’s BM / PM series. The event was held on 11 April and was tremendously successful; below you can listen to each of the commissioned poems.

Sam Riviere is a formally inventive poet whose work often engages with new media. His first collection 81 Austerities was published by Faber in 2012 and won Forward Felix Dennis Prize for Best First Collection. His recent work ‘Kim Kardashian’s Marriage‘ was published as a blog series which was available online for only 72 days, mirroring the length of Kardashian’s marriage.

Ohne Titel (Selbstportrat), ('Untitled (Self-portrait)'), 1975, A R Penck (b.1939), grey and black ink wash on paper. Presented to the British Museum by Count Christian Duerckheim © A.R. Penck / DACS 2013

Ohne Titel (Selbstportrat), (‘Untitled (Self-portrait)’), 1975, A R Penck (b.1939), grey and black ink wash on paper. Presented to the British Museum by Count Christian Duerckheim © A.R. Penck / DACS 2013

His commissioned poem, ‘Preferences’, seems to recall A R Penck’s Ohne Titel (Selbstporträt). In Penck’s ink drawing the self-portrait emerges from an almost-uniform blanket of spaced dots, recalling a dot matrix printer. Likewise, Riviere’s poem is designed to completely fill a piece of A5 paper with a one inch margin, yet out of this seemingly arbitrary setting he makes the language flex with meaning and wit.

Kathryn Maris’ many awards include Academy of American Poets University & College Prize and a Pushcart Prize. She has published two highly-acclaimed collections, the second of which, God Loves You, was published by Seren in 2013. Maris’ work couples a fierce intellect with an emotionally resonant lyric fluency. Her commissioned poem, ‘The House with Only an Attic and a Basement’, seems to originate principally from the idea of the theme itself, taking an epigraph from R D Laing’s book The Divided Self.

Georg Baselitz, Zwei Streifen ('Two Stripes'), charcoal, watercolour and graphite on thin laid paper, 1966

Georg Baselitz, Zwei Streifen (‘Two Stripes’), charcoal, watercolour and graphite on thin laid paper, 1966

The wonderful symmetry and asymmetry of the poem keeps us oscillating between laughter and a shocked silence. In its polarising verticality the poem seems a match for Baselitz’s Zwei Streifen (Two Stripes).

Finally, Michael Hofmann is an award-winning poet whose Selected Poems appeared from Faber in 2008. In addition to his own work he is also one of the world’s leading translators from the German and has introduced Anglophone audiences to the work of Dürs Grunbein, Gunter Eich and Gottfried Benn. We were very lucky to be able to persuade Hofmann to come over from Florida in order to deliver his commissioned piece in person. His poem, ‘Baselitz and his generation’, offers a sort of multiple choice version of the lives of the artists in the exhibition. The language of biography is wittily turned on its head, so that the phrases with which we usually distinguish individual lives become a means to amalgamate them.

All three of the commissioned poems are available on the Poetry Society website and were printed in The Poetry Review 104:2. The exhibition is now in its final weeks and is not to be missed.

Germany divided: Baselitz and his generation is on show at the British Museum until 31 August 2014.

Read more about this period of art and history in the beautifully illustrated catalogue which accompanies the exhibition, written by John-Paul Stonard.

Filed under: Germany Divided: Baselitz and his generation, , , , , , , , , , ,

Farewell to Curious Beasts

Alison Wright, exhibition curator, British Museum

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney, the first venue on the tour

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney, the first venue on the tour

The British Museum touring exhibition Curious Beasts: Animal Prints from the British Museum is in its closing weeks at its final UK venue, Ferens Art Gallery in Hull (7 June – 26 August 2014). Since October 2013, 86 prints made between the 15th to the early 19th centuries and containing sometimes beautiful, sometimes bizarre animal imagery have been exhibited at three venues across the UK, opening at Compton Verney in Warwickshire before travelling to the Ulster Museum (National Museums Northern Ireland) in Belfast, and Hull. The exhibition is part of the British Museum’s Partnership UK programme, which is committed to sharing collections and expertise with museums and organisations outside London. In 2013–2014 over 2,792 objects were on loan at 187 venues throughout the country.

Curious Beasts explores humankind’s curiosity about the natural world, as it was expressed in the vibrant print culture of the early modern period. Printmaking emerged as a major art form and communication tool in the 15th century, coinciding with an increasing interest in and investigation of flora and fauna. The exhibition looks at how printmakers contributed to knowledge of animals, but also at the wildly different ways in which the animal subject inspired graphic artists. Our enduring fascination with animals also proved to be a good way to bond with like-minded colleagues in other museums, and to make the most of their own collections – leading to some novel encounters between the British Museum’s prints and objects such as stuffed rabbits and rhinoceroses.

Jan Saenredam, A beached whale near Beverwijk, engraving, 1602 (1871,0812.1545)

Jan Saenredam, A beached whale near Beverwijk, engraving, 1602 (1871,0812.1545)

The idea for Curious Beasts was sparked many years ago when, working as a Museum Assistant in the Department of Prints and Drawings, I opened a box of 16th-century Dutch and Flemish prints – while looking for something else entirely – and was startled to discover Jan Saenredam’s magnificent engraving of a beached sperm whale, from 1602.

The remarkably accurate representation of this mysterious giant is bordered by an equally remarkable frame that gives us broader insight into the ways people thought about whales: images of eclipses, earthquake and plague tie into the idea that the monstrous sea creature dying on land was a bad omen. The whale is surrounded by a crowd of sightseers, testifying to the intense curiosity about strange and rare creatures in this period – some of these people would no doubt have been among the intended audience for the engraving, too.

Saenredam’s whale is now at the heart of Curious Beasts, and I have greatly enjoyed showing it, in all its peculiarity, to new audiences. The exhibition takes inspiration from the complexity of Saenredam’s print, drawing on the diversity of the British Museum’s collection to put natural history studies in the context of people’s wider relationships with the animal world. The range of material covers everything from religious subjects (e.g. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden) to political satire and practical objects – one etching of a rabbit was designed as a target for archery practice. Dürer’s 1515 woodcut of a rhinoceros is probably the best-known object in the exhibition, and a 1620 impression is shown alongside prints by Rembrandt, Goya and Stubbs, and an array of fascinating and striking works by lesser known artists, the majority of which have never been loaned before.

Albrecht Durer, Rhinoceros, colour woodcut, first published 1515, this edition after 1620 (1877,0609.71)

Albrecht Dürer, Rhinoceros, colour woodcut, first published 1515, this edition after 1620 (1877,0609.71)

Working with our three partners has been educational and inspiring – there have been so many great responses to the beauty and quirkiness of the British Museum beasts. Our lead partner Compton Verney brought taxidermy into their galleries for the first time, including a baby Indian rhinoceros borrowed from Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum: an intriguing comparison with Dürer’s woodcut of the same species (he famously never saw the rhinoceros in real life).

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney: the stuffed rhinoceros

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney: the stuffed rhinoceros

Compton Verney also wanted to put on a complementary display that would feature their edition of the designer Enid Marx’s linocut series, Marco’s Animal Alphabet. A collaboration with Leicester Print Workshop brought printmaking up to the present day with an exhibition of new works titled A Fantastical Animal Alphabet, and a pop-up print studio run by their very appropriate Artist in Residence, Kate Da’Casto: I have fond memories of conversations about our mutual love of old master prints and the more gruesome relics of natural history.

The exhibition has changed at each venue. In Belfast the Ulster Museum decided to include Lorenzo Lippi’s lovely painting, Allegory of Fortune with a monkey, and also to display taxidermy from its extensive natural history collection, much of it prepared by the respected Belfast firm Sheals, established in 1856. The museum’s famous exhibit Peter the polar bear, prepared in 1972 after he died at Belfast zoo, was in a nearby gallery.

Curious Beasts at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull: the rhinoceros wheelbarrow, made by Hull furniture makers Richardson & Sons, 1862

Curious Beasts at Ferens Art Gallery, Hull: the rhinoceros wheelbarrow, made by Hull furniture makers Richardson & Sons, 1862

The exhibition’s present incarnation at Ferens Art Gallery is in the largest gallery space yet, and the curators at Hull Museums were keen to use Curious Beasts as an opportunity to bring some of their objects out of storage and into conversation with the British Museum’s prints. Over 30 objects were eventually selected, including a delightful rhinoceros-shaped ceremonial wheelbarrow made in 1862, a sperm whale tooth with scrimshaw carvings, and artworks including the truly bizarre and difficult-to-display 1960s wooden sculpture Criletic Delay Adjust (‘Zebra Legs’) by Mark Ingram, which triggered much reminiscence among the curators and technicians.

Sadly it’s the end of the road for this particular UK travelling exhibition, but the beasts have life in them yet. Halfway through the tour, we received word that San Diego University Galleries were interested in taking the show for October 2014. I can’t wait to see what they decide to do with it.

Curious Beasts is at the Ferens Art Gallery in Hull until 26 August 2014, and then at the San Diego University Galleries from 2 October – 14 December 2014

Filed under: Collection, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

Death, the great equaliser: Christianity on the Middle Nile

Julie Anderson, Assistant Keeper (curator), British Museum

A herd of Sudanese camels (photograph © J. Anderson)

A herd of Sudanese camels (photograph © J. Anderson)

People are often surprised to discover that two of the largest Christian kingdoms in the medieval world were in Sudan in northeast Africa. Ibn Selim Al-Aswani, an Arab traveller, visited Sudan in the 10th century AD and described the region north of Old Dongola, capital of the medieval kingdom of Makuria, situated roughly 750 kilometres upstream of Aswan Egypt, as an area of ‘about thirty villages, with beautiful buildings, churches and monasteries, many palm-trees, vines, gardens, cultivated fields and broad pastures on which one can see camels’.

Further to the south, Soba East, capital of the medieval kingdom of Alwa, located near modern-day Khartoum, was said to have ‘fine buildings and large monasteries, churches rich with gold and gardens’. This conjures up quite a romantic picture of medieval Sudan and provides us with an insight into the world in which the Sudanese female mummy, now in the exhibition Ancient lives, new discoveries, had lived. Was medieval Sudan as idyllic as it sounds?

Wall painting of a Nubian queen protected by the Virgin Mary and Child (Sudan National Museum 24362). (photograph Rocco Ricci © Trustees of the British Museum).

Wall painting of a Nubian queen protected by the Virgin Mary and Child (Sudan National Museum 24362). (photograph Rocco Ricci © The Trustees of the British Museum).

I am captivated by the medieval wall-paintings of saints, apostles, bishops, royalty, biblical stories and archangels, particularly those unearthed by the Polish archaeological mission in the Cathedral at Faras, Sudan, a site situated near the modern Sudan/Egypt border and now beneath the waters of Lake Nubia/Nasser. The paintings were discovered and rescued during the 1960s UNESCO salvage campaign to save the monuments of Egyptian and Sudanese Nubia threatened by the creation of the Aswan High Dam reservoir, and it is their singular beauty that inspired me as a student to focus on Sudanese and Nubian archaeology. To this day, I remain entranced by the richness of Nubian culture. The portrait in the Sudan National Museum of a Nubian queen or noblewoman, held within the protective embrace of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, is particularly striking. Splendidly attired, the queen bears a small cross on her forehead demonstrating her Christian faith to the viewer whom she gazes directly at. The age at which she was depicted is perhaps close to that of the Sudanese mummy, who would have been between 20 and 35 years old at time of her death.

The Sudanese mummy was very likely not a queen, but in death rich and poor alike received similar burials. The conversion to Christianity in the 6th century AD by missionaries from the Byzantine Empire brought about one of the most profound changes ever experienced in the Middle Nile Valley. Churches and cathedrals herald the arrival of Christianity as they replaced the earlier temples to pagan gods. The traditional system of rites and beliefs was swept away and, in its place, totally different attitudes towards death and the afterlife were introduced. Unlike earlier burials, those of the Christian period were not provided with sumptuous grave goods or food offerings. They were sparsely endowed, if at all. Death was a great social equaliser.

Christian graves were simple tombs with small, flat-topped rectangular superstructures of brick or stones that covered a narrow grave shaft. The deceased was wrapped in a shroud, and the head was often protected by a brick or stone. Bodies were placed on their backs in an extended rather than crouched or contracted position. More elaborate tomb superstructures were plastered white; they might be cruciform in shape or have rounded tops. Graves were orientated east–west, though in some places this was done according to the orientation of the Nile rather than true north. The west end of the tomb, the end which corresponded to the location of the head of the deceased, was sometimes equipped with a lamp-box, a small niche which provided protection from the wind for a lit lamp.

Pottery lamp from Faras Cemetery 4, grave 39, excavated by the University of Oxford Expedition early in the 20th century. (British Museum EA 51771)

Pottery lamp from Faras Cemetery 4, grave 39, excavated by the University of Oxford Expedition early in the 20th century. (British Museum EA 51771)

One such lamp (EA51771) was excavated from Faras Cemetery 4 early in the 20th century by the University of Oxford Expedition led by Francis Llewellyn Griffith, and is now in the British Museum’s collection. The disc on the top of the lamp is decorated with a rosette, and a retrograde Greek inscription reading ‘Great is the name of God’ adorns the shoulder.

Decorative relief frieze with an eagle or dove from the First Cathedral at Faras, 7th century AD (British Museum, EA 606).

Decorative relief frieze with an eagle or dove from the First Cathedral at Faras, 7th century AD (British Museum, EA 606).

Artistic expression was not restricted to wall-paintings or ceramics (though traces of wall-paintings have so far been found in over 50 medieval churches), but also encompassed many minor arts such as basketry, leather and metal-work and textiles. Architectural elements were often embellished with Christian motifs. Such powerful religious symbolism is evident in a 7th-century decorative sandstone frieze (EA 606) from the First Cathedral at Faras. It depicts an eagle or dove surmounted by a cross, standing between columns and altars with its wings spread. This piece, originally part of a sequence of 24 birds, may have adorned the cathedral’s apse. Its yellow background with the relief features highlighted in black would have created an eye-catching, yet pious band of decoration which alluded to the resurrection of Christ, and it may have been something upon which our Sudanese mummy or her contemporaries gazed during their lives while contemplating salvation and paradise.

Ancient lives, new discoveries is on at the British Museum until 30 November 2014.
The exhibition is sponsored by Julius Baer. Technology partner Samsung.

The exhibition catalogue, Ancient lives, new discoveries: eight mummies, eight stories, is available at the Museum’s online shop for £15 (£13.50 for Members).

Filed under: Ancient lives: new discoveries, Archaeology, , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Citizen archaeologists wanted to help rediscover the British Bronze Age

Jennifer Wexler, Bronze Age Index Manager, MicroPasts Project, Daniel Pett, ICT Advisor, Portable Antiquities Scheme, and Neil Wilkin, Curator of European Bronze Age collections, British Museum

As any museum researcher will tell you, getting used to a new museum is as much about learning about the collections of objects, as chasing down the paper records that accompany them. These can yield vital clues about how and where important finds were made and how their biography unfolded. Last winter the MicroPasts team (a collaborative, multi-disciplinary AHRC-funded project with University College London‘s Institute of Archaeology) assembled at Franks House, to view the British Museum’s Bronze Age collection. Our visit was the inspiration for an exciting new project to digitise one of the first catalogues to document British and European prehistory: the Bronze Age Index.

The superb Bronze Age objects in the British Museum collection do not tell the whole story

The superb Bronze Age objects in the British Museum collection do not tell the whole story

The history of the Index is filled with periods of inactivity punctuated by rapid developments. It began as a major archaeological initiative founded by the British Association Committee on Bronze Implements in 1913 and originally housed at the Society of Antiquaries at Burlington House on Piccadilly. It was moved to the Department of British and Medieval Antiquities at the British Museum in 1933, though it was sent on loan to the former British Museum curator Professor C F C Hawkes, as acting Chair of European Archaeology at Oxford University in 1955. It was finally returned to its permanent home at the British Museum in 1966, where it has been kept ever since.

The Bronze Age Index’s home in the British Museum’s stores

The Bronze Age Index’s home in the British Museum’s stores

Known as the ‘principal instrument of research in the British Bronze Age’, the main concept behind the creation of the Index was the idea that by compiling a corpus of all Bronze Age metal objects found in the various museums and collections across the UK, it would be possible for the first time for researchers to study ‘the movements of peoples and trade through the exhaustive study of the distributions of certain types of implements and weapons used in the period’. This corpus took the form of an illustrated card catalogue, with each index card detailing object findspots and types, alongside detailed line drawings and a wide range of further information about the object’s context of discovery, illustrated below. For over 70 years, it represented the highest standards of Bronze Age object studies.

An example of an Index card, a flanged axe found while ‘cutting an equestrian figure of King George III’, from Osmington Hill, Dorset.

An example of an Index card, a flanged axe found while ‘cutting an equestrian figure of King George III’, from Osmington Hill, Dorset

The Bronze Age Index now contains over 30,000 records of Bronze Age tools and weapons largely discovered during the 19th and 20th centuries, and complements our current Portable Antiquities Scheme (PAS) Database of metal object finds. This initiative is interesting not only because it was the first catalogue of its kind documenting prehistory on a wide scale, but also because it was probably the first British archaeology initiative to call on public help with documenting British prehistory way back in the early 20th century.

Investigating a Bronze Age hoard – the Early Bronze Age Arreton Down Hoard from the Isle of Wight

Investigating a Bronze Age hoard, in this case the Early Bronze Age Arreton Down Hoard from the Isle of Wight

Following in the footsteps of creators of the Index, we are once again calling on the public to help us research this extremely important untapped resource. Since late 2013, the digitisation of the entire Index has been undertaken by the MicroPasts project. The MicroPasts project employs a crowd-sourcing platform (built on the open source project Pybossa) in order to solicit help from members of the public or ‘citizen archaeologists’ to assist us transcribing the important information contained on these cards. Additionally, people are helping us with creating 3D models of objects, many of which are recorded by the Index. By undertaking these transcriptions, it will be possible to incorporate the Index’s 30,000 records rapidly into the PAS database, which on its own includes nearly one million objects collected by the public, usually by metal-detectorists.

The result will be the largest national database of prehistoric metal finds anywhere in the world and a near-comprehensive view of what we currently know about such finds in the UK. Metal finds are not only crucial forms of evidence for dating Britain’s prehistoric past, but also tell us a great deal about prehistoric society and economy. The creation of this database will allow for the rethinking of almost everything we currently know about the use of metal in Bronze Age Britain, giving us a more comprehensive view of our prehistoric past. It is also fascinating as it should demonstrate how the interplay between reassessing archaeological archives and the employment of new technologies, such as crowd-sourcing, can open up new avenues of research and public engagement.

If you are interested in helping us research and enrich our knowledge of the Bronze Age, as well as many other museum archives, please join us and help to realise the aspiration of 100 years of Bronze Age study.

The MicroPasts project team is led by Professor Andy Bevan (Institute of Archaeology (IOA), UCL) and co-investigated by Daniel Pett and Rachael Sparks (IOA, UCL). The British Museum Bronze Age Index is managed by Jennifer Wexler in collaboration with Neil Wilkin and Chiara Bonacchi (IOA, UCL) and Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert (IOA, UCL) are the principal researchers.

The Project is supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, Research, , ,

Colourful glass adornments from Egypt: an 18th-dynasty enigma

Anna Hodgkinson, Research Fellow, British Museum

The author inspecting the glass objects

The Egyptian 18th Dynasty (around 1545-1290 BC) is renowned for the quality of glass production, particularly vessels such as the famous bottle in the form of a fish from Amarna. I have spent the last three months in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan studying a less well-known group of glass objects from the same period.

These have been widely interpreted as ‘ear-plugs’ or ‘ear-studs’. I was intrigued: how did this interpretation come into existence? The overall form of the – very colourful – glass objects resembles that of mushroom- or papyrus-shaped ear-studs, frequently found in New Kingdom contexts, with a large number coming from Amarna and depicted on tomb scenes and mummy cartonnages. However, what struck me as unusual was that all the examples in the British Museum have a small hole running through the centre of the object. Although scholars refer to these items as ‘ear-studs’ or ‘ear-plugs’, publications from over a century ago, including some by Sir Flinders Petrie and bead specialist Horace C. Beck, call them beads or amulets, because of this piercing.

The glass objects laid out during the documentation process

The objects were produced by wrapping molten glass rods around a metal rod; however, this procedure would not have necessitated a complete piercing. Scholars have suggested that the frontal hole, which would be visible if these items were worn through a pierced ear-lobe, may have accommodated a fresh flower. While this is conceivable, I would rather interpret these items as beads, since most of them have a spiral-decorated shaft. This shaft would be invisible when worn through the ear-lobe. The beads could have been threaded horizontally or vertically, worn in collars or on the ends of wigs.

Unfortunately, there is no pictorial nor three-dimensional evidence for how these objects were worn, nor do the archaeological contexts tell us much about their use. Most have been found individually, rather than in pairs, and those that appear on the art market and in private collections are usually without provenance (i.e. information about the context in which they were originally excavated or found). This shows that we must be cautious with how objects are designated, because they may be based on conjecture rather than evidence.

My time in the British Museum has allowed the updating of nearly 240 records of items of glass jewellery of the New Kingdom with full descriptions and measurements, and full photographic documentation, accessible to all through the Museum’s Collection online.

Filed under: Collection, Research, , , , , , , , ,

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