British Museum blog

Potlatch coppers: wealth and power on the Northwest Coast

John Davy, Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Museum

Last year I began a Collaborative Doctoral Award at the British Museum and UCL studying Native American material culture, having worked for the Americas section of the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Museum since 2008. In this post I want to introduce two new acquisitions that help the Museum illustrate the complex wealth-exchange systems of the North Pacific coast of North America.

At times of celebration, the wealthiest and most powerful chieftains among the tribes of the Northwest Coast would hold great ceremonial events, known as potlatches. These occasions could last several days, featuring a series of expansive feasts accompanied by dancing, singing and the telling of ancestral stories in the chieftain’s plank-built longhouse. During the potlatch, open negotiations over hunting territories and trading rights would be conducted, the host demonstrating his power and wealth by ostentatious demonstrations of disregard for danger.

The anthropologist Franz Boas describes an event that took place among the Kawkwaka’wakw:

When a person gives a grease feast, a great fire is lighted at the centre of the house. The flames leap up to the roof and the guests are almost scorched by the heat. Still the etiquette demands that they do not stir, else the host’s fire has conquered them. Even when the roof begins to burn and the fire attacks the rafters, they must appear unconcerned. The host alone has the right to send a man up to the roof to put out the fire.

At the climax of the event the host would address his guests in a ceremony centred on the distribution of lavish presents. Most significant of all gifts would be large sheets of shield-shaped copper decorated in a variety of tribal crests. These objects are known by various names: tináa to the Tlingit, t’agu to the Haida and collectively in English as ‘coppers’. Often individually named with complex life-histories, coppers carried a nominal value measured in blankets or slaves, but their importance lay primarily in the obligation they placed on the recipients as part of a network of wealth and power distribution.

Haida copper (Am1929,0811.1)

Haida copper (Am1929,0811.1)

To the people of the Northwest Coast, copper was an exotic item, originally traded from the north and later with Europeans. It held supernatural properties, and to present a guest with a copper or a piece from a broken copper placed on them a powerful obligation. A host who had received coppers from his guests at their potlatches was compelled to present them with a greater value of coppers than he had previously received and thus obliged his guests to present coppers of even greater value at their next potlatch. The wealthiest chieftains would even smash coppers or throw them into the sea to demonstrate their superiority and strength. A leader who could not afford to make these presents or did not possess coppers could not hold a successful potlatch to celebrate important events and would consequently be considered a man of little importance among his peers.

In the late 19th century, colonial authorities saw the potlatch as a dangerous, wasteful and subversive event and sought to stamp it out. It was outlawed in Canada in 1884 and in 1921 Dan Cranmer’s potlatch at ʼMimkwa̱mlis (Village Island) was raided by the local police who seized and confiscated hundreds of items of regalia. Potlatching did not cease, but it was forced underground, becoming invisible to the authorities as the regalia which supported it was gradually dispersed to museums and private collections around the world. Since the removal of the anti-potlatch laws in 1951 however, potlatching has once again become a prominent part of life for the people of the North Pacific.

Kwakwaka’wakw copper (2013,2037.1)

Kwakwaka’wakw copper (2013,2037.1)

Two new acquisitions help the British Museum tell the story of the coppers. The first is an unadorned copper from the turn of the 20th century recently donated by the London School of Economics. Unlike the coppers already in the collection, which are made from single thick copper sheets, this is a thinner, lighter example made from two sheets riveted together, a method of manufacture which suggests a Kwakwaka’wakw origin. Unusually, this example is not etched with an animal crest, and is thus a so-called ‘spurious copper’, one which was a valuable but routine item of exchange passed from chief to chief from potlatch to potlatch but without the ritual significance of the decorated coppers.

Five, Alison Bremner, (2013.2014,2002.1)

Five, Alison Bremner, (2013.2014,2002.1)

The second acquisition is a pendant produced by contemporary Tlingit artist Alison Bremner. Titled ‘Five’ from her series ‘Potlatch Dollars’, this pendant is made from copper in the shape of a traditional copper. Printed onto the surface of the pendant is a detail from a $5 note originally issued in Seattle. Bremner writes:

Potlatch Dollars resulted from my consideration of the concept of money, as any self-employed artist will do. Tináa’s once held a money-like value that today is held by dollar bills. Money is the object that contemporary society chooses to place value on.

As a child of two cultures, I view these works less as an appropriation from one culture to another but as a joining of the two. The Potlatch Dollar is a symbol of the past and present that all Northwest Coast residents now live in.

In juxtaposing 19th-century embodiments of Native and non-Native conceptions of wealth, Bremner is highlighting both the similarities and the misunderstandings that have characterised Native and non-Native relations over the last two centuries and celebrates the re-establishment of traditional Native practices in recent decades.

For further reading, see Carol F Jopling, The Coppers of the Northwest Coast Indians: Their Origin, Developments and Possible Antecedents, available at the British Museum’s Anthropology Library and Research Centre (ALRC). These two new acquisitions will be on display at the ALRC until December 2014.

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More than just gold

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC - AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

Gold glitters in our exhibition, Beyond El Dorado, power and gold in ancient Colombia. To our modern eye those pieces convey ideas of richness, wealth and a fascinating world that disappeared a long time ago. Exquisitely crafted, they are testimonies of the complexity and sophistication achieved by those pre-Hispanic people. Objects that seem at first glance made of gold are much more complex and are in fact made of metal alloys. In most instances they combine, in different degrees, gold, some natural occurring silver, and copper, a combination known as tumbaga. These metals were symbolically charged in pre-Hispanic times, being associated with the sun and the moon respectively. Their combination produced a microcosm, a balance between opposites in the rendering of each object.

Gold alloy disc, Late Nariño, AD 600-1600. © Museo del Oro (O21220)

Gold alloy disc, Late Nariño, AD 600-1600. © Museo del Oro (O21220)

The creation of alloys also allowed for differences in colour, ranging from reddish to golden tones. Each object had its own particular colour, shine and finish thanks to the mastery and skills of the artists that produced them. Some even show contrasting colours in the same object, producing beautiful patterns and details.

Small ingots of tumbaga, in the shape of round buttons, were crafted in unique objects either by hammering or casting them (or by a combination of both techniques). Ancient Colombian artists mastered both techniques to an unprecedented degree, creating exceptional works of art.

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC - AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)

Jaguar lime flask with nose ornament, Calima Malagana (Yotoco Malagana), 200 BC – AD 1300. © Museo del Oro (O33156)

Hammering metal was a delicate process. Metal becomes easily brittle when hammered and they have to be repeatedly cooled and dipped in water before the final form is achieved. The thin sheets of gold were then cut, decorated (for example by repoussé) or joined by clipping or folding several sheets together. Exceptional three dimensional pieces were created, as for example the wonderful jaguar seen in the exhibition (above). Claws, tail and jaws are articulated and even the nose ring is made of a rare alloy of platinum and gold.

However, it was the casting of metals that was developed most in ancient Colombia. Using the lost wax technique, artist modelled the final piece they wanted to achieve in beeswax (from stingless bees). Once the wax figure was finished it was covered in fine clay and charcoal, leaving pouring channels. The whole mould was fired and the melted wax poured out. Its place would be taken by molten metal, which cooled slowly as it solidified inside the mould. The mould was then broken and the final metal piece polished and finished.

Seated female poporo (lime container), Early Quimbaya, 500 BC - AD 700 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Am1940,11.2)

Seated female poporo (lime container), Early Quimbaya, 500 BC – AD 700 (© Trustees of the British Museum, Am1940,11.2)

Ancient Colombian artist even created hollow objects following this technique, for example flasks and containers. Great skill was needed to produce them. The figure was modelled in clay and charcoal, and a thin layer of wax was applied to cover the final result. Over this another layer of clay would be added, and wooden pegs were inserted to fix the inner mould to the outer one to keep them in place when the wax melted. Controlling the flow of the metal to every single detail of the piece, its slow solidification, and then freeing the figure without damaging it was challenge that could only be achieved by the most experienced hands. Exquisite works of art, seen in this exhibition, were the result of incredible knowledge, care and time invested in their making.

Videos showing goldmaking techniques created for the exhibition

  1. Depletion gilding (dorado por oxidación)
  2. From wax to metal (de la cera al metal)
  3. By hammer and fire (a martillo y fuego)

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

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El Dorado: a title and a myth

View of Lake Guatavita
Elisenda Vila Llonch, curator, British Museum

Curators usually think very carefully about the title of an exhibition. In a few words we have to convey a key message to catch people’s attention and to draw in the crowds. Our current exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, was no exception. At the British Museum we felt we had to include the words ‘El Dorado’ in the title. This Spanish term, which means the ‘golden one’ or ‘the gilded one’, is familiar to many, but very few know what or who El Dorado was. Perhaps this is part of its mystical aura; the inevitable attraction of the unknown?

The Golden Man, engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1599. © British Library (exh. cat., p. 23)

The Golden Man, engraving by Theodor de Bry, 1599. © British Library (exh. cat., p. 23)

Throughout the centuries, El Dorado was described by some as a man fully dressed in gold regalia. Other people believed he was a ruler or even a city covered in this precious metal. Some believed it was a golden kingdom. In fact, El Dorado was none of these. It was a myth that grew over the centuries that seems to have originated from the gold-thirsty Europeans in their exploration of the New Continent, soon to be called America. From 1499 the Spanish explorers and conquistadores reached the Caribbean coasts known today as Colombia and were especially dazzled by the quantity of gold being used by indigenous people. The King of Spain even named these lands ‘Castilla del Oro’ (Castile of Gold). But this Dorado was always elusive, always further south, or further north, or more towards the east; never being reached by the many expeditions and men that invested their live in this futile search.

Lake Guatavita. © © Mauricio Mejia (exh. cat., p. 18)

Lake Guatavita. © © Mauricio Mejia (exh. cat., p. 18)

Some chroniclers placed El Dorado in the Colombian landscape, and few even ventured to link it to Lake Guatavita. This wonderful lagoon, nested in the green Andean highlands about 35 miles north of modern day Bogota, became the focus of attention for explorers and treasure hunters for many centuries. Accounts by Juan Rodriguez Freyle (1636) picture a vivid image of one of the rituals that took place in this lake. When a Muisca ruler came to power, and after much ceremony and fasting, he was taken to the lagoon where he was stripped of all his clothing. His body was covered in gold powder and placed at the center of a raft with attendants adorned with colorful feathers and gold ornaments. As the raft sailed towards the center of the lake, the crowds sang and danced and aromatic resins were burned. When the boat reached the center, a banner was raised, everyone fell silent and offerings of gold and emeralds were thrown to the waters of the lake. But there was much more than just gold offered; the truth behind the myth was far more fascinating. Excavations in the early 20th century have shown that wonderful ceramics, stone necklaces and other materials were also deposited in the lake.

Ceramic votive offerings from Lake Guatavita, Muisca, AD 600-1600 (exh. cat. pp. 26-7)

Ceramic votive offerings from Lake Guatavita, Muisca, AD 600-1600 (exh. cat. pp. 26-7)

This lavish ceremony was probably only one of many that took place in Guatavita. And this lagoon was only one of the sacred locations throughout the Andean landscape where Muisca rituals took place (including rivers, caves, rocks). There is much more than just a myth to be explored; there are rich cultures, unique objects and exceptional belief systems, which all go beyond the power granted to gold in modern times.

The exhibition Beyond El Dorado: power and gold in ancient Colombia, organised with Museo del Oro, is at the British Museum until 23 March 2014.
Sponsored by Julius Baer.
Additional support provided by American Airlines.

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Easter Island (Rapa Nui): a new narrative

Moai staues on Rapa Nui
Jago Cooper, curator, British Museum

Small island communities represent some of the most vulnerable people on the planet to the impacts of climate variability and environmental change. This is why their voices are so powerful when heard above the clamour at international meetings designed to tackle these issues at the global scale.

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

Government of the Maldives hold a cabinet meeting underwater to raise awareness of global sea level rise. © Mohamed Seeneen

From an archaeological perspective these island communities are particularly interesting as they have commonly been populated relatively late in the great human colonisation of our planet, often only arriving in these archipelagos in the late Holocene (past 5,000 years). Therefore archaeological studies in the North Atlantic, Caribbean, Pacific and elsewhere have revealed some fascinating narratives of how human communities have lived with the impacts of climatic variability and environmental change in these archipelagos. In particular these comparative island studies demonstrate how different decisions that people have taken have directly affected their relative vulnerability through time.

Within this context Rapa Nui (Easter Island) has often been heralded as a warning to the world, an example of a remote island community’s inability to live within their means, chopping down all the trees on the island, over-exploiting the island’s resources and self-inflicting their own demise. However, recent evidence offers a very different picture of what actually happened on Rapa Nui.

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

Recent archaeological excavations have revealed that the current treeless landscape of Rapa Nui has often been misinterpreted. © IWC Media

This new perspective to Rapa Nui’s past is the focus of a documentary that I have worked on for BBC4, Easter Island: Mysteries of a Lost World. It uses the latest scientific and archaeological evidence to reveal a compelling new narrative, one that sees the famous Moai as only part of a complex culture that thrived in isolation. To this end, I argue that there are indeed important lessons to learn from Rapa Nui but they don’t begin by blaming its inhabitants for their own downfall.

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Iconic Moai standing on the slopes of Rano Raraku. © IWC Media

Easter Island, Mysteries of a Lost World is on BBC4 on Thursday 30 January at 9.00 pm. Watch clips from the programme on the BBC website.
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New discoveries of cave art in the Caribbean

New cave art discoveries in the pre-Columbian CaribbeanJago Cooper, curator, British Museum

At the end of May, I returned to the British Museum from an exploratory research visit to an uninhabited national park on the island of Mona in Puerto Rico. My colleague Dr Alice Samson, McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research, and I had found more than we planned or expected when we flew to the Caribbean two weeks earlier.

caption goes here

There are hundreds of caves on Isla de Mona many with entrances like this one on cliff faces overlooking the coastline below.

Alerted to the potential presence of archaeological sites dating to the pre-Columbian period (prior to AD 1492 when Christopher Columbus first arrived in the Americas) by National park manager Tony Nieves, we went to take a look. We discovered extensive pre-Columbian mining and artistic practices deep inside caves, with an astonishing abundance and diversity of new rock art including pictographs and finger-incised designs representing abstract, human and animal images.

caption goes here

The pre-Columbian iconography found in many of these cave systems extends through galleried chambers covering large portions of the walls and ceilings.

Designs, which cover the walls and ceilings of hundreds of metres of the darkest caverns and tunnels across the island were executed by the application of pigments to cave walls, and by previously undocumented techniques such as incising and dragging fingers through the very soft, plaster-like deposit on the cave walls. This particular technique left white trails of surprising freshness, complexity and elaborateness.

caption goes here

Many of the representations are clearly identifiable. This figure with the swirling arms represents Guabancex, the pre-Columbian deity associated with the destructive force of the hurricane.

Strikingly the technique also appears to have been a way of harvesting the soft deposit on the cave walls as is attested by the vigorous finger scratching across large expanses of cave surfaces in all of the sites we visited. These extractive activities, or evidence for ancient mining, rather than being indiscriminate movements, were systematic and deliberate actions leaving complex designs.

caption goes here

This figure is identical to the famous Puerto Rican Sol de Jayuya rock art image found in central Puerto Rico.

Alongside Dr Samson I’m working in collaboration with the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources and the Institute of Puerto Rican Culture to develop a project to study the pre-Columbian archaeology of the island and protect this unique Caribbean heritage. Many of the caves we explored have not been visited since guano (essentially bat excrement, a very effective fertilizer) miners working there downed tools 120 years ago, leaving the ruins of railway tracks, wagons and sometimes their initials on the cave walls.

The caves are incredibly well preserved sites, but are at very high risk of future destruction due to the soft texture of the walls and confined spaces for visitors to gain access. A glimpse of this archaeology is shown in our project gallery page.

The evidence we found not only dramatically expands our repertoire of pre-Columbian iconography, but has the potential to change understandings of past cave use in this area at this time, as well as traditional definitions of rock art.

The fieldwork discussed in this blog was consequently reported in detail at the International Association of Caribbean Archaeology in San Juan, Puerto Rico on 17 July 2013 and more information can now be found on the Antiquity Journal website. Samson, A., Cooper, J., Nieves, M. A., Rodriguez Ramos, R., Kambesis, P. N. and Lace, M. J. 2013 (Dec). Antiquity. vol 87. Issue 338 (http://antiquity.ac.uk/projgall/samson338/).”

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Once a warrior: from Plains Indians to the west country

Captain Chris Gillespie reflects on Warriors of the PlainsRuth Gidley, Community Participation Officer, Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery (RAMM), Exeter

In the modern world, war is broadcast on the TV news and Internet for everyone to see. So it’s rare for us to see first-hand accounts from soldiers expressed in more traditional art forms, such as battle exploits painted on animal hides. But art can still help to explain life in the armed forces to people who haven’t been there, and help to heal the deep emotional wounds of war

A group of modern UK servicemen and women, based in the west country, who looked in detail at Warriors of the Plains – a visiting British Museum exhibition about Native American warrior societies – were inspired to paint, write poems, make a film, and sew blankets, as part of an initiative here at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Gallery in Exeter. One soldier turned the uniform he was wearing when he was shot in Afghanistan into a piece of art.

Captain Chris Gillespie reflects on Warriors of the Plains

Captain Chris Gillespie reflects on Warriors of the Plains

John McDermott, who spent 27 years in the Royal Navy before founding Aftermath PTSD, a group which uses art to help people suffering from combat-related stress, explained: “This is a way to let the public know about the military mind. And what happens to us afterwards, when eventually we take off that uniform.”

The west country is home to a significant military community, but civilians rarely know much about armed forces life. For us at Exeter’s RAMM (lucky enough to be named Museum of the Year 2012 by the ArtFund, the year after the British Museum won this accolade) hosting the British Museum exhibition was a chance to try to spark dialogue and build some cultural bridges.

Local veterans and serving soldiers found parallels with the ways and rituals of Native American warrior societies from the nineteenth century to the present. We recorded interviews and made them into a film, which also showcases the artworks made as part of the project, called Once a Warrior.

Current and former armed forces staff involved in the Once a Warrior project

Current and former armed forces staff involved in the Once a Warrior project

Servicemen and women involved in the project – who had seen conflict in places ranging from the Balkans to Somalia, and done jobs as disparate as handling dogs for the Army and directing fighter planes for the Women’s Royal Air Force – found common ground in all sorts of practices. “There was definitely a connection between the army that I know, the modern army, and what we were learning about the Plains Indians,” said Captain Chris Gillespie, Queen’s Gallantry Medal and Bar (QGM), of 6 RIFLES, which trains Territorial Army volunteers for deployment to Afghanistan.

Whereas Native American warriors on the Plains used to decorate their clothing with patterns and human scalps to denote their society and status, today’s British regiments can be identified by their uniforms, mountain boots or special-issue knives. Wives of Plains warriors used to make them moccasins; now quilters’ groups sew blankets for the bereaved and injured.

Brian Power and his A Long Time After the War Shirt, a piece about PTSD, which features in the film he made for the project

Brian Power and his A Long Time After the War Shirt, a piece about PTSD, which features in the film he made for the project

A warrior might once have worn a bear-claw necklace to protect him from harm on the Plains, a vast area stretching from just above what is now the Canadian border down to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. Soldiers in the Once a Warrior film describe carrying a rosary, or family photographs, a pack of cards, and a beermat from a local brewery.

Lee French, a soldier, said guys still get together to tell battle stories. “We call it ‘swinging a lantern’, or ‘to spin a dit’ or ‘pull up a sandbag’.” But social media and TV news mean there is less of a need for warriors to write down their exploits or draw combat scenes. “Because it’s there and it’s plain for everyone to see if you want to go and look at it,” he said.

Diane Hughes, a WRAF fighter controller during the Cold War, and one of her “unknown tribal blankets”

Diane Hughes, a WRAF fighter controller during the Cold War, and one of her “unknown tribal blankets”

And whereas Native American warriors were – and still are – welcomed home with dances and pride, Royal Marines welfare officer Lisa Robinson said there was a chasm between military and civilian in Britain because of the nature of the wars in which its services were engaged. “Life is going on as normal whilst guys are being killed, injured, having traumatic, life-changing experiences halfway across the world,” she said.

Without enough support from the armed forces and the public, the risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and trouble adjusting to civilian life is high. Will Means, who started experiencing terrifying nightmares and flashbacks years after leaving the Royal Marines, said it helped him to write poetry. “If you express it through art, writing, drawing or poetry, then you’re giving it to people in a soluble form that they can digest easily,” he said.

The group’s art was displayed at RAMM, two artists at a time, alongside the film and the exhibition that inspired it, 22 September 2012 – 13 January 2013. Once a Warrior – common bonds of combat, is on YouTube.

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London, a world city in 20 objects: the Taíno sculpture

 Taino sculptureRebecca Allen, British Museum

This is a Taíno sculpture, probably dating from the fifteenth century. The Taíno were one of the pre-European, native peoples of the Caribbean, and this figure is from Jamaica. The sculpture stands at just over a metre tall, and is made of a very dense tropical hardwood called Guayacan, which has been polished with pebbles to give the surface a deep shine.

It depicts a male spirit-being in a drug-induced trance, and may have been used in religious rituals. In Taino culture this figure embodied the life force, or cemi, which takes many forms and which could do powerful things. The figure is beautifully carved; the sculptor has seen the form of the figure within the wood and carved through to it, meaning that the spirit is found within the wood itself.

 Taino sculpture

Taino sculpture

On the figure’s back a prominent spine has been carved, showing each individual vertebra very clearly, while on the face of the figure tear channels are shown. These are made more conspicuous by the use of gilding. The figure is in suspended animation, frozen in time, as tears stream down his face.

This object featured in the British Museum exhibition Shakespeare: staging the world, supported by BP. At first glance it may seem an odd choice for an exhibition which focused on Elizabethan and Jacobean London, but it has very strong visual and imaginative links with one Shakespeare play in particular: The Tempest.

In the play, a group of sailors are frozen in time by Prospero, a shaman-like figure with magical powers. Prospero commands Ariel, a spirit of the island who owes his freedom to Prospero, to tell him how the enchanted prisoners are faring. Ariel describes the enchantment and tells how one man in particular – Gonzalo – has been trapped in time while tears flow down his cheeks:

Him that you termed, sir, the good old lord Gonzalo:
His tears run down his beard, like winter’s drops
From eaves of reeds.
(The Tempest 5.1.17-19)

This description is evocative of the kind of magical transformation represented by this sculpture. The enchantment Ariel describes is matched in the face of this figure.

Another thematic link with The Tempest lies at the point where Ariel is freed by Prospero from being trapped in an enchanted tree: ‘it was mine art, / When I arrived and heard thee, that made gape / The pine and let thee out’ (1.2.340-2). This is reminiscent of the Taíno understanding that to carve wood is to free the form within it. Ariel, the spirit, has been freed from his imprisonment in the pine.

There are surprising and poetic links between the way Shakespeare imagined the nature of enchantment, and the understandings and insights of the Taíno people of the Caribbean.

This was first published in the London Evening Standard on 1 November 2012.

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