British Museum blog

A taste for honey: bees in African rock art

Helen Anderson, Project Cataloguer of African Rock Art Image Project, British Museum

In Summer 2014 the green roof of the newly opened World Conservation and Exhibitions Centre (WCEC) at the British Museum became home to a colony of bees. The bees were introduced as part of an initiative by an organisation called Inmidtown – to boost the diminishing population of bees and train Museum staff in the craft of beekeeping. I, along with a number of keen volunteers, have taken up the exciting challenge to look after our bees on the roof on a weekly basis until September.

Beekeepers from the Urban Bee Project on the roof of the WCEC building (Photographs: Michael Row, British Museum)

Above and below: Beekeepers from the Urban Bee Project on the roof of the WCEC building. (Photographs: Michael Row, British Museum)

12-05-2015 16.30.06 My own fascination with bees goes back to my childhood in Norfolk. I vividly remember watching their comings and goings on an oversized lavender bush in our garden; an attraction which didn’t wane despite being stung on more than one occasion. However, my role as project cataloguer on the African Rock Art Image Project has firmly established that the human-bee relationship is one that is very likely to be several thousands, if not tens of thousands of years old. Depictions of bees, their nests and the harvesting of honey can be found at rock art sites across the African continent. Recent genomic studies indicate that the honeybee, Apis mellifera, originated in Asia around 300,000 years ago and rapidly spread across Europe and Africa. While European populations contracted during Ice Ages, African populations expanded during these periods, suggesting environmental conditions were more favourable and that, historically, climate change has had a strong impact on honeybee populations.

Apis mellifera  (Photograph: by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)], via Wikimedia Commons)

The honeybee, Apis mellifera, with pollen basket. (Photograph: by Muhammad Mahdi Karim (www.micro2macro.net) Facebook Youtube (Own work) [GFDL 1.2 (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/old-licenses/fdl-1.2.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Africa has more rock art relating to bees than any other continent where populations of bees are found (Europe, Asia and Oceania), although there are no secure dates for the origin of these images. Only a few engravings and paintings relating to bees exist in northern Africa, and these are at widely dispersed sites. The African honeybee builds a nest in dark cavities, typically trees. Where there are no suitable trees, such as in the Sahara, bees may nest in termite mounds, rock hollows, depressions or crevices, and the honeycombs of such nests are sometimes visible. In Libya, for example, nests are located in rock fractures in the steep sides of wadis (dried up riverbeds), which can be between 100 and 200 metres high. There are significantly more depictions associated with bees in the rock art south of the Sahara; why this should be the case is not entirely clear – it may be due to environmental conditions. I should, at this point, make the distinction between the activity of beekeeping in which I am engaged, and the more apt term of honey-hunters, which most closely explains the activities seen in the rock art representations of southern and eastern Africa. It has been suggested that historically hive beekeeping was never developed in these regions as there were sufficient nest sites that provided plentiful honey for local communities.

Granite rock shelter in Tanzania with paintings above the head of the man on the left. Sticks form the ladder to enable the men to reach out and extract honey from the bees’ nest within the large cavity. © TARA/David Coulson.(Image not yet catalogued)

Granite rock shelter in Tanzania with paintings above the head of the man on the left. Sticks form the ladder to enable the men (honey-hunters) to reach out and extract honey from the bees’ nest within the large cavity. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

The bees’ nest consists of a number of parallel honeycombs built into the cavity, suspended from an upper surface. Honey-hunters would have observed the nest structure when harvesting the combs, perceiving the different shapes and forms they take depending on the angle of entry. For example, in an upright tree trunk, looking at the combs face on they appear as a suspended curved structure (catenary pattern); seen in a tree cavity or in a cavity from below, the ends of the combs look like oval or elliptical-shaped parallel compartments. These particular composite shapes were termed ‘formlings’ by the German ethnographer and archaeologist Leo Frobenius in the 1930s, and comprise a distinct category of feature in African rock art.

Wild bees' nest showing combs hanging down in catenary curves or elliptical adjacent compartments. (Photo:

Wild bees’ nest showing combs hanging down in catenary curves or elliptical adjacent compartments. (Photograph: by Erell (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Engraved rock art showing feature similar to catenary pattern of bees' nest. Loumet Asli, Ouarzazate Province, Morocco. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson)

Engraved rock art showing feature similar to catenary pattern of bees’ nest. Loumet Asli, Ouarzazate Province, Morocco. British Museum 2013,2034.12205. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson)

Fifty-six catenary patterns have been found at thirty-eight rock art sites, only five of which are in northern Africa. Catenary patterns are the easiest bee-related image to depict when engraving and are found at one site in Algeria and four in Morocco. Painted rock art of nested catenary curves, possibly representing bees’ nests, sometimes depicts clusters of small crosses which bear resemblance to a group of flying bees.

Two sets of nested curves. The lower set of curves has black dots (maybe bees?) between curved lines. Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa. © TARA/David Coulson. Image not yet catalogued.

Two sets of nested curves. The lower set of curves has black dots (maybe bees?) between curved lines. Drakensberg Mountains, South Africa. (Photograph: © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

More than 300 depictions of formlings can be found at over 220 sites – over 95% of which come from Zimbabwe alone. Studies of honeybee nests have been compared to artistic representations of catenary patterns and formlings, and suggest that depictions of both were originally based on observations of bees’ nests made by the producers of rock art.

Painted rock art showing carefully drawn ‘formling’ with five ovals surrounded by cloud of tiny red crosses (perhaps bees?). Two figures in the middle of the formling are facing each other with arms outstretched (maybe they are harvesting?). Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Painted rock art showing carefully drawn ‘formling’, with five ovals surrounded by cloud of tiny red crosses, perhaps bees. Two figures in the middle of the formling are facing each other with arms outstretched – maybe they are harvesting? Matopo Hills, Zimbabwe. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

The harvesting of honey in rock paintings shows honey-hunters in groups, sometimes using ladders to reach the nests. In one painting from Zimbabwe, fire or smoke, which was used to ward off the bees, is depicted.

Painting of a seated figure with a large headdress, apparently surrounded by insects – possibly bees. From near Thawi, Kondoa, Tanzania. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

Painting of a seated figure with a large headdress, apparently surrounded by insects – possibly bees. From near Thawi, Kondoa, Tanzania. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

In southern Africa, shamans of the San people describe being stung by bees while in a trance-like state (Lewis-Williams, 2001); and in the Kalahari Desert, the San dance when bees are swarming which they believe strengthens the efficacy of the dance. Examples of such dances are depicted in painted rock art, where bees are painted on people’s bodies and limbs. For the San, bees and honey are highly potent symbols.

Painted rock art showing large mythical animal with paws and long curved trunk surrounded by tiny crosses – perhaps representing bees. Drakensberg Mounatins, South Africa. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

San painted rock art showing large mythical animal with paws and long curved trunk surrounded by dancing figures and tiny crosses – perhaps representing bees. Drakensberg Mounatins, South Africa. (Photograph © TARA/David Coulson – image not yet catalogued)

My own forays into beekeeping are in their initial stages and I am looking forward to learning about these productive insects and helping them to thrive in their increasingly endangered habitats; but it is thought-provoking that our taste for honey reaches back across the millennia.

For more information about the project, please visit our project pages on the British Museum website: britishmuseum.org/africanrockart.

The African rock art image project is supported by The Arcadia Fund.

Further reading

Crane, Eva, 2001, The Rock Art of the Honey Hunters, Cardiff: International Bee Research Association.

Dixon, Luke, forthcoming, A Time There Was: A Story of Rock Art, Bees and Bushmen.

Kidd, Andrew, B. and Schrimpf, Berthold, 2000, ‘Bees and bee-keeping’, in R. Blench, Kevin C. MacDonald (eds), The Origins and Development of African Livestock: Archaeology, Genetics, Linguistics and Ethnography, London: Routledge.

Lewis-Williams, D., 2001, ‘Brainstorming images: neuropsychology and rock art research’, in David S. Whitley (ed.), Handbook of Rock Art Research, California: Altamira Press, pp. 332–60.

Mguni, Siyakha, 2006, ‘King’s monuments: identifying “formlings” in southern African San rock paintings’, in Antiquity, 80: 583–98.

Wallberg, A., Han, F., Wellhagen, G., Dahle, B., Kawata, M., Haddad, N., Simões, Z.L.P., Allsopp, M.H., Kandemir. I., De La Rúa, P., Pirk, C.W., Webster, M.T., 2014, ‘A worldwide survey of genome sequence variation provides insight into the evolutionary history of the honeybee Apis mellifera’, in Nature Genetics, 46: 1081–88.  

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

Indigenous Australia: multi-sensory engagement for families

Emilia McKenzie, Education Manager (Digital Content), British Museum

Temporary exhibitions at the British Museum are a wonderful opportunity for the Schools and Young Audiences team to think creatively about new ways to engage our family visitors. The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is no exception and is accompanied by a specially devised range of family-friendly activities and events. To create this programme, the Schools and Young Audiences team worked closely with the exhibition’s curatorial and interpretation teams.

Indigenous Australia family guide

Indigenous Australia family guide

For our Indigenous Australia family guide, we wanted to try something a little different, going beyond the traditional medium of paper-based trails. We felt that the content of this exhibition, with its bold range of practical as well as ceremonial objects, lent itself particularly well to alternative formats. Inspired by the collection on display, we decided to create a multi-sensory, three-dimensional interpretive device, featuring replicas of objects or parts of objects from the exhibition. We worked with 3D designers Topographic who used a range of materials including wood and acrylic along with techniques such as etching, lamination and sculpture to produce 6 unique objects with very different textures. Placed around a hoop, the miniature replicas provide a non-linear trail, allowing visitors to dip in and out as they wish.

Detail from the Indigenous Australia family guide: suckerfish

Detail from the Indigenous Australia family guide: suckerfish

In terms of the content, we worked with the exhibition curators and interpretation officer to select the most appropriate objects across the exhibition – objects that young people would find inspiring and which would give families clear ‘ways in’ to the main themes of the exhibition, including ancestry, ritual and livelihood. The layout of the exhibition itself was also a consideration: thinking from the point of view of a young child and whether or not they would actually be able to see the object in question.

Ask for the guide at the exhibition entrance to try it for yourself.

Detail of a mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish Attributed to Kuduma, Muralag, Torres Strait, Queensland. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell, paint. H 310 mm. British Museum, London Oc,89+.74

Detail of a mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish
Attributed to Kuduma, Muralag, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1888. Turtle shell, goa nut, cassowary feather, shell, paint. H 310 mm. British Museum, London Oc,89+.74

Our craft-based family half-term workshops in the Museum this month will enable participants to build their own ‘fish hats’ inspired by objects in the exhibition, such as this dance mask. Fish are a key symbol in the exhibition and are a vital food source and totemic animal for Indigenous Australians. We wanted to create something that people could wear, and hope that the Museum will be filled throughout half term with ‘schools’ of fish as families wearing their fish hats move around during their visits. Participating families can decorate their hats in natural colours drawn from the palette of the exhibition, with plenty of scope for fun and individuality.

Throughout half-term week, artist David Allsop will be facilitating a collaborative artwork around the theme of ‘journeys’. Families are invited to contribute to the artwork using a colour-coded system representing how and why they have come to the Museum. Based on mark-making and the system of colours as symbols, the final outcome will be a large painting shown on the floor in the same way that paintings from Spinifex communities, Western Australia, are displayed.

Drop by the Great Court between 11.00 and 16.00 during half-term week (25–29 May) to take part in these activities. Tell us that you took part by sharing your artwork on Instagram and Twitter using #IndigenousAustralia. We can’t wait to see what you create!

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Event, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , , , , ,

Making histories: Captain Cook and Indigenous Australia

Maria Nugent, Research Fellow, Australian National University

Objects on display in the Indigenous Australia exhibition.

Objects on display in the Indigenous Australia exhibition at the British Museum, London

There is a corner (literally) in the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation that features the famous British navigator Captain James Cook. It occurs at a pivotal point, where the exhibition’s narrative moves from the hard-to-fathom timescales of the Dreaming (the complex system of beliefs and stories that explain the meaningful creation of the world, and how humans reproduce that system through ceremony, art, storytelling and other meaningful action, which one anthropologist described as an ‘everywhen’) and the 40,000 plus years of human occupation of the continent, to the much shorter and more immediate timespan of the last 245 years since British encounters with Indigenous people there began. While Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese voyagers had visited since the early 1600s, Cook was the first British navigator to explore the region. And whereas other European expeditions were mainly on the western and northern coasts, Cook and his expedition charted the east coast. Although Cook is often credited with claiming the entire continent for King George III, he was careful to only take possession of its eastern side, acknowledging as he did that the Dutch had already claimed the west.

Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana, c. 2002. H 3120 mm, Diam. 200 mm. British Museum, London Oc2003,01.2

Barama/Captain Cook by Gawirrin 1 Gumana, c. 2002. H 3120 mm, Diam. 200 mm. British Museum, London Oc2003,01.2 Reproduced by permission of the artist © Buku-Larrnggay Mulka Centre http://www.yirrkala.com

This corner of the exhibition draws together a fascinating assemblage of objects that work together to present diverse representations of Captain Cook and his place within Indigenous Australia’s deep history. There’s a larrakitj, or memorial pole, that was made in 2002 by Gawirrin 1 Gumana. At the top on one side he has painted the ancestor figure Barama and on the other Captain Cook, but he hasn’t specified which is which. The rest of the pole is covered with the artist’s ancestral designs, and so it acknowledges Cook’s historical presence, but shows that it did not displace Barama’s law in Yolngu country (northeastern Arnhem Land).

Attributed to Botany Bay (Sydney), New South Wales, c. 1770. L 900 mm. British Museum, London Oc1978,Q.839

Attributed to Botany Bay (Sydney), New South Wales, c. 1770. L 900 mm. British Museum, London Oc1978,Q.839

Next to it, in a large case and lit up against a striking green background, is the shield that is believed to have been used by a Gweagal man in self-defence against the violent incursion of Cook’s landing party into his country in late April 1770. (Although it is tempting to believe otherwise, we know for sure that the hole in the centre of the shield was not made by a bullet.) This is an especially powerful object, because it symbolises that first fateful meeting.

There is though, I think, a risk that by concentrating only on the first landing that other equally significant and revealing interactions that took place over the week that Cook’s ship the Endeavour remained at Botany Bay are overshadowed. Other objects in this corner of the exhibition provide intriguing perspectives on that historical encounter.

People in canoes at Botany Bay by Tupaia, 1770. H 263 mm, W 362 mm. British Library, London

People in canoes at Botany Bay by Tupaia, 1770. H 263 mm, W 362 mm. British Library, London

The drawing made by the Ra’iatean man Tupaia (who had joined the voyage in Tahiti) is especially important here. It shows three Gweagal people fishing with hand lines and spears from two canoes. This was a drawing made from life and is a beautifully detailed and sympathetic scene, which not only shows details of their canoes and fishing spears, but also reveals how the local people continued to go about their business despite the unwelcome presence of the British sailors. Tupaia was an important intermediary in interactions between the British and Indigenous people in Australia (and New Zealand as well). But his role has not been given much attention in histories of Cook in Australia. Later, when the Endeavour was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef, he warmed relations there with the local people, so much so that some men went on board the ship and some vocabulary was collected. Below Tupaia’s drawing is a copy of Cook’s original chart of Botany Bay, which indicates water sources and other environmental features. Augmented by James Cook’s and Joseph Banks’s descriptions, the chart reveals evidence of Indigenous people’s management of the landscape.

These two drawings, produced as a result of interactions with Indigenous people and their country in 1770, are flanked by two contemporary artworks. One is Michael Cook’s photograph, Undiscovered #4, which shows an Aboriginal man dressed as Captain Cook (or some other British naval officer) standing on the beach with his ship behind him. The other is Vincent Namatjira’s vibrant painting, James Cook – With Declaration (British Museum, 2014,2007.1), in which the ‘proclamation’ Cook writes to take possession of the territory appears as an extension of his naval uniform. These contemporary pieces belong to a much larger corpus of visual representations by Indigenous artists that provide alternative images and interpretations of Captain Cook and his history. Michael Cook’s photograph, for instance, raises questions about who ‘discovered’ who. Vincent Namatjira’s painting suggests the ways in which Captain Cook wrote the country into British possession and how he is literally the embodiment of Britain’s territorial claims.

This is my favourite part of the exhibition, but I might not be completely impartial in my choice, because I have been interested in the historical relationship between Captain Cook and Indigenous Australians for some time. A few years ago, I published a book called Captain Cook Was Here, which provides a close analysis of the encounters between Indigenous people and Cook’s crew in 1770 and also discusses the ways in which Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians have told stories about Captain Cook over the last two centuries, turning him into a founding figure within their respective interpretations of history. As the historian Chris Healy has written: ‘Captain Cook is a name common to Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal histories. … His name can be considered as a term which creates a possibility of dialogue between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal ways of making histories’.

Later this week, I will be giving a lecture on Indigenous Australian visual and oral storytelling about Captain Cook from the early 1800s to the present. I hope to see you there.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Events relating to the exhibition can be found here

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

Let’s talk about sex: men and women in Greek art

Dr Katherine Harloe, Associate Professor of Classics and Intellectual History, University of Reading

Browsing the exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art on a rainy afternoon, an Athenian red-figure mixing-bowl caught my attention. It shows the death of Kaineus, a mythical Thessalian hero who had the misfortune to be present at the wedding feast of Peirithoos, King of the Lapiths, and his bride Hippodameia. The celebrations famously ended in a fracas when the centaurs among the wedding guests became drunken and violent, attempting to rape their hosts’ wives. The ensuing battle, which the Lapiths won, came to stand for the conquest of savagery by civilisation. It features as such on the decoration of important civic and religious buildings, including the Parthenon and the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai. On this vessel, made for mixing wine at a drinking party, it warns of the dangers of overindulgence.

Red-figured mixing-bowl (column-krater). Greek, made in Athens, 480–460 BC, attributed to the Pan Painter. British Museum, London 1846,0925.6

Red-figured mixing-bowl (column-krater). Greek, made in Athens, 480–460 BC, attributed to the Pan Painter. British Museum, London 1846,0925.6

Marble metope (XXXI) from the south side of the Parthenon, showing a Lapith and a centaur fighting. Greek, 447–438 BC, from the Acropolis, Athens. British Museum, London 1816,0610.15

Marble metope (XXXI) from the south side of the Parthenon, showing a Lapith and a centaur fighting. Greek, 447–438 BC, from the Acropolis, Athens. British Museum, London 1816,0610.15

Section of frieze from the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai, 420–400 BC. As Kaineus is hammered into the ground, his muscular, twisting torso aligns him with the heroic Lapith warrior who comes to his aid, and contrasts with the swirling drapery of the female escaping to the side. British Museum, London 1815,1020.4

Section of frieze from the temple of Apollo Epikourios at Bassai, 420–400 BC. As Kaineus is hammered into the ground, his muscular, twisting torso aligns him with the heroic Lapith warrior who comes to his aid, and contrasts with the swirling drapery of the female escaping to the side. British Museum, London 1815,1020.4

Kaineus was killed during the fighting, though not (so Ovid, who gives us a poetic account of the battle in his Metamorphoses, says) before he had dispatched six centaurs to their deaths. He was a difficult to kill because his skin could not be pierced by sword or spear. In the end the centaurs could only overcome him by hammering him into the ground with rocks and tree trunks. The vase shows this moment – the helpless Kaineus looks up in dismay at two centaurs bearing down on him with large boulders. But within the myth, the warrior’s invulnerability supersedes and compensates for a previous vulnerability. For, as the hero Nestor recounts, Kaineus had been born a girl, Kainis, who was raped by the god Poseidon and in return granted the fulfilment of one wish. She asked to become male, and in granting her a masculine body Poseidon also made it one that could not be penetrated.

Scholars of ancient gender and sexuality have made much of this myth’s association of impenetrability with the male sex. Its popularity in Athens might also tell us something about that society, where the law protected male citizen bodies from violation while overlooking violence towards others. But Kaineus/Kainis can also help us think through some of the issues around the sculpted male and female forms that provide the highlights of this exhibition. An impenetrable body which can be hammered into the ground sounds like nothing so much as a statue. Ovid also hints at this when he describes the centaur Latreus’s sword bouncing and shattering off Kaineus as if it had struck ‘a body of marble’.

Bronze statue of an Apoxyomenos, Greek, about 300 BC. Ministry of Culture, Croatia. Image: Mali Losinj Tourist Board / photography by Mr Marko Vrdoljak

Bronze statue of an Apoxyomenos, Greek, about 300 BC. Ministry of Culture, Croatia. Image: Mali Losinj Tourist Board / photography by Mr Marko Vrdoljak

The exhibition gives us marble bodies aplenty, male and female, as well as several in bronze. But the male and female bodies we encounter in the exhibition are different in several ways. Most obvious to me, and perhaps striking to most visitors, is the contrast of clothed and unclothed. Male figures, from the beautiful bronze Apoxyomenos (‘sweat-scraper’) in the first room to the Belvedere Torso at its end, are all presented nude. The females – unless they happen to be Aphrodite, or to be modelled on her – are clothed.

Marble statue of a Nereid, from the Nereid monument. Lycian, about 390–380 BC, from Xanthos, south-western Turkey. British Museum, London 1848,1020.81

Marble statue of a Nereid, from the Nereid monument. Lycian, about 390–380 BC, from Xanthos, south-western Turkey. British Museum, London 1848,1020.81

Not that the drapery on the female statues always conceals much. In the case of the nymphs from the Nereid Monument, belly, breasts, thighs, are all visible through the moistened folds of their clothes. Their eroticism is obvious, even without the colour that would once have created the illusion of living, breathing flesh. But there is a paradox here – it is often said of the Greek male sculptural nude that its eroticism is downplayed. For a statue like the Apoxyomenos, nudity does not equal nakedness but – as Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor puts it in the exhibition catalogue – ‘a suit of morally charged new clothes’. The female body, by contrast, tends to be undressed even when dressed.

Does this tell us something about ancient Greek attitudes to women, or does it have more to do with our own ways of viewing male and female bodies? Michael Squire, the classical art historian whose voice is one of the first you hear on the exhibition’s multimedia guide, has argued that sexualised responses to naked Aphrodites overlook their religious significance, her status as a goddess and the awe in which ancient worshippers would have held her image. Now that mainstream advertising has begun to serve up naked or near-naked male bodies to sell everything from designer underwear to fizzy drinks, can we look at Greek male nudes afresh, with greater sensitivity to their erotic charge? The distinctions between nude and naked, male and female, are not as clear cut as they first seem, but still make me uncomfortable. Perhaps that’s why, of all the beautiful objects in the exhibition, I am most drawn to the figurines from Tanagra – miniature statuettes of heavily draped, yet graceful women, with fashionable hats and hairstyles, dolled up to appear in public yet somehow conveying a womanly world and messages all of their own.

Terracotta figures of a woman. Greek, about 300–200 BC or later. Said to be from Tanagra, Boeotia. British Museum, London 1875,1012.9; 1875,1012.12a; 1874,0305.65

Terracotta figures. Greek, about 300–200 BC or later. Said to be from Tanagra, Boeotia. British Museum, London 1875,1012.9; 1875,1012.12.a; 1874,0305.65

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
until 5 July 2015
.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

One-hit wonders: spear points from the Kimberley

Rachael Murphy, Project Curator, Oceania, British Museum

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation has been open for a few weeks, long enough, it seems, for some favourite objects to emerge. Many visitors have remarked on a 2-metre-long mask in the form of crocodile with an open mouth full of white teeth – it was made of plates of turtle shell on the island of Mabuiag in the Torres Strait, Queensland. Michael Cook’s photograph Undiscovered #4, a reimagining of early colonial encounters, is another favourite. The image positions an Aboriginal man on the shore, dressed in the red-and-white 18th-century uniform of the British military, as a tall ship sits on the horizon.

Michael Cook, Undiscovered #4, Inkjet on paper, 2010 National Museum of Australia

Michael Cook, Undiscovered #4, Inkjet on paper, 2010
National Museum of Australia

Perhaps the most talked about exhibit is a group of spear points from the Kimberley region of Western Australia. For anyone who is familiar with Kimberley points the interest is unsurprising. Tear-shaped and double-edged, their uneven, symmetrical surfaces catch and reflect the light. More often than not they are made from exceptional materials – one is of mottled grey stone intersected with quartz veins, others are shaped from translucent green bottle glass. It is difficult to deny their aesthetic appeal, especially when they are displayed as a group.

A group of spear points Kimberley region, Western Australia, c. 1885–1940 © The Trustees of the British Museum

A group of spear points
Kimberley region, Western Australia, c. 1885–1940
© The Trustees of the British Museum

The points are also great ambassadors for much of Indigenous Australian technology – they present an economy of form that is underpinned by deep knowledge and skill. At one time all spear points in the Kimberley region were made from various types of stone. Men made the points using wood and bone tools to shape and sharpen the point. Each stage of the process requires a different technique, the final stage being the precise application of pressure to sharpen the edges by flaking off small pieces of stone. The points are attached to a wooden shaft with gum and cord made out of plant fibre. It is a time-consuming process and they are something of a one-hit wonder – the brittle stone tends to break on impact.

Points made out of bottle glass and ceramic insulators (taken from telegraph poles) are innovations from the late 1800s. Ceramic is particularly good spear point material as it is less brittle than stone, meaning the points can often be reused. John Carty of the Australian National University describes the meanings, making, uses and evolving importance of spear points in the book Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, which accompanies the exhibition.

One of the joys of seeing so much interest in the points lies in the fact that stone tools are not usually regarded as show-stopping objects. Around a third of the British Museum’s 6,000 objects from Australia are stone implements, so it is great that visitors are recognising and celebrating such an important technology. It is especially so since the Kimberley points are displayed with a simple label, describing dates and materials. The points appear to be doing a good job of transmitting their value for themselves.

Some other unsung heroes of the exhibition are the people who care for the collection. In the past few years the staff of the Oceanic section have been assessing, measuring and photographing Australian stone implements and adding this information to the Museum’s database. Shooting, editing and uploading these images falls into an important, but often unnoticed, category of Museum work. By the time I took a turn, the glamorous spear points and axes had already been documented and we were working our way through several hundred tiny scrapers and flakes, often overlooked products of the skilled manufacturing process. Most of this work was done by Curator Ben Burt and Museum Assistant Jill Hassel, assisted by a number of volunteers. It is a point of pride in our department that the records for the Museum’s entire Australian collection are online and soon every object will have a photograph too. The benefits of this are enormous, as not only does it allow audiences around the world to view the collection, but it also permits us to gain from their knowledge and research and feed this back into the collection database.

One of the best examples of the value of this type of collection work is the exhibition itself. The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation was enabled and enriched by the contributions of others, in particular the Indigenous Australian individuals and groups who have been so generous with their time and knowledge.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015

Supported by BP

Organised with the National Museum of Australia

Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , , ,

The passion of Ajax

Ian Jenkins, Curator, ancient Greece, British Museum
I am often asked what my favourite object is in the exhibition Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art. I answer this by marching my interrogator past the great white marble sculptures glowing in the mysterious half-light of the gallery to a showcase containing a primitive and seemingly unprepossessing bronze figure, only seven centimetres high. I am usually greeted with a look of incredulity. But this is my favourite object; partly because I discovered it in 1996 in what we now call the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory, and partly because of what it shows and how it shows it.

The object is a helmeted matchstick man, forged from solid metal tubing, drawn out to represent the subject, sitting on a low stool, with his arms extended in front of him and a dagger turned inwards. At a glance, you can see that this is, by virtue of the action, a suicide caught in the moment before the dagger is forced in.

Bronze figure of Ajax. Greek, 720–700 BC. H. 6.7 cm. British Museum 1865,1118.230

Bronze figure of Ajax. Greek, 720–700 BC. H. 6.7 cm. British Museum, London 1865,1118.230

The short version of the story of Ajax’s suicide as told in Greek myth goes something like this: Ajax was big dumb-dumb Ajax, brave and good-hearted but not a subtle thinker. It was he who carried the body of Achilles, dead from the battlefield, and it was he who should have had the armour Achilles was wearing – armour that was made by the god of smiths himself, Hephaestus. But with weasel words, wily Odysseus manages to deprive Ajax of this prize. In rage and shame a night-long fit of madness fell upon the hero, who thought he could hear an attack by the Trojans on the Greek camp and set about single-handedly defending his companions from the danger. It was not until the cold light of the morning lifted the veil of his madness that the nature of his folly was revealed. For in fact there had been no attack – only the sound of the herd of Greek cattle moving about in their pen, every member of which he had slaughtered. With nothing left by way of honour, now twice humiliated, Ajax killed himself.

The image of the death of Ajax that comes most readily to mind is that in Sophocles’ tragic dramatisation of the story, where the brooding hero prepares to fall on a sword set into the Trojan earth. This, as Ajax bitterly remarks, is a hostile soil and the sword is that of his old enemy Hector. The sad story of Ajax’s suicide is not told by Homer in the Iliad. This centres instead on a quarrel between Achilles and Agamemnon, and its impact on the progress of the Trojan War and the lives of those people caught up in it. In this Achilles does not yet die but his eventual end is related in a number of other contemporary epic poems, including The Aithiopis, which relates the heroic life of Memnon, king of the Ethiopians, sometimes known as ‘The Black Hector’. The little bronze has none of the literary power of either 8th-century BC epic poetry, nor of the 5th-century BC tragedy. But it has an indefinable poetry all of its own that, in spite of its great simplicity, seems to capture something of the bleak and solitary circumstances of Ajax’s death.

Like the great Greek sculptors of a later age, the smith of this bronze has chosen not to represent the act of suicide itself, but the moment just before the dagger is buried in the body of the hero. What really, though, evokes absolutely the mental agony of Ajax is his large erection. This has nothing to do with any ideas of the erotic charge of death. It is instead a metaphor used to mark Ajax as a figure undergoing extreme trauma. In the symbolic use of the phallus, the smith is straining at the very limits of his powers. He has departed from actual representation and makes a metaphysical statement instead. When we compare such art with contemporary literature, we find nothing in the former of the narrative and descriptive power of the latter. Nonetheless, our little stick-man Ajax points at the direction in which Greek artists will go in their quest to tell stories of the kind that Homer had already mastered in the medium of words.

The object dates to around 720–700 BC and as such may be among the earliest representation to survive of a named mythological character in Greek art. Because of its phallic nature, it had been previously misclassified in the Museum’s collection, now dispersed, of erotica. Its appearance in our exhibition seems unpromising on first acquaintance but, on reflection, it turns out to be an object with great poetic presence and one which anticipates the visual power of later Greek art.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is at the British Museum
until 5 July 2015
.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online.

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , ,

Indigenous Australia: before the sheep arrived

Gaye Sculthorpe, Curator, Oceania, British Museum

As curator of the BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation it is a great privilege to be presenting this major exhibition in London. Over the past two years, it has been a special and sometimes moving experience to view and discuss objects in the collection with artists and community visitors from Australia – and to see these special objects up close. It is a big responsibility to put together an exhibition that does justice to the cultural and historical complexity of the story of Indigenous Australia – a story that is still unfolding.

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) by Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington. Acrylic on canvas, H 1790 mm, W 2330 mm, British Museum, London 2014,2009.1 © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project.

Kungkarangkalpa (Seven Sisters) by Kunmanara Hogan, Tjaruwa Woods, Yarangka Thomas, Estelle Hogan, Ngalpingka Simms and Myrtle Pennington. Acrylic on canvas, H 1790 mm, W 2330 mm. British Museum, London 2014,2009.1 © The artists, courtesy Spinifex Arts Project

Early British visitors to Australian shores were surprised to learn that there was more than one Indigenous language spoken across the vast continent. Even today in London, audience research makes clear that it is still a revelation to many to learn that there are hundreds of different Aboriginal language groups, each associated with a particular defined territory, and each with distinctive traditions and customs. Few here have heard of the Torres Strait islands and the distinctive culture and history of the Islanders. Familiar names and words in Australia – such as Namatjira, Mabo, ochre, dugong, sheep station and goanna – are foreign to British audiences. Questions such as ‘were there sheep in Australia before the British arrived?’ indicate that Indigenous Australia is still a subject about which international audiences know comparatively little (*see below). Some of the art styles may be recognisable, but the complex meanings and history remain little understood.

Ceremonies involving wearing masks of turtle shell were an important part of traditional life on Mer. From Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855. British Museum, London Oc1855,1220.169

Ceremonies involving wearing masks of turtle shell were an important part of traditional life on Mer. Mask, from Mer, Torres Strait, Queensland, before 1855. Turtle shell, shell, fibre; L 400 mm. British Museum, London Oc1855,1220.169

In telling this story, with many objects collected in the late 1700s and 1800s, questions of how these pieces were brought to the British Museum and where should they be housed now are likely to arise. Some of these issues are addressed both in the exhibition itself and in the accompanying book. There are individuals who think there are objects in London that should be returned to Australia; others consider that objects exhibited here have an key role in showing the world that the history and culture of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders is as important, valuable and unique as any other civilisation in the world. These matters will no doubt be further discussed during the exhibition run in London and when many objects go on loan later this year to a related exhibition at the National Museum of Australia.

James Cook – with the Declaration by Vincent Namatjira, 2014. Acrylic on canvas, H 1010 mm, W 760 mm, British Museum, London 2014,2007.1

James Cook – with the Declaration by Vincent Namatjira, 2014. Acrylic on canvas; H 1010 mm, W 760 mm. British Museum, London 2014,2007.1 © Vincent Namatjira

For me, it is particularly significant that these objects are being exhibited first at the British Museum in London, a city that once sat at the heart of a Britain that ruled Indigenous Australians and the colonies that joined to become the nation of Australia in 1901. Indigenous Australians have been engaging with London and its museums since 1792 when Governor Phillip brought back Bennelong and Yemmerawanne, who visited the Parkinson Museum in London that housed objects from Cook’s voyages. In the mid-1800s Aborigines, such as those on Flinders Island in Tasmania and in the state of Victoria, made appeals to and sent diplomatic gifts to the Crown. At one level, the curation of this exhibition and the engagement of contemporary Indigenous artists in its creation and related events is an extension of this ongoing relationship between Indigenous Australia and the UK, but it puts Indigenous Australians in the centre rather than the periphery.

In the coming two weeks, the British Museum will be visited by a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders, artists, and museum professionals who will be participating in discussions, giving lectures and seminars, and reconsidering the legacies of colonialism for contemporary museums.

This includes a special event on Friday 1 May: The art of country: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander art today, and the conference: Challenging colonial legacies today: museums and communities in Australia and East Africa on Saturday 2 May.

These and other events offer British audiences the opportunity to hear more about the nuances and regional variation in this rich story. I hope visitors to the exhibition and those who attend the related events appreciate the beauty of, and knowledge embedded in, the objects presented, the diversity of Indigenous cultures across Australia, and the complexity of the engagement with outsiders since 1788. Despite being affected by direct violence and the impact of new diseases, this history demonstrates that rather than being passive victims of an aggressive British colonisation, Indigenous Australians have since 1788 engaged with outsiders in strategic and diplomatic ways that continue today.

Land rights placard from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy erected, as a site of protest, in 1972 at Old Parliament House, Canberra

Land rights placard from the Aboriginal Tent Embassy erected, as a site of protest, in 1972 at Old Parliament House, Canberra. Paint on Masonite board; H 485 cm, W 815 cm. National Museum of Australia, Canberra

I would like to acknowledge the generosity of those Indigenous communities and individuals in Australia who participated in discussions about the objects and the exhibition (not all of whom may agree with my views). I would also like to acknowledge the input of my colleagues in Australia at the National Museum of Australia and the Australian National University who, with the help of funding for research through the Australian Research Council, have contributed significantly to the exhibition and associated publication.

*Sheep came with the First Fleet of British settlers and convicts in 1788 and merino sheep, famous for fine wool, in 1796. Spot the beautiful woman’s apron made of wool in the exhibition.

The BP exhibition Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation is at the British Museum until 2 August 2015
Supported by BP
Organised with the National Museum of Australia
Logistics partner IAG Cargo

The accompanying book is available from the British Museum shop online

Filed under: Australia, British Museum, Exhibitions, Indigenous Australia: enduring civilisation, , , , , , ,

Conservation of a clove boat

Verena Kotonski, Specialist Conservator (Organics), British Museum

In November 2014, my workbench temporarily turned into something close to a shipyard when a model boat made of cloves arrived in the Organic Artefacts Conservation Studio. Every object that goes on temporary or permanent display at the Museum receives a thorough condition check and, if necessary, conservation treatment before its installation in an exhibition. The clove boat was to be included in the exhibition Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange, in which it was to be displayed for the very first time.

I have come across many weird and wonderful objects over the years, but never a boat made of cloves! I was particularly looking forward to unpacking this object from its storage box to see what it looked like. When I opened the box, an almost overpowering smell of cloves was released, which was somewhat of a surprise as this boat was probably made during the 18th–20th centuries in Indonesia and was accessioned into the collection in 1972.

1_Boat & crate

Model boat after unpacking from its storage box. Model Boat, AD 1700s–1900s, probably from Indonesia, L 58 cm, H 30 cm, D 23 cm As1972,Q.1944

Condition
A thorough examination of the object revealed that the structure of the boat was reasonably stable, but a significant number of elements (14 altogether) had become detached over time. It was difficult to establish the extent of missing elements at this stage. Furthermore, a considerable amount of dust had accumulated on the surface. In order to make this object fit for display, the surface would have to be cleaned, the detached elements reinstated on the object and missing elements reconstructed if and where appropriate.

Cleaning of the surface
Centimetre by centimetre I slowly worked over the object, removing the dust from the surface. This allowed me to appreciate the boat in detail; its decorative scheme and the intricate details of the cloves themselves. The boat is constructed of cloves that are either strung on one or two threads, or threaded on thin wooden pins. The hull is built from strings of cloves layered on top of each other and tied together. I also discovered, for example, that the arms of the figures on the boat and the paddles they are holding were made as one element, which was then adhered to the torso.

It was lovely to see the creative way in which the four unopened petals of the cloves that form a small central ball were used to either depict the head of a rower, the knob at the end of a paddle, or were used as decorative architectural elements.

Tools and materials I used to remove the dust were: a soft, fine tipped brush, vacuum suction and a special conservation-grade natural rubber to catch and trap the more ingrained particles.

Model boat during cleaning treatment (right-hand side – after cleaning)

Model boat during cleaning treatment (right-hand side – after cleaning)

Stabilisation of broken elements
Work to stabilise the boat and its occupants included mending a break in one of the corner posts of the cabin and securing several sets of arms and paddles to the torsos of the figures. For this, I used a conservation-grade adhesive, hydroxypropylcellulose, that has good ageing properties, which means that it will remain reversible should the need arise to undo the repair in future. In order to hold the elements in place until the adhesive had set, a range of different devices were employed to apply gentle pressure, such as light weight carbon clamps, hairclips, pins padded with silicone tubing and a bamboo stick mounted on what is actually a brush washer.

3_During clamping

Different clamping devices in action

Reinstating the detached figures
Finding the original location of the figures that had become detached from the boat proved less straightforward than I initially thought. I found 14 detached elements on the boat: 5 torsos, 1 standing figure, 2 sets of arms and paddles, one long paddle rudder (?), 1 pennant (long tapering flag) without pole and 3 round-shaped objects.

Detached elements including a long paddle (rudder?), a flag and a drum shaped element with a stick attached (left)

Detached elements including a long paddle (rudder?), a flag and a drum shaped element with a stick attached (left)

Due to the vacant places among the rowers and a set of holes in the bottom at the stern it was fairly obvious where two of the torsos (including the respective arms and paddles) were meant to go, as well as the figure standing upright. It was possible to attribute a set of arms and paddle to the respective torso by matching the shape of the cut-out on the cloves forming the shoulders with the shape of the stick that forms the neck.

Having reinstated the standing figure and two rowers, I was still left with three torsos and two drum shaped elements as well as the pennant. Although the Museum’s records, which include a rather vague historic drawing, hinted at the possibility that some figures could have been on top of the cabin including a second pennant, the exact location of figures and pennant remained difficult to establish.

Drawing of the boat found in the Museum’s records

Drawing of the boat found in the Museum’s records

Fortunately, research into similar models carried out by Charlotte Dixon, Collaborative Doctoral Award PhD Student at the University of Southampton and the British Museum, provided me with a chance to compare our boat with photos of a boat held in the Kew Gardens Economic Botany Collection, which Charlotte kindly shared with me. This strikingly similar boat shows three figures with round elements in front of them on top of the roof of a cabin. Further research by Charlotte also established that the round elements might represent drums. Close examination of the break edges on both drums under the microscope established from which torso one of the drums had broken off, and allowed me to reattach it accordingly.

Despite the very revealing and informative images of the boat at Kew, the numerous holes in the roof canopy offered little guidance on how the torsos might have been arranged on the roof. The ethics of reinstating the detached figures without knowing their original location was discussed with Charlotte and Sarah Longair, curator of this exhibition. We decided in favour of installing the figures on the roof. We felt that the figures (drummers) are a key part of the object and therefore vital for the interpretation of this artefact. Furthermore, it is possible to install the figures securely without using any adhesive which means they can easily be removed and repositioned if further evidence on their original position should emerge. Knowing that the figures on the roof were meant to depict drummers certainly helped to find a sensible arrangement of the figures on the roof.

Torsos of drummers after installation on the roof top. The original location of the drum shaped element (front) with stick attached is still unclear

Torsos of drummers after installation on the roof top. The original location of the drum shaped element (front) with stick attached is still unclear

Reconstruction of missing parts
There were still a long paddle (rudder?), pennant and a drum with a pole attached, for which I hadn’t found a location. Unlike the other detached parts these three would have required substantial reconstruction of missing elements in order to be able to reinstall them. As there were no hints where those elements would have been situated originally and what the now missing elements had looked like, we decided not to include them on the boat. Instead, they were packed safely to go into the object’s storage box.

One exception to this was the reconstruction of a missing retaining collar, which was vital for the object’s stability. These collars on top of each corner post of the enclosure prevent the roof canopy from lifting off the upright poles. One was reconstructed using tinted Japanese tissue paper rather than a clove in order to distinguish the later addition from the original object. This detail, which could have been easily overlooked, highlights how important it is for the conservator to understand how an object was constructed in order to inform the decisions about treatment that ensure the long-term stability and integrity of an object.

7_Retaining collar

Retaining collar made of Japanese tissue paper to replace the missing collar of this corner post

Call for action
After 34 hours of conservation work, which included the time for investigation and discussion with curatorial colleagues, the model boat was ready to sail and take its place on its tailor-made mount, created by Amanda Gregory, Senior Museum Assistant in the Department of Coins and Medals. My sincere thanks go to Charlotte and Sarah for their enthusiasm and constructive support in the course of this project as well as other colleagues who contributed to the success of this conservation project. Thank you also to Imogen Laing, Museum Assistant in the Department of Africa, Oceania and the Americas, for providing me with an image of the historic drawing of the boat.

Despite all our efforts, not all questions regarding the correct original position of some detached elements have been solved. Therefore, I would like to extend an invitation to the readers of this blog to get in touch should they have further information about the position of the rooftop figures, the drum (?) with pole attached, the second pennant and/or about the arms and paddle (rudder?) of the standing figure. Please contact us via conservation@britishmuseum.org with any information that might help.

Connecting continents: Indian Ocean trade and exchange is on display at the British Museum until 31 May 2015.

Filed under: British Museum, Conservation, , , , , ,

Designing beauty

Caroline Ingham, Senior Designer: Exhibitions, British Museum

Doryphoros

Detail of a Bronze reconstruction of around 1920 by George Römer of the Doryphoros or ‘spear-bearer’ by Polykleitos, made around 440–430 BC. H 212 cm. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is the first major temporary exhibition of sculpture at the British Museum since Hadrian: Empire & Conflict in 2008. It is also the first sculpture show in the new Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery (Room 30). For the Museum’s Exhibitions team this is the culmination of over a year of intensive work with the exhibition’s designers, Caruso St John architects and Matt Bigg, Surface 3 graphics.

Doryphoros, Diskobolos, Ilissos2

Sculptures on display in the exhibition, from left to right: Bronze reconstruction of around 1920 by George Römer of the Doryphoros or ‘spear-bearer’ by Polykleitos, made around 440–430 BC. H 212 cm. Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, Munich. Marble statue of the Diskobolos or ‘discus-thrower’. Roman copy from 2nd century AD of a bronze original of the 5th century BC, from Hadrian’s Villa in Tivoli, Italy. H 169 cm, W 105 cm. British Museum, London 1805,0703.43 Ilissos, marble statue of the river god, from the west pediment of the Parthenon in Athens. Greek, about 438–432 BC. H 81.28 cm, D 56 cm. British Museum, London 1816,0610.99

The exhibition presents some of the most beautiful and best-loved classical sculpture in the Museum’s collection. It includes some key pieces that have been temporarily removed from the permanent galleries to be juxtaposed for the very first and perhaps the only time, with loans of similar international significance. The movement of such important sculptures from the permanent day-lit galleries, into the controlled lighting environment of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery presented the Exhibitions team with a unique opportunity to experiment with their display.

Through the design brief we challenged the designers to explore how they could present the objects differently, using dramatic lighting and by experimenting with display heights. We encouraged them to exploit the scale of the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery, in particular the 6-metre height and the very flexible lighting system, to encourage visitors to engage with these very familiar objects in a new way and at a deeper level.

Testing fabric colours

Testing fabric colours
Marble statue of a Nereid, from the Nereid monument, Lycian, about 390–380 BC, from Xanthos (modern Günük), south-western Turkey. H 137 cm. British Museum, London 1848,1020.81

It took many months to develop the design scheme. This included trying colours and fabrics against the objects, working up scale drawings of each object group, building a scale model and mocking up full-size elements of the design. We used our new purpose-built mock-up room, adjacent to the new gallery, which has the exact ceiling and floor specification of the gallery itself, to test the plinth heights and lighting.

The result is a scheme that transforms the way we see familiar objects in the collection. The designers have achieved this through the use of colour, lighting and displaying the sculpture at height. Many of the sculptures are lifted to 1.5 metres (approximately shoulder height) and our relationship to them is immediately transformed. The objects are lit from the ceiling track and not the space around them. This privileges them and makes them visible on key vistas – for instance, the Amazon can be seen at the west end of the gallery at a distance of 20 metres or more.

Dionysos

Sculptures on display in the exhibition Foreground: Marble statue of Dionysos from the east pediment of the Parthenon. Greek, about 438–432 BC, from the Acropolis, Athens. L 174 cm, H 127 cm. British Museum, London 1816,0610.93 Background: Belvedere Torso, 1st century BC. Marble copy after a Greek bronze, probably of the early 2nd century BC. H (including base) 156.5 cm, W 87.5 cm. Vatican Museums, Vatican City

The exhibition may not offer the definitive answer to the successful display of sculpture in all circumstances, but what it has done is given us a wonderful opportunity to display these sculptures for a short period, in a new and thought-provoking way.

Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art is on display from 26 March to 5 July 2015.

Sponsored by Julius Baer
Additional support
In memory of Melvin R Seiden
Mrs Jayne Wrightsman, OBE

Filed under: Defining beauty: the body in ancient Greek art, Exhibitions, , , , , , , , ,

Night at the (British) Museum: fact and fantasy

Sian Toogood, Broadcast Manager, Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, British Museum

In the century or so since the birth of film, the British Museum has had many cameras within its galleries, labs and libraries. For the most part they have been filming documentaries, unravelling mysteries of the Museum’s collection, but every once in a while the Museum gets to participate in the organised chaos that is feature film production. In the past we have had Hitchcock in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery, Merchant Ivory in the Assyrian Galleries and Phaedra in the Parthenon Galleries; we can now add Fox to this pantheon, with their third installment of the hugely popular Night at the Museum series: Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb.

NATM3_QUAD_544

I was extremely pleased when I was approached by Fox, not because it was a fantastic opportunity to get more people interested in the Museum, nor because it would be an interesting project filled with lots of exciting and complicated challenges (though it was undoubtedly both of these things). I was pleased because ever since I’ve worked at the British Museum I have consistently been asked why they didn’t film Night at the Museum here! Now I can finally say that we have.

The limitations of what is possible within the Museum meant that Fox only filmed at the Museum for three nights, from the moment the gates closed to the public to 07.00 the next day. The remainder of the British Museum scenes were shot over three months on a specially built set in Vancouver, Canada. Filming a full-scale feature in a 19th-century Grade I listed building is no joke – given some of the dramatic and explosive chase and fight scenes, it could never have been done on the actual premises.

008_Medieval_tri_24jan14_CRM_544

Those of you who have seen the film and know the Museum, even reasonably well, might wonder why parts of the fictional Museum look so different to the real thing. There are significant differences between the real Museum and the museum of the film. For one thing, our natural history collection became the basis of the Natural History Museum in 1889, so to see a triceratops you will have to go to South Kensington. Equally, if you want to see a knight in full armour, then the Wallace Collection is a much better bet. I’m afraid I can’t tell you where to find a nine-headed serpent cast in bronze though!

Apart from the objects in the collection, the layout and style of the Museum has been almost entirely altered for the film, with only the Parthenon Gallery (Room 18) and the Great Court remaining as they are in real life. So why was there a need to change the Museum to such an extent? Well, this film is the third in a series and so it had to fit in with the aesthetics of its predecessors in the trilogy, and we must allow for the artistic licence of the film’s director, Shawn Levy. This is an adventure film with a wish to get young people hooked on history. While there are some wild inventions, the Fox team also paid meticulous attention to detail for the general ‘look’ of the British Museum. For example, the Museum’s distinctive brass doorknobs were designed especially for the Museum and can be found nowhere else in the world. We sent a single pair of them to Vancouver so that they could be recreated for the film.

The Artistic Director spent a week looking at the original plans and elevations of the Parthenon and Egyptian Sculpture Galleries, and recording the details of many of the galleries, floor tiles, heating grills and columns to faithfully recreate them. Paint chips and marble samples went to Vancouver to join the doorknobs and these details, along with the great care that Fox took to recreate signage in the building, make a lot of the imagined Museum look as though these scenes could have been shot in brand new galleries of the British Museum.

DSC_0882_544

We were lucky that Night at the Museum came in only few months after we had had our own first foray into cinema production with a live broadcast from our exhibition on Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Museum facilitates about 50 commercial film crews a year, shooting documentaries, music videos, fashion photo shoots and commercials, so we are well used to dealing with the requirements of film crews. But it was the experience of broadcasting live to hundreds of cinemas nationwide that gave us the confidence and base knowledge about the fabric of the building to be able to facilitate the scale of Night at the Museum. All those tedious facts about the weight loading capacity of the forecourt and the exact power provision in the Great Court suddenly became very useful!

DSC_0857_544

Fox were certainly not the average Museum film crew. They had 200 crew on site, a 40-tonne crane, helium balloon lights so large they couldn’t fit through the front door when inflated, and a myriad of other lights, cameras and stands. There was also a visual effects crew that 3d-scanned key spaces and dozens of objects from the collection to populate the film with living objects. Then there were the horses (outside) and the monkeys (inside). All of this kit, people and animals needed significant managing and overnight supervision.

We saw this film as an opportunity to interest new audiences across the world in museums in general, and to show the British Museum in particular in a new light. At the heart of the series is the idea that when you enter a museum you see the objects gathered there as if they were alive. These objects are used as gateways to other places and times and we invest them with personalities – we do not need to know everything about them to have an emotional connection with them. Visitors to the British Museum in the past might not have had the capabilities of Fox’s digital team, but in our mind’s eye I think we have all seen a lion roar or Greek sculptures walk, and we now have the opportunity to see them on the silver screen.

I doubt that we will ever have another film that is so closely linked to the Museum and its collection. I personally have been delighted and proud to have been part of this new chapter in the Museum’s film history.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is in cinemas across the UK from 19 December.

Download the free app based on the film to help you explore the Museum, and enter a competition to win a real Night at the Museum!

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Discover the naked truth behind Greek art in our #Periscope tour of #DefiningBeauty tomorrow at 18.30! @thehistoryguy The Torres Strait Islands lie north of mainland Australia and south of Papua New Guinea. Torres Strait Islanders have distinctive beliefs and practices, but share cultural connections with their neighbours in Papua New Guinea and northern mainland Australia. Each island has its own environment and history, yet Islanders are united by their relationship to the sea and their cultivation of gardens. Dance and performance permeate all aspects of life, often telling stories about sea animals such as turtles, dugongs and crocodiles. 
Torres Strait Islanders wore turtleshell masks in initiation, funerary, fertility and other rituals embodying stories about the ancestors.
The artist of this mask has created a tin face on the front, attached a bonito fish made of turtleshell on top, and incorporated cassowary feathers and shells.
You can see this amazing mask in our exhibition #IndigenousAustralia, until 2 August 2015.
Mask in the form of a human face and a bonito fish. Attributed to Kuduma, Muralug. Moa, Torres Strait Islands, before 1888.
#history #art #mask #Australia #TorresStrait #exhibition This Thursday join us for our first ever #Periscope: a live tour of our #DefiningBeauty exhibition with Dan Snow @thehistoryguy! Find out more at britishmuseum.org While researching Dracula, published #onthisday in 1897, Bram Stoker studied at the Museum's Reading Room.
Having lost his reader's ticket, this letter from the Principal Librarian of the Museum states that a new ticket would be issued to him.
#author #library #Museum #history #Dracula Take the free interactive #8mummies exhibition family trail this half-term!
#museum #exhibition #halfterm Happy birthday to Bob Dylan! Here’s a portrait of the legendary musician by David Oxtoby.
#music #portrait #art
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