British Museum blog

Understanding art in religion

Robert Bracey, curator, British Museum

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The term ‘religion’ covers a diverse range of thoughts and beliefs. Some people understand their religion to prohibit all acts of violence, even to the smallest animal, while others believe their religion compels them to go to war. For some people religion is central to their identity and infuses every aspect of their life while for others it is something that relates to a particular place on a certain day. Religion’s diversity makes it hard to define though we all feel we recognise religiosity when we see it.

Over two days in June this year, a group of staff from the British Museum and guests took on the problem of trying to define religion and think about how religion affects, or is affected, by the sort of objects that make up the British Museum’s collection. This seminar took place as part of the Empires of Faith research project funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The project is about comparing religious objects from different cultures in the first millennium AD. This is a hugely important period for the religions we know today. Christianity and Islam both began in the first millennium, and the beliefs and rituals of many other religions (Hinduism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Jainism and Buddhism) took the form we recognise today at this time.

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It is very easy to let preconceptions get in the way of thinking about big ideas like religion. To help the members of the research team break out of their comfort zone we invited five guests with very different expertise to speak about the topics. Averil Cameron (University of Oxford) is well-known for her work on Byzantine history. Matthew Canepa (University of Minnesota) is an art historian and expert on the Sasanian world (ancient Iran). Simon Coleman (University of Toronto) is an anthropologist and an expert on pilgrimage. Bruce Lincoln (University of Chicago) works on the history of religions. Joan Pau Rubies (Universitat Pompeu Fabra) studies the history of European missionaries. Such a diverse range of expertise helped push everybody to think in new ways.

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This wasn’t a conventional seminar with formal lectures. Instead, it was a discussion, sometimes a debate, about ideas that could shape the project. So, although the project team will write lots of research over its course, there will be no book of the seminar. The participants agreed instead to let their ideas and discussion be ‘sketched'; a new concept for most of us. The artist Clarice Holt sat quietly in the corner while we talked at, argued and harangued each other. Clarice prepared eighteen sketches of the meeting, encapsulating different points that were raised during the discussion. You can see the full sketches in the slideshow at the end of this post.

Not often is one’s mind stretched so far and in so many captivating directions. I hope very much that the images I created for the Empires of Faith Project will allow a wider range of people access to what is a vibrant and relevant area of historical research, and to gain insights into this weird and wonderful area.

Clarice’s reflections on the seminar.

The first day of the seminar was spent trying to find a way of defining religion. One of the disagreements was about whether a single definition of religion was useful or if what was, or was not, religious had to be defined for each historical period. The single definition makes sense to us because we live in a world where there are sharp divides between the religious and non-religious (or secular). Some people, and some places, and often certain days are ‘for’ religion but in the past religion was part of everyday life. People saw the world as constantly shaped by magical or divine forces beyond their control. Thinking ourselves back into that perspective is very hard and that made these days very useful for the project as a whole.

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The second day was about objects and what they tell us about religion. One topic that was discussed was the ambiguity of images. The Empires of Faith team is very interested in how the same image can represent different gods in different places. So, for example, an image of the Greek god Hercules found in modern Pakistan would probably represent Vajrapani, the protector of the Buddha, or in Iran it could be the divine being Verethragna. What did the people who made the images, or used them, think about the relationships between these different gods?

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The two days were tiring but enlightening. Everyone came away with plenty to think about and some more questions that the project will try to answer in the future. Can objects shape what you believe? Can they be more important than doctrines and scripture? Does a sacred object possess some intrinsic quality that sets it apart, or does sacredness only exist in our perceptions?
Traditionally the study of religion in the ancient world has focused on what people wrote about regarding their beliefs or practices. The Empires of Faith project is seeking to balance that by looking at how visual culture and religious artefacts relate to religion. It feels appropriate that the thinking from our first seminar was recorded not as a series of written articles but as a set of images.

Click on one of the images below to view as a slideshow

More about the Empires of Faith project on the British Museum website.

Filed under: Empires of Faith, , , , , , , , , , ,

5 digital megatrends towards the Museum of the Future

Chris Michaels, Head of Digital Media and Publishing, British Museum

There is no end of digital fads that might make a significant impact on the British Museum. Every time I open LinkedIn, or read a blog, there’s something new, or seeming-new, waiting to be tried. It’s fun.

But what really matters? What are the things that take our mission of being the museum of and for the world, and reveal an entirely new dimension to that great Enlightenment aim; that find a new way to make it real?

That’s a harder question, but it’s the strategically critical one that we will try and answer in the months and years ahead.

Today’s second debate in the Museum of the Future series, Changing public dialogues with museum collections in the digital age, is a crucial staging post in the process of us starting to talk about what digital means.

In advance of that, here are 5 themes – or megatrends, to give them their grander title – that might help shape our future. Big ideas all of them, but what better place than the British Museum to talk about the value of big ideas?
 

  1. The next billion comes online

  2. If we want to be the Museum of and for the World, then being able to tell the story of the history of mankind to all mankind is a conceptually critical moment in our long history. Over the period to 2020, 1 billion new people are forecast to come online for the first time, predominantly through mobile-based Internet connections. In an increasingly digital-dependent economy, that runs consequent with a similar number of people’s emergence into the global middle class, marked by an income of $5000 per year. Is this our new, next audience? As these people connect for the first time, how do we tell them stories of their histories in ways that are most meaningful?

    Watch Ericsson CEO Hans Vestberg talk about the next billion and what it means here:

     

  3. HS2 makes the world get smaller

  4. All around the world, from London to China to Russia and Spain, incredible investments are being made in high-speed rail networks that will make tourism – the largest driver of our visitorship – a whole lot easier. There are many complex arguments around the social, economic and environmental impacts of major new rail networks, but whatever happens, it will make getting to the British Museum quicker and cheaper for hundreds of millions of people round the world. We will need to be ready for that. Explore the HS2 proposals for UK railways here.
     

  5. This place is alive! The rise of smart cities and buildings

  6. As the Internet gets built into everything, and as the power and potential of the data that creates gets unlocked, we will have to change the way we manage the connections between people and things. The buildings we live and work in will become smart. The British Museum is a very, very big building, and making it smart might do anything from saving huge amounts on our energy bills, to managing the flow of visitors that creates overcrowding around the Mummies, the Rosetta Stone and (yes) the toilets. Read abut smart cities here.
     

  7. Machines anticipate us and speak in our language

  8. Asking Google, or talking to Siri, are already astonishing experiences – there’s a complex existential pleasure in speaking to a machine, and the machine getting it. The quality of natural language processing and machine learning will accelerate in the period to 2020, and their capabilities will start to move from reactive (‘you ask them’) to predictive (‘they know what you need’). That may alter the way we use the Internet forever – making the voice, not text, the first choice for finding what we need. For a Museum, that’s an exciting moment, helping visitors to help themselves. Is Siri the most important Visitor Services team member we haven’t hired yet?
     

  9. Media markets reach the tipping point

  10. Museums are complex media organisations, involved in book publishing, television, cinema, radio and more. Just this month the Museum has launched Germany: memories of a nation) with BBC Radio 4, while awaiting Night at the Museum 3: Secret of the Tomb from Fox in December. As we intersect with all these markets, we have to recognise one thing: digital is the driver of change in all of them. PwC’s market forecasts suggest that digital market revenues will grow at 11.9% compound annual growth rate in the years to 2017, by which time digital will account for 45% of all media revenues. Contrast that to TV and cinema, growing at 3.6%, and with streaming revenues expected to become primary in three years time. There is much to consider here, many complex implications. But whatever the answers, in this as in so much else, one truth is simple: the internet is changing who we are and what we do, and the Museum must change with it.

    Changing public dialogues with museum collections in the digital age (Thursday 16 October, BP Lecture Theatre, 18.30–21.00) is the second in a series of debates as part of Museum of the future, in which we are discussing big questions about the Museum’s future. The event is fully booked, but an audio recording and video highlights will be available following the event. You can also follow @britishmuseum and #MuseumOfTheFuture for live-tweeting of the event.

    Visit our Tumblr to get an introduction to the debate and the Museum’s history.

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

Luther, language and faith

Alexander Weber, Department of Cultures and Languages, Birkbeck, University of London

Martin Luther (1483-1546), portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), 1529. Oil on wood. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

Martin Luther (1483-1546), portrait by Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), 1529. Oil on wood. © Deutsches Historisches Museum

What attracted me – to be honest, a reluctant blogger – to contribute to the British Museum’s blog, is the historical connection between Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible, the British Museum and my own profession as an academic teacher of German in England. Long before the universities discovered my discipline, German grammars and textbooks had been produced by generations of curators and librarians at the British Museum. From the eighteenth century onwards, German protestant pastors preached to emerging German communities in London on Sundays and during the week catalogued the great treasures of ancient Biblical manuscripts (such as the Codex Alexandrinus) still in the British Library today. They were leading experts on the textual history of the Old and New Testament mainly because they followed in the footsteps of Martin Luther. Luther believed in the authority of scripture and not the dogma of the Roman church and to prove his point he immersed himself in careful critical study of the best original sources available to him in Greek and Hebrew. His formula of restoring the freshness of the original and then expressing it in the spoken language of ordinary Germans of his time brought the great stories of the Bible to life.

The opening of the Book of Genesis from the Gutenberg Bible, 1455. © The British Library Board C.9.d.3, 4v-5

The opening of the Book of Genesis from the Gutenberg Bible, 1455. © The British Library Board C.9.d.3, 4v-5

It was Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press, however, which disseminated Luther’s writings to a mass audience. One of the best places in the world to study the link between the media revolution of the printing press and the Reformation is the British Library. The German pastors in London were also involved in building up the great collection of Luther editions. They had inherited the enthusiasm for studying and cultivating their own language from Luther and fostered it in Britain through private lessons. They taught German in the royal household.

The front end paper of Luther's 1541 Bible with portraits of Luther and Johannes Bugenhagen and Luther's transcription from the 21st psalm and signature. Biblia, das ist, die gantze Heilige Schrift: Deudsch auffs new zugericht. D. Mart. Luth., etc. (Wittemberg, 1541). © British Library 679.i.15.

The front end paper of Luther’s 1541 Bible with portraits of Luther and Johannes Bugenhagen and Luther’s transcription from the 21st psalm and signature. Biblia, das ist, die gantze Heilige Schrift: Deudsch auffs new zugericht. D. Mart. Luth., etc. (Wittemberg, 1541). © British Library 679.i.15.

Before Luther the German language was regarded as too crude and fragmented into provincial rough dialects to be used in any cultivated discourse. In learned circles, Latin was used – both in writing and speech. The Lutheran Bible changed all this, becoming the benchmark of modern German. An unprecedented number of authorized copies and countless pirated editions were circulated in Germany. It is estimated that a very large proportion of literate households possessed a copy, and in many cases it remained the only or at least the most treasured book in the house for several generations. Even the tide of polemics against Luther had to use his language in order to reach the huge readership which the new medium had created.

How did Luther overcome the strong regional differences which had emerged through waves of sound shifts during the long history of the German language? Since his childhood he had moved across these linguistic borders and managed to balance the extremes of dialect in his own speech. He also built on a common language of officialdom, the chancelleries which issued decrees which had to be understood across the whole of Germany. He looked towards areas where the population had mixed through migration and where a more common version of the German language was beginning to emerge. I am not persuaded, though, by the argument that these developments would have happened anyway. What intrigues me most about this story is that an individual can change something as universal as a whole language. In fact, we all leave linguistic traces behind through mannerisms and idiosyncrasies of our speech, our individual linguistic fingerprint, if you like. The historical circumstances may have been favourable, but Luther was a character of greatness and literary genius, possessing a truly exceptional power to coin phrases and expressions which have become the nuts and bolts of the modern German idiom. In my view, Luther was a giant, a figure of supreme confidence in the power of the thinking self to turn the tables against lazy dogma and sophistry.

The two cornerstones of Luther’s theology are two existential faculties of the self: the use of logos, i.e. language, and faith; logos and faith alone can redeem us. His emphasis on the individual was so strong that Protestantism became increasingly subjective, which resulted in modern relativism. History gained a lot through Luther, especially because he encouraged ordinary people to get involved in serious matters of public life. This defining shift also fostered the German idea of nationhood. The republicans who gave this movement its direction often referred to Luther as their ideological starting point. Historically there was a loss, too. The universality of the Latin world of education and the church was undermined. The supranational identity of European Christianity was diminished and replaced by German, English and other national concepts of God. Very little was left to mediate between these fronts. Luther was a German, not a cosmopolitan figure compared to the broad-minded humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, for example. He was also a master of polemics in a period which one could call the golden age of mud-slinging. He inspired noble democrats but also nasty nationalists.

Luther’s cult of the word benefited the growth of standard German, but it also encouraged the attacks on treasures of visual art and sacred objects during the Reformation. It should not be overlooked that ordinary, illiterate people before Luther had access to the Bible through the so-called biblia pauperum (Paupers’ Bible), which was essentially a picture book. I find it fascinating to observe that the image is once again favoured in today’s digital media, just as the era of the printing press gave power to the word. Today the text no longer rules over the image. This exhibition, Germany: memories of a nation, focusing as it does on objects and making them speak, is a good example of the re-balancing of image and word. It would make Luther shudder, though, just as the relics and images of saints of his time did. In his youth he was a very stern Augustinian friar on the radical fringes of the Roman church, and he never lost his suspicion of the senses, especially the eyes as an inroad of sin into our souls. The word was abstract, an expression of the spirit, the same stuff that God was made of. Images and objects would pull us away from this, Luther thought. As a linguist I admire the greatness of Luther, the sheer might of his words, both pious and polemical, but many things which he dismissed have regained an unexpected importance again and probably for a good reason.

Germany: memories of a nation (16 October 2014 – 25 January 2015) is sponsored by Betsy and Jack Ryan, with support from Salomon Oppenheimer Philanthropic Foundation.

Accompanying the exhibition is a 30-part BBC Radio 4 series written and presented by Neil MacGregor. Starts Monday 29 September.  The episode Luther and a Language for all Germans is available to listen to on the BBC website.

Filed under: Germany: memories of a nation, , , , , , , ,

Wedgwood and the British Museum

Aileen Dawson, curator, British Museum

News about the Art Fund’s successful public appeal to save the collections of the Wedgwood Museum is very welcome here at the British Museum. The extensive and fascinating ceramic collection and comprehensive factory archives cared for at Barlaston are undoubtedly of national importance. The British Museum’s connection to Wedgwood stretches right back to the 18th century and, like other museums with collections of these distinctively British wares, we rely on the well-kept factory records to interpret our material.

Portrait medallion of Sir Joseph Banks, English naturalist. Jasper ware (stoneware) dipped blue. Modelled by John Flaxman (fl.1754-1826) , made in the factory of Wedgwood & Bentley (1887,0307,I.60)

Portrait medallion of Sir Joseph Banks, English naturalist. Jasper ware (stoneware) dipped blue. Modelled by John Flaxman (fl.1754–1826) , made in the factory of Wedgwood & Bentley (1887,0307,I.60)

When I joined the British Museum, my first project concerned our extensive collection of Wedgwood jasper portrait medallions and plaques, including the large-format portrait of Sir Joseph Banks, one of my heroes, who in his youth accompanied Captain Cook on his first voyage. Studying the rest of the Museum’s Wedgwood collection led to a book, Masterpieces of Wedgwood (1984, reprinted 1995). This would have been impossible without the Wedgwood Museum and the superb archive of documents. These alone are a vast treasure house of information on the firm, and deserve to be used by all kinds of historians.

I enjoyed discovering how Josiah Wedgwood established his business from 1759, and how Thomas Bentley inspired his interest in the classical world of Greece and Rome. In the centre of our Enlightenment Gallery (Room 1) you can see many of the Greek and Roman vases sent back to England from Naples by Sir William Hamilton. It is well known that Josiah Wedgwood used the beautifully illustrated publications of these pieces as a source of patterns for the highly fashionable decorative and table wares so typical of the Regency period. The Wedgwood Museum archives reveal that Josiah and his partner Thomas Bentley also went to great lengths to achieve authentic reproductions of the originals. In November 1769 permission was sought take drawings and impressions of the shapes and decoration of the ‘Roman and Etruscan Earthen Ware’ in the British Museum. The Trustees agreed that ‘such Vases or other Monuments as they may want’ should be brought to the reading room for them. This is the earliest recorded moment when Wedgwood was in contact with the British Museum, then only sixteen years old. It was the beginning of a long relationship.

The Portland Vase, jasper ware, a first edition numbered copy, the figures applied in white on a black ground, representing the myth of Peleus and Thetis; (1909,1201.88)

The Portland Vase, jasper ware, a first edition numbered copy, the figures applied in white on a black ground, representing the myth of Peleus and Thetis (1909,1201.88)

While researching the British Museum’s Wedgwood copy of the famous Portland Vase at Barlaston, I was able to piece together the strange story of how, in the years leading up to 1790, Josiah copied the famous Roman cameo glass vase in the completely different material. The Wedgwood Museum has many trial versions of the vase showing the endless problems that challenged the production of the superb jasper ware reproduction.

Copy of the Portland Vase, jasper ware coloured blue and ornamented with applied white reliefs (1802,0312.1)

Copy of the Portland Vase, jasper ware coloured blue and ornamented with applied white reliefs (1802,0312.1)

We also have a blue version the vase presented by Josiah’s son John in 1802. It is on display in the gallery Europe 1800–1900 (Room 47), where it looks perfect, but closer scrutiny shows that it has a ‘dint’ or slight indentation, which might have meant it could not be sold, after many hours of work and several firings. Because so few blue jasper versions were made, it is particularly rare and precious.

The Pegasus Vase. Pale blue jasper ware with applied white reliefs (1786,0527.1 )

The Pegasus Vase. Pale blue jasper ware with applied white reliefs (1786,0527.1)

Wedgwood’s endless invention and his use of artists such as John Flaxman Jr has been a source of fascination to me. In 1786, Josiah generously gave a copy of his Pegasus Vase to the British Museum. It is a stunning conception. This famous vase has only left Bloomsbury once, in 1979, when it was in an exhibition devoted to Flaxman at the Royal Academy, which also travelled to Copenhagen. Accompanying this fragile and precious vase in a lorry overnight from Harwich to Esjberg was an unforgettable journey.

When I was invited in 2011 to speak in Sydney at a celebratory Wedgwood Society of New South Wales conference, I travelled to Barlaston to see the new Wedgwood Museum to take news of it to the other side of the world. I thought it one of the best new museums I had ever visited, and have recommended it ever since. I am so delighted that its marvellous collection, which reveals so much about the Industrial Revolution, as well as 18th-, 19th- and 20th-century British tastes and material culture, has found the support it needs to be enjoyed by future generations.

The Wedgwood Museum is in Barlaston, Stoke-on-Trent.

Other museums with significant Wedgwood collections:

Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Lady Lever Art Gallery, Port Sunlight
Nottingham Castle Museum

Filed under: Collection, , , , ,

How to collect a cave: digital photography and African rock art

digitally manipulated photograph of African rock art from Tadrat Acacus, Libya
Elizabeth Galvin, curator, British Museum

I am currently looking at 25,000 objects from the Museum’s collection on my desk. These fantastic works detail an important part of human history in Africa and range from beautiful bas-relief cattle to stunning painted representations of women dancing. Yet these items are not from the Museum’s storage facilities: they are saved on a hard drive, as part of the African rock art image project. The project team is cataloguing and uploading these 25,000 digital images of rock art from throughout the continent, so each one of them is being registered into the Museum’s collection as an object in its own right and made available through the Collection Online.

David Coulson (Trust for African Rock Art) photographing rock art in Chad

David Coulson (Trust for African Rock Art) photographing rock art in Chad. © TARA/David Coulson

While digital collections are a relatively new area for the museum industry, they are showing new and exciting ways museum visitors can engage with the collections, as well as adding to our scholarship. As part of this project, the digital photographs have allowed the Museum to use new technologies to study, preserve, and enhance the rock art, while leaving it in situ in Africa.

Rock art scene from Tadrat Acacus, Libya 2013,2034.685

Rock art scene from Tadrat Acacus, Libya 2013,2034.685 © TARA/David Coulson

For example, this digital photograph shows a piece of rock art that has been chipped and faded through natural erosion. With the naked eye, we can see some remnants of a red-brown pigment. Maybe this was the legs of a quadruped or perhaps two abstract human figures. Most of the rock art in this area is thousands of years old, so knowing exactly what it looked like before it was eroded used to be impossible without extensive tests that could have easily destroyed the original work.

Digitally manipulated copy of image 2013,2034.685, showing enhanced elephant image

Digitally manipulated copy of the above photo (2013,2034.685) showing enhanced elephant image

Now, however, using photo manipulation software, we can run the photograph through a process that enhances the pigments. By focusing on different sets of colours, we can see the layers that were previously hidden to the naked eye. In this one, we can see that the legs belong to an elephant, complete with large ears, a tail and trunk.

Digitally manipulated copy of 2013,2034.685 showing human figures: hunters with bows and arrows in the top right, swimming in the centre and lower left

Digitally manipulated copy of image 2013,2034.685 showing human figures: hunters with bows and arrows in the top right, swimming in the centre and lower left

Run the same image through another enhancement, and we can see many more human figures that were previously invisible. The elephant is still somewhat visible in the background, highlighted in pink. But the fantastic hunters to the top right of the photo would never have been identifiable in the original rock art. Now we can see them with their bows and arrows in an active hunting scene. ‘Swimming’ figures are now highlighted in the centre of the photograph. At the right of the image, we are also able to see a section of a giraffe, depicted with a spotted coat.

By using new technologies with the digital collections, we are not only able to enhance our study of the rock art, but also to build a database to ensure open access to our work. We are regularly using social media, blogs (like this one), and thematic articles on the main Museum website, both to increase access to these amazing works of rock art, and to facilitate discussion with our online visitors across the world. While the Museum’s physical collections will always be at the core of its work, digital collections are letting us see objects in a new light. After all, a 21st-century museum requires 21st-century collecting.

On Monday 6 October 2014 at 1.30pm, Elizabeth Galvin will be giving a free public lecture on African Rock Art and Photography with renowned photographer David Coulson (from the Trust for African Rock Art),  in the BP lecture Theatre at the British Museum in London. Tickets are free, but booking is recommended via the British Museum website to ensure a place.

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

Filed under: African rock art, Archaeology, Collection, Research, , , , , , , , , ,

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.

Filed under: Collection, , , , , , ,

Witches and wicked bodies

Giulia Bartrum, curator, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Faience figurines from Middle Kingdom Egypt

Gianluca Miniaci, Research Fellow, British Museum

Faience hippopotamus found in tomb 477 at Matmar. (EA 63713)

Faience hippopotamus found in tomb 477 at Matmar. (EA 63713)

The British Museum has a fine collection of faience figurines made during the late Middle Kingdom and Second Intermediate Period (c. 1800–1550 BC). I have recently completed a three-month post-doctoral fellowship in the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan, during which time I studied and documented a total of 82 examples. Most of these glazed statuettes represent animals such as hippopotami, lions, crocodiles, baboons, cats, dogs and even hedgehogs. The corpus also includes humans, most notably dwarves and female fertility figures. Images of the deities Aha and Ipy are part animal, part human. Some of the objects are non-figurative and represent food offerings such as fruit and vegetables, as well as jars, cups and bowls.

Faience figurine of a lion attacking a calf. Purchased by the British Museum in 1891. (EA 22876)

Faience figurine of a lion attacking a calf. This is one of the items purchased by the British Museum in 1891. (EA 22876)

Some 35% of the British Museum material comes from documented excavations, including sites such as Serabit el-Khadim, Tell el-Yahudiya, Matarya, Asyut, Matmar, Mostagedda, Abydos, and Thebes. Most pieces are from funerary contexts, where they would have been found in or near the coffin or just outside the burial chamber. Fourteen figurines, purchased from various collectors and dealers in 1891, may have been found at a site in the north of Egypt. They closely parallel examples from the elite cemeteries of Lisht, Lahun and Harageh.

Two faience figurines from Petrie’s tomb G62 at Abydos: a female dwarf and the god Aha. (EA 37298 and EA 37297)

Two faience figurines from Petrie’s tomb G62 at Abydos: a female dwarf and the god Aha. (EA 37298 and EA 37297)

Most interesting of all is a group of six pieces representing Aha, Ipy, a female dwarf, an antelope (?) and two model vessels. They are recorded as finds from tomb G62 in Abydos, excavated by Flinders Petrie in 1902. He discovered the burial with much of its content intact, all now in the British Museum, and I have been kindly granted permission to publish the entire group. Beside the faience objects, it includes pairs of ivory wands, a bronze mirror, a wooden fish, a silver torque, gold and silver rings, alabaster vessels, a copper bowl, various amulets, and many stone and faience beads.

Part of my research aims to clarify why the figurines were included in burials and determine what they symbolise. It is clear that many were apotropaic, intended to ward off evil. Statuettes like these have often been found together alongside other objects with apotropaic imagery, including magic rods and wands, and feeding cups. These other objects display a much broader range of creatures but include images of hippopotami, lions, crocodiles, baboons, cats, dogs, and of Aha and Ipy. Inscriptions indicate that the wands had to protect pregnant women and infants, but by extension they probably also served to protect people reborn into the afterlife. All new-borns and those newly born were vulnerable to destructive forces, so they needed magical protection. It is fortunate that these ancient beliefs have left us with such a wealth of charming statuettes!

Video production by Claudio Benedetti and Anna Giulia De Marco, Laboratorio di cultura Digitale Università di Pisa

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

Banners of the North

relevant image alt textKathy Cremin, Director of Co-operation, Bede’s World

Banners of the North at Bede’s World (19 July – 28 September 2014) is the finale of three exhibitions in our treasures programme. This programme explores our local, national and international place in the world and is inspired by Bede and the monastery in Jarrow where treasure came from all over the world, where the community of monks and others were trying to make sense of the world, and capture the heart of those conversations and thoughts. In this spirit, Banners of the North was to be a celebration of our northernness, and we decided at the beginning to use these wonderful loans from the British Museum to create chatter about what it means to be northern to different people. We believe museums work best when they are a social space where people come together and have conversations.

We were also proud to be working alongside the British Museum as part of their Future Curators programme. Georgina Ascroft, who was placed with us, was able to inspire staff and volunteers about the objects that had been chose for loan, and to start sharing the stories and questions about these objects.

Hungry to learn more, seventeen members of staff, from café to front-of-house to farm, and from apprentices to director, travelled to London to handle the objects and feel their power. The point of that visit was for us to be able to talk about the loans among ourselves and talk about them even more with our visitors. For us it is in conversation that real learning happens about the impact and meaning of objects and the connections between understanding the history of the object in a place and how we feel about that place now.

This was no wine and canapés opening: the food was from a local smokehouse and Northumbrian sausage-maker, the beer a local hand-crafted award winner. Guests marched into the museum behind miner’s banners representing the five historic mines of South Tyneside, accompanied by the Westoe Brass band. After some passionate speeches from the mayor and others, we enjoyed a sing-along by South Shields Folk Club and the Deadly Earnest céilidh band, which opened up a weekend-long Banners of the North Folk Festival, featuring 24 bands and performers – more than 200 musicians volunteering their time. We were really proud of the opening of this exhibition because it set the tone for our summer programme.

Conversations of course are often intimate, and for the rest of the summer we shifted from thinking big to thinking really small, with intimate salons featuring around 40 guests speaking about their northernness, lives and traditions – voices of a diverse group of people from CAFOD activists to the local junior football league, from members of a Sikh temple to local painters, photographers, knitters and crafters, and from craft food-makers to fabric printers.

© World According to Bede

© World According to Bede

We didn’t quite know how these salons would work. Would people come to listen? Would they ask each other questions? Would the thing gel and lead to real conversations? We found these salons were a humanizing force, a cup of tea with people sharing their roots and emotions about the north and our place in it. Some but not all referenced the exhibition. Many connected to the objects with fresh eyes and thoughts and gave us more to think about.

Gold signet-ring, found on the site of the battlefield of Towton (1461), which has been associated with Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland, who died in the battle. (AF.771)

Gold signet-ring, found on the site of the battlefield of Towton (1461), which has been associated with Henry Percy, 3rd Earl of Northumberland, who died in the battle. (AF.771)

Over the last year we’ve piloted using community radio to create a space and place for conversation about heritage, and a way of building connections and relationships. On the train back from London, as people chatted about the object that had most captured their attention, someone asked whether the Percy family in Northumberland might know more about the Percy ring. One of the community radio team wrote to the Duke of Northumberland about their family connection to the Percy Ring, and later interviewed him over a cup of tea in his kitchen.

The salons came out of this learning about reflecting on our feelings about objects, asking questions about what those mean, and looking for answers and stories that create a context for understanding what the objects can tell us. As we piloted the use of community radio we have develop our skills in facilitating conversation and reflection, listening to others, documenting our learning, and focusing on storytelling. You ca listen to our documentary about staff learning from our British Museum partnership.

To make our online broadcasts we use simple technology – a mixing desk, laptop, digital recorders, and free, open-source streaming and editing software. These are the tools of any bedroom DJ, yet rooting community radio in the unique setting of a museum is about making ourselves a social space, and a hub for the creativity and conversation that objects can inspire. Our loans from the British Museum, however, encouraged us to take this learning further. We worked in collaboration with a researcher and volunteer programmer James McNaughton from Durham University, to investigate using multi-touch interactives, both to enable visitors to explore high-quality images of the objects and connected information, and also to invite people to record their responses, thoughts or feelings about particular objects.

We will collate the results of this research later this month, and will be sharing our learning in a short radio documentary with our volunteer programmer, apprentices and intern who manned the interactives, meanwhile you can read James’ blog post about the experiment.

Next year, in the year of the general election and the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, our treasures programme will use collections to create a sense of activism, to create space for conversations about democracy, freedom of self, and the right for people to celebrate their own heritage in their own way.

Banners of the North is at Bede’s World until 28 September 2014.

Future Curators is supported by HLF.

Filed under: Exhibitions, , , , , ,

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

Suzanne Cohen, filmmaker and educator

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dutch artist Aelbert Cuyp was born #onthisday in 1620. He seemed to be very fond of cows! The Sydney Opera House opened #onthisday in 1973.

Designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the Sydney Opera House provoked fierce public controversy in the 1960s as much over the escalating cost of its construction as the innovative brilliance of its domed sail-like halls. Now recognised the world over as a magnificent architectural icon jutting into Sydney Harbour, the Sydney Opera House finally opened in 1973. 
In this Christmas card for 1972 Eric Thake (1904–1982) cheekily anticipates the long awaited opening with his domestic version of the grand architectural statement. Crockery stacked in a drying rack forms the shape of the Sydney Opera House, with water from the kitchen sink adjacent. The small housefly resting on one of the stacked plates adds an unmistakably Australian touch.

Text from Stephen Coppel’s 'Out of Australia: Prints and Drawings from Sidney Nolan to Rover Thomas'
#art #architecture #sydneyoperahouse #sydney #print Born #onthisday in 1632: architect Sir Christopher Wren. Here’s a freehand drawing showing the relationship of the domes of the new St Paul’s Cathedral
#history #architecture #stpauls #London #art Room 4, Egyptian sculpture, is the next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series. The objects in this gallery range in date from 2600 BC to the 2nd century AD. Large-scale sculpture was an important feature of the great temples and tombs of ancient Egypt and was believed to be imbued with powerful spiritual qualities. Sculptures on display in Room 4 include stylised depictions of kings, deities and symbolic objects ranging from the time of the Old Kingdom to the middle of the Roman Period. There are also architectural pieces from temples and tombs.
An imposing stone bust of the great pharaoh Ramesses II presides over the room, while the world-famous Rosetta Stone (in the foreground of this pic), with its inscribed scripts, demonstrates how Egypt’s ancient form of pictographic writing was deciphered for the first time.
#museum #art #sculpture #history #ancientegypt #egypt #hieroglyphs Next in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series looking at all the galleries in the British Museum, it's Room 3. Since 2005 this room has housed a series of temporary displays – The Asahi Shimbun Displays. Usually focused on one object (although sometimes featuring several), it provides a space in which to experiment with display and interpretation. Displays have featured everything from ancient African hand tools to contemporary art, from Old Masters to manga. The current display (pictured) features an enormous print by Albrecht Dürer.
#museum #art #history Continuing our #MuseumOfTheFuture series showing all the gallery spaces, here's Room 2, Collecting the world.
The Museum was founded in 1753 and opened its doors to visitors in 1759. Room 2 celebrates some of the collectors who have shaped the Museum over four centuries, as well as individuals and organisations who continue to shape its future – from Charles Townley to Grayson Perry.
#art #museum #collection #history
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