British Museum blog

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

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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

Jack 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, , , , ,

Exhibiting Germany

Barrie Cook, exhibition curator, British Museum

Some exhibitions almost create themselves: the subject is distinctive and circumscribed, the narrative is relatively straightforward, the star objects practically move themselves into place. There is plenty of work, of course, but curatorially there is a clear vision. However, the exhibition that I have recently been working on, Germany: memories of a nation (16 October 2014 – 25 January 2015), has been very different. The project of using objects to present the story of a modern European nation, how it views its present and its past, and how those views came to be formed, would always be a challenging one, but to attempt it for Germany, of all countries, could easily be thought impossible. Maybe ridiculous.

It is, of course impossible in the strictest sense. There are entire museums in Germany today devoted to telling the story of the nation, notably the German Historical Museum in Berlin (a generous lender to the exhibition) and the German National Museum in Nuremberg. How can one attempt the same thing in a single exhibition? Nevertheless, on the assumption that all such attempts are partial, a specific approach and a different perspective might perhaps offer something worthwhile. Whether this exhibition achieves this, is for course for the visitor to decide.

Wir sind ein Volk placard © Deutsches Historische Museum

Wir sind ein Volk placard © Deutsches Historische Museum

Our approach has been to take a cue from one of the many Germany-related anniversaries that have punctuated public awareness in 2014. The 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War has dominated, of course, with a reasonable amount of attention also on the impact of 1714, the Hanoverian succession. However, Germany: memories of a nation will begin with the anniversary of a much more recent event, one which many of us, if prodded, will remember. In November 1989, after weeks of protests, the East German government permitted free access to the West for its citizens and set Germany on the swift road to a unification that would be in place by the following October. The first object the visitor will see inside the exhibition itself will be a home-made placard from a demonstration in East Berlin: cut in the shape of the united Germany, coloured like the German flag and carrying the text: Wir sind ein Volk – we are one people.

The Strasbourg clock, Isaac Habrecht, 1589

The Strasbourg clock, Isaac Habrecht, 1589

The Germany on this placard, the one unification created in 1990, was a new Germany with new borders, a silhouette previously unknown to any historical atlas. How this Germany reflects, echoes and remembers older Germanies is the focus of the exhibition. Its geography is therefore much wider than that of modern Germany, in acknowledgement of centuries of frontier changes and the cultural consequences of these. The exhibition visits Basel and Strasbourg, Königsberg and Prague, when they were partly or wholly German cities. We look at the Strasbourg clock, a German speciality object made by a German craftsman working in a German-speaking city that plays – on the hour – a German hymn by Martin Luther. Could anything be more German?

Despite its geographic breadth, we still had to impose limits on the scope of the exhibition. We accepted early on that the coverage would go back no further than the 15th century, the age of Gutenberg, a man who arguably changed the world more than any other German. The oldest objects in the exhibition, therefore, are printed ones: a copy of the Gutenberg Bible among them, loaned by the British Library. Despite this chronological limitation, the range is still vast. Material produced by Martin Luther, Dürer, Goethe, Caspar David Friedrich and Käthe Kollwitz sits alongside the exquisite decorative and mechanical work of a host of engravers, goldsmiths and print-makers in materials that range from amber and gold to iron and paper.

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

Replica crown of the Holy Roman Empire, 1913. © Anne Gold, Städtische Museen for the City Hall, Aachen

The object selection in general was based on an assumption that most objects would be doing double duty, being attractive – or at least interesting – in themselves, but also making an additional point about German history, German culture and German identity. Sometimes a replica of an original object, rather than the original itself, could make an important contribution. The ancient crown of the Holy Roman Empire cannot by law leave Austria, but we were able to borrow a copy from Aachen made by order of Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1913 for an exhibition that was never held, an object that perhaps encapsulates modern Germany’s complex legacy.

The Four Evangelists (Luke), Tilman Riemenschneider, 1490–2 © Antje Voijt-SMB-Skulpturensammlung

The Four Evangelists (Luke), Tilman Riemenschneider, 1490–2 © Antje Voijt-SMB-Skulpturensammlung

Postcard advertising the Bauhaus exhibition Kunst und Technik, eine neue Einheit (Art and Technology, a new union), Paul Klee (1879–1940)

Postcard advertising the Bauhaus exhibition Kunst und Technik, eine neue Einheit (Art and Technology, a new union), Paul Klee (1879–1940)

Loans from Germany make a huge contribution to the exhibition. Not that the British Museum lacks material of its own: the German collections of Prints and Drawings and Coins and Medals are unrivalled outside Germany, while the Department of Britain, Europe and Prehistory also holds a wealth of material. The British Museum objects we will use are only the tip of one iceberg. However, the great individual treasures being loaned to us, some of them leaving Germany for the first time, will give a scope to the exhibition it would otherwise lack. Paintings from Berlin, Brunswick and Dresden allow us to address the role played by the German landscape in its sense of national identity; great wooden sculptures by Tilman Riemenschneider offer an opportunity to think about religious and political life in Germany on the eve of the Protestant Reformation ; a porcelain rhinoceros from Dresden links Albrecht Dürer with German practical chemistry; evocative curiosities from the German Historical Museum give an unexpected view of Otto von Bismarck. Loans will bring us to the city of Weimar: to the study of Goethe, the classrooms of the Bauhaus – and to the gate of Buchenwald concentration camp.

Using objects to place the events of the early and mid-20th century in the context of this longer vista was always part of the project and was always going to be the hardest to achieve. How can there be balance in the face of genocide, crime and barbarism? Attempting this as an outsider has demonstrated to me just how hard it must be for a German.

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.

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

What I want from the British Museum

Bonnie Greer OBE, playwright, novelist and critic, former British Museum Trustee

I wrote in my recently published memoir A Parallel Life, about my first encounter with the British Museum. My dad worked in a factory at night making tin cans and during the day he read. One of the things he read voraciously was the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and it is in its pages that I first saw the Parthenon Marbles, the Rosetta Stone, and the British Museum – the edifice – itself, very feminine and welcome, Muse-like to me. Decades later, after I had moved to London from New York, I was given a Reader’s Card, a pass which enabled me to take books out of the British Library, then housed in the Museum. I can’t tell you the fear and the excitement I felt going through those faux-Grecian pillars for the first time, me – a kid from the Southside of Chicago – here, for free, with no restrictions on what I could see.

And feel.

The British Museum

The British Museum

I came to see, after eight years on the Board here – four of them as Deputy Chair – that every museum, large or small, is an ecosystem. It is the objects; the physical building itself; the curators, other staff and visitors. And then it is the things that cannot be seen: the scholarship; the energy of everyone involved; the connections with the museum’s various communities.

And the Point.

Every museum has a Point. All of the modernisation, the furbelows, bells and whistles must never obscure the Point. And this is held – in a delicate balance – with the Board and the Director and his/her team. The Point, to me – at this moment in what we call the West – is simply to justify the West itself. We take this for granted because the West has been ruler for so long, so long in control, in charge. But this will not be the case in the rapidly approaching future.

Marble relief (Block XLIV) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival, the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena. 1816,0610.43

Marble relief (Block XLIV) from the North frieze of the Parthenon. The frieze shows the procession of the Panathenaic festival, the commemoration of the birthday of the goddess Athena. 1816,0610.43

We must ourselves understand the West: individual freedom; the free flow of ideas; the equality of men and women, ethnicities, abilities and sexualities. The modern Agora. Freedom of religion and speech and thought… and the freedom to roam, which to my mind, is peculiarly British and apt in relation to the time that the Museum came to be, the Age of Enlightenment.

In the 21st century the Age of Enlightenment also means digitisation – not simply the ‘wiring’ of the Museum, but an understanding of what a digital edifice is, that it exists not just on screen or increasingly in digital ‘wearables’. A digital Museum understands the concept of the ‘Internet of Everything’, in which every object – even the space itself – can interact with the visitor.

Be the Visitor.

The concept of being a ‘visitor’ itself will become a multi-faceted experience, increasingly one that will not just be in situ.

But everywhere.

The Museum must face Everywhere.

We must not only know what our values are, but the Museum becomes the very demonstration of them. All nations and peoples are welcomed in the spirit of Enlightenment and the Museum must have neither fear nor favour in doing this. The agora of itself therefore extends out, encompassing, fearless. Free.

A group of children using a tablet in a Museum gallery

A group using a tablet in one of the Museum’s galleries

And now, we are in a time when this can actually happen – digitally – and museums must acknowledge this, and to some extent enter into a new partnership. Because the Visitor, the Engager, will also take a more and more active part in creating the Museum of the future.

There has to be space for this to happen.

I also don’t think that ethnicity will play a large part in the scheme of things in 50 to 100 years’ time. There will be little or no such thing as ‘ethnic diversity’. In the West we are blending, becoming new people and so the Museum will become a kind of staging post and also a way-station, in which objects, ideas and experience will document the movement toward this cohesion and perhaps point toward possible futures.

Before I first entered the British Museum, I had dreamed about it, refashioned it to fit me.

Door panels and lintel  from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

Door panels and lintel from the palace of the Ogoga (king) of Ikere in Nigeria. They depict the arrival of a British administrator in the Ogoga’s palace around 1899-1901. Af1924,-.135.a-b

This can only happen if the Museum continues to make itself an equal and never allows class or other banalities to get in the way of its mission. And is vigilant about this. Strong and determined.

I have a friend who told me that, when she was a young girl, she used to pass through the British Museum with her eyes closed, on her way to the Library. For her, the Museum, all Western museums, are storehouses of old, sentimental and in the case of the British Museum, colonial and imperial loot. She couldn’t look because there were things inside that belonged to her. I’ve grown to understand the enormous value of global collections, but we must all know why they hold objects that do not ‘belong to us’. This is not only an intellectual explanation, but an emotional one.

Museums must make their Boards younger, swifter, more diverse, able to react to change. The British Museum has made good steps in this area already, but nobody can be complacent; change and turmoil will be the ‘terrible twos’ of the 21st century, and our children, too, if we see them in a positive way. Every day the 21st-century museum must be rebuilt anew. The point of it all has to be revisited, refreshed constantly. In simplicity, precision and elegance.

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. 1939,1010.93

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England. 1939,1010.93

Sitting next to my dad back then, poring over those heavy encyclopaedias, we read the stories attached to the objects and we saw, within ourselves, the lands and the times and the people. The British Museum belonged to us then. And yet, it belonged to itself, too. The coming together of these two ideas: The Visitor and the Museum, their conjunction, projection and protection, is what the British Museum in the 21st century has to be about.


Bonnie Greer is on the panel for A living building: how could the British Museum best deliver its constant purpose for a changing public?, on Thursday 11 September, 18.30–20.30. This is the first in a series of debates as part of Museum of the future, in which we are discussing big questions about the Museum’s future. Visit our Tumblr to get an introduction to the debate and the Museum’s history.

Bonnie Greer’s memoir A Parallel Life is published by Arcadia Books.

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

Teaching History with 100 Objects

Richard Woff, Head of Project, British Museum

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

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

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England.

The Sutton Hoo helmet. Tin, iron, copper alloy, silver, gold, garnet. Early Anglo-Saxon, early 7th century. Found in the Sutton Hoo Ship-burial Mound: 1, Suffolk, England.

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

Square Guy Fawkes' lantern © The Ashmolean Museum

Square Guy Fawkes’ lantern © The Ashmolean Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 67: Korea. The Korea Foundation Gallery is currently closed for refurbishment and will reopen on 16 December 2014. You can find out more about the refurb at koreabritishmuseum.tumblr.com  The unique culture of Korea combines a strong sense of national identity with influences from other parts of the Far East. Korean religion, language, geography and everyday life were directly affected by the country’s geographic position, resulting in a rich mix of art and artefacts.
Objects on display in Room 67 date from prehistory to the present day and include ceramics, metalwork, sculpture, painting, screen-printed books and illuminated manuscripts.
A reconstruction of a traditional sarangbang, or scholar’s study, is also on display and was built by contemporary Korean craftsmen. This is Room 66, Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt. It's the next gallery space in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series.
By the 4th century AD, Christianity was flourishing in both Egypt and Ethiopia. Christian Egyptians became known as the Copts (from the Greek name for Egyptians) and the church maintained strong links with its Ethiopian counterparts. Since antiquity, Ethiopia had been a major trade route, linking Egypt and the Mediterranean with India and the Far East.
The resulting history of cultural exchange and religious diversity is illustrated through objects in Room 66, which reflect the faiths and identities which coexisted in Egypt and Ethiopia. Objects from towns, monasteries and settlements range from decorated textiles and architectural elements to sculpture and ceramics. It's time for our next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery. This is Room 65, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Sudan, Egypt and Nubia. Ancient Nubia, the Nile Valley upstream of the First Cataract, now straddles the border between Egypt and Sudan. Rich and vibrant cultures developed in this region at the same time as Pharaonic Egypt. Among them was the earliest sub-Saharan urban culture in Africa, which was based at Kerma.
These cultures traded extensively with Egypt and for two brief periods Nubian kingdoms dominated their northern neighbour.
The objects on display in Room 65 illustrate these indigenous pagan, Christian and Islamic cultures and the interaction between Nubia and Egypt. This is our next gallery space in the #MuseumOfTheFuture series. It's Room 64, the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Gallery of Early Egypt. Rapid advances in the technology and social organisation of Egypt during the 5th millennium BC produced a material culture of increasing sophistication. Further innovations followed in about 3100 BC when the separate Predynastic peoples of Upper and Lower Egypt were united under a single ruler. The resulting increase in wealth and strong central control led to dramatic achievements in architecture, writing and fine goods, culminating in the building of the Great Pyramids of Giza in around 2600 BC.
Objects on display in Room 64 illustrate the cultural, technological and political development of early civilisation in Egypt throughout this period. In this picture you can see Gebelein Man, a mummy who was naturally preserved in the desert sands, and who used to have the unofficial nickname of Ginger (although the Museum doesn't use this name). In the background you can see an interactive virtual autopsy of the mummy which was installed in the newly refurbished gallery last year. It's Toulouse-Lautrec's 150th birthday! Here's his poster for a Parisian cabaret 
#history #art #artist #Paris Although this gilded cartonnage mask of a mummy conveys vitality and alertness, the features are more bland and idealised than those of other masks. The eyes, ears, nose, mouth and chin are highly stylised and not fully integrated into the face. The collar, the wig and the necklace with an ankh (‘life’) pendant, are attributes showing that the deceased has entered the afterlife and been assimilated with the gods. A winged scarab beetle on the top and images of gods on the back also emphasise the funerary character of the mask.

The use of gold was connected to the belief that the sun god Re, with whom the mummy hoped to be united, had flesh of pure gold. The back of the wig is decorated in many colours, with a row of deities, a ba and falcon with outstretched wings and seven short columns of near-unintelligible hieroglyphs.

See this cartonnage mask in our exhibition #8mummies – now extended until 19 April 2015.
#MummyMonday #mummies
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