British Museum blog

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, , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The British Museum guide 2069

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

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

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

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

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

Original article in Colonnade

Original article in Colonnade

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Filed under: Museum of the Future,

The divided self: Germany, art and poetry

Edward Doegar, General Manager, The Poetry Society

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farewell to Curious Beasts

Alison Wright, exhibition curator, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney: the stuffed rhinoceros

Curious Beasts at Compton Verney: the stuffed rhinoceros

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death, the great equaliser: Christianity on the Middle Nile

Julie Anderson, Assistant Keeper (curator), British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna Hodgkinson, Research Fellow, British Museum

The author inspecting the glass objects

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

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

The glass objects laid out during the documentation process

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

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

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

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

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Room 8, Nimrud, is the next #MuseumOfTheFuture gallery in our series. It contains stone reliefs from Neo-Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II’s magnificent Northwest Palace at Nimrud and two large Assyrian winged human-headed lions. The next gallery in our #MuseumOfTheFuture series is Room 7. It features a series of remarkable carved stone panels from the interior decoration of the Northwest Palace of the Neo-Assyrian King Ashurnasirpal II (883–859 BC). The panels depict the king and his subjects engaged in a variety of activities. Ashurnasirpal is shown leading military campaigns against his enemies, engaging in ritual scenes with protective demons and hunting, a royal sport in ancient Mesopotamia.
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