British Museum blog

A new look at ancient Egyptian textiles

textile fragmentAmandine Mérat (Curator) and Emily Taylor (Museum Assistant), British Museum

We have recently taken the opportunity to audit, document and re-house the textiles dating to the 1st millenium AD – around 1,800 in number – that are looked after by the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan (AES). The main aims of this project are the re-organisation and distribution of the Roman, Byzantine and early Islamic textiles into a coherent and accessible storage system, along with the improvement of their documentation by adding photographs, technical analysis, iconographic and cultural information.

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870).  Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

Square tapestry panel in multi-coloured wool depicting a bird and a cross-within-wreath (EA 22870). Egypt, Akhmim, 4th-7th century AD. The tapestry panel is applied on a linen plain weave, cut out when discovered at the end of the 19th century

As in many museums today, the British Museum’s Egyptian textiles collection is mostly composed of fragmentary pieces, acquired through excavation and purchase in the late 19th and early 20th century. At that time, decorative elements considered as spectacular or aesthetically pleasing were often cut out from large pieces when discovered, as only the most vibrant and colourful pieces were wanted by European collectors. However, this meant that they were also cut off from their archaeological contexts. It was for this reason that, with the exception of two great sets of textiles from excavations at Qasr Ibrim and Wadi Sarga, we decided to reorder the Museum’s collection not by provenance or date – as these are rarely known – but by technique. Indeed, a close visual examination of technique, and drawing on knowledge of their cultural background, allows us to determine the possible original function of many of the textiles, essentially fragments of garments and home furnishing originating from burial contexts.

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

Detailed macro shot of a multi-coloured tapestry panel, depicting three stylized human figures (EA 37131). Egypt, 4th-7th century AD

We began our audit by classifying the textiles by their primary weaving technique – tapestry, brocade, embroidery etc. This process helped us to work out how much storage space was required for each group, taking into account the fragility of the textiles, but also the need for easy access and the possibility of new items joining the collection at a later date. Each primary group was then sub-divided, on the basis of shape or iconography of the textiles.

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Late Antique Egyptian textiles re-housed in storage drawers after study, documentation and photography

Drawer by drawer, the technical and iconographic analyses for each textile were completed by Amandine Merat, the curator responsible for the project. Some pieces had already been studied by Hero Granger-Taylor in the 1990s; in those cases, her detailed notes were checked and annotated where necessary. However, a great majority of the textiles had never been analysed before. For these, the fibres were identified, measurements were taken, techniques carefully analysed and a complete description of the piece and its iconography was made. Original function of the textiles and dating were re-attributed where necessary.

Once the technical information was recorded, the textiles were photographed by Emily Taylor. A general shot of front and back was taken, an arrow included to indicate the direction of the warp of the fabric. Detailed macro shots were then taken to record any small details or highlight interesting elements of design, use or technique. The textiles were then re-housed in acid free tissue, and melinex sleeves where possible, and then placed on Correx boards within their storage drawers to enable ease of handling.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

Amandine Mérat (front) and Ruiha Smalley (behind) recording technical analyses from a textile, in the AES Department organic store room.

All relevant information was recorded in a spreadsheet by our volunteer Ruiha Smalley, before being standardised and uploaded into the British Museum’s collection database, through which it will soon be available to the public via the collection online.

The post was updated on 24 June to correct a date in the first sentence. The textiles date to the 1st millennium AD, not BC.


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Filling the British Museum with sound

A recent musical performance by Anna Neale, as part of the 'Up Late in Pompeii' event. Image: Benedict JohnsonDaniel Ferguson, Head of Adult Programmes, British Museum

The Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) first approached us in July 2012 with the proposal that eventually became Sound Histories. It was an enticing proposition from the very beginning.

A recent musical performance by Anna Neale, as part of the 'Up Late in Pompeii' event. Image: Benedict Johnson

A recent musical performance by Anna Neale, as part of the ‘Up Late in Pompeii’ event. Image: Benedict Johnson

We are open late every Friday evening at the Museum and it is our chance to host events that explore our permanent collection and temporary exhibitions. As well as a high profile lecture programme, we aim to shed new light on the Museum’s material and bring the collection alive for new audiences.

The idea of inviting students to compose original pieces directly in response to objects from the Museum collection, and for these pieces to be performed as part of a larger programme across the space of one evening, was exactly the interesting interpretive approach and scale of ambition that we aspire to.

Part of the attraction of this idea was the sense that the music would ‘take over’ the Museum for an evening, challenging our visitors with how they engage with the incredible objects displayed across the ground floor, while showcasing contemporary art works that have been inspired by them.

This is emphatically not a recreation of a concert performance in a Museum. There is no comfortable seating for the audience, no sense that someone has planned your programme for you. On 5 July something far more unique will occur. Musical interpretations will be performed across the ground floor galleries over two-and-a-half hours and it will be for the visitor to choose whether they drop in on a piece inspired by one of the Easter Island statues, the Sutton Hoo helmet or one of the Benin plaques.

Our partnership with the RNCM has meant we can bring a whole new layer of interpretation to our collections for one evening; an unforgettable experience for both new audiences and those who have known the Museum for much of their lives. Sound Histories showcases the very best of what is possible and unique in live events programming and I’d like to thank Toby Smith, all staff at the RNCM and, most importantly, the composers and musicians, for making this project possible.

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Read more about Sound Histories on the Royal Northern College of Music blog

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Creating sound histories at the British Museum

Students at the Royal Northern College of MusicToby Smith, Director of Performance and Programming, Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM)

Sound Histories is the latest and largest yet in the RNCM’s series of site-specific installations created to animate iconic public spaces with music. Having previously collaborated with the Imperial War Museum North, Manchester Piccadilly Station and Victoria Baths, Sound Histories sees us working in London for the first time, our stimulus and partner being the British Museum, our national museum and home to the most visited collection in the UK.

Students at the Royal Northern College of Music

Students at the Royal Northern College of Music. Image courtesy RNCM

For me, Sound Histories is all about using music to tell some of the stories of the objects and the galleries of the British Museum; bringing to life in sound the interweaving histories of cultures across the world and drawing upon almost two million years of human history.

We are currently weeks away from the show, which will take place between 18.00 and 21.00 on Friday 5 July, as part of the British Museum Lates series. We’ve been working for over a year now with the British Museum’s Adult programmes team to create an ambitious evening of music to be performed across most of the ground floor, embracing the collections focusing on Greece, Assyria and Egypt, Asia, Africa, North America, Mexico and much of the Pacific Rim. 200 musicians will be involved, together performing over 120 pieces, with music for strings, winds, chorus, guitars, harps and saxophones, including solos, duos, chamber music and ensemble pieces that span the last six centuries.

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France. Approximately 13,000–14,000 years old

Spear thrower made from reindeer antler, sculpted as a mammoth. Found in the rock shelter of Montastruc, France. Approximately 13,000–14,000 years old

Over the next weeks I’ll be looking in more detail on the RNCM blog at just a few of the elements that will make up Sound Histories. I’ll look at just some of the 50 pieces that RNCM composers have written in response to a particular object in the collection, from an Ice Age spear holder carved in the form of a mammoth to El Anatsui’s cloth sculpture for the Africa gallery. I’ll also pick out just a few of the highlights from the rest of the programme – music ancient and modern, and most things in between as well. And we’ll take a look at how we will draw everything together with a specially-commissioned finale for the Great Court, a space that sits at the heart of the British Museum site, and at the heart of the world cultures that surround it.

The Enlightenment gallery at the British Museum

The Enlightenment gallery at the British Museum

We’ll start by looking at the Enlightenment gallery, a space we will be programming with music from the year 1828 to reference the creative world of the men who drew together the British Museum collection at this time.

In the meantime, do spread the word – as with all the Museum’s Lates, the event is free, and as it will only be happening once it’s certainly worth saving the date – Friday 5 July, 18.00 – 21.00.

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This post was first published on the Royal Northern College of Music blog.
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A new kind of museum: a new kind of citizen

The British Museum, June 2013Neil MacGregor, Director, British Museum

On this day, 260 years ago, the British Museum – as we know it – came into being: on 7 June 1753, the first British Museum Act received royal assent, and the first public national museum in the world was established.

It’s worth pausing to reflect on what a revolutionary moment this was. Until that June day in 1753, collections of objects like ours were the preserve of royalty, or private gentlemen. The decision by the British Parliament to acquire and display the collection of some 80,000 objects collected by the physician Sir Hans Sloane was truly extraordinary. And it’s a point worth celebrating 260 years later.

The British Museum, June 2013

The British Museum, June 2013

Parliament was proclaiming the right of every citizen to information. Everybody was to be enabled to explore their place in the world, in a collection which embraced the whole world, free of charge. Knowledge was no longer to be the privilege of a few. And this knowledge should not be controlled by Government. So the British Museum was to be governed by independent Trustees.

The result of this new institution, it was believed, would be a new kind of citizen – free, informed and equipped for independent thought. This was what a British citizen ought to be and so Parliament called it the British Museum, the private possession of every citizen. It was the first Parliamentary institution to be called British.

Sir Hans Sloane

Sir Hans Sloane, whose collection – bequeathed to the nation – led to the formation of the British Museum

These founding principles are as true today as they were over two and a half centuries ago. The Museum remains a repository of the ‘history of the world’ with objects dating from two million years ago to the present day.

The Museum has grown exponentially over that period, from 80,000 objects in the original bequest to around eight million today, covering all countries of the world throughout time. The collection continues to grow to reflect our contemporary world. It remains a collection available to a global citizenship, and they do use it. From 5,000 visitors in 1759, to around six million walking through the doors last year, not to mention around 27 million virtual visits to the Museum’s English, Chinese and Arabic websites.

Since its foundation the British Museum has witnessed the reigns of 10 monarchs, experienced five royal Jubilees, and has survived – more or less unscathed – numerous wars, revolutions and civil disturbances and financial crises. The original collection has spawned two other great institutions; the Natural History Museum and the British Library.

But what is it about the Museum collection that makes it so enduring and relevant after 260 years? For me it’s the perspective it allows on the world today. The collection is witness to the long history of human endeavour. Thus it can shed light on present-day Iran or Syria by showing their long and complex histories. Closer to home the work of the Portable Antiquities Scheme reminds us of the diversity of the UK’s national identity, literally uncovering the treasures beneath our feet, the discovery of which often re-writes history – such as the Vale of York Hoard or the Hallaton helmet.

British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the helmet

British Museum conservator, Marilyn Hockey with the Hallaton helmet

Everyone has their favourite memory of the Museum or an object in the collection which is particularly resonant. I remember being brought as a child to see the Rosetta Stone. An uninspiring lump of rock to look at perhaps, about that most boring of subjects – tax – but the key to an entire civilisation and rightly one of the most famous objects in the collection.

But there are a host of other less well known treats to discover, from the Tree of Life made from decommissioned weapons from the Mozambique civil war, to the extraordinary Mughal Jade Terrapin and the cinematic Perry scroll commemorating the moment that Japan opened up to trade with the West in the nineteenth century.

Detail from the Perry scroll

Detail from The Mission of Commodore Perry to Japan, 1854

Today the British Museum has become truly Britain’s Museum serving global citizens across the UK, something which Parliament in the eighteenth century could not have dreamed of. This map shows the extent of the Museum’s work across the country last year.

Every object seen at the Museum and further afield tells multiple stories and histories and provides insights into our complex but fascinating world. This is the power of the British Museum and it is worth celebrating.

This post was updated on 7 June to include visitor numbers for all the Museum’s websites.

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